Healthy Kinder ready to be difference-maker

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
The hardest part for Derek Kinder was knowing he could have made a difference.

Pittsburgh went 5-7 last year, and in three of those losses the Panthers had the ball in the red zone for a potential winning score. All Kinder could do was watch helplessly.

"I thought that if I were out there, I could have made a couple plays for my team and maybe we score a couple more touchdowns," Kinder said. "And maybe we could have had a couple more victories and go to a bowl game."

The Panthers have plenty of reasons to believe this is the year they break a three-year bowl drought. Kinder checks in somewhere near the top of that list.

The senior wide receiver earned All-Big East first team honors in 2006, when he caught 57 passes for 847 yards and six touchdowns. But then, in the first week of training camp last August, he made a cut on a route and heard a loud pop in his right knee. He'd ripped his ACL and would miss the entire year. When quarterback Bill Stull suffered his own season-ending thumb injury in the first game, the Pittsburgh offense was decimated. The Panthers averaged just 22.8 points per game.

Now both Kinder and Stull are back, and after LeSean McCoy's 1,300-yard, 14-touchdown performance as a freshman, the outlook has changed dramatically.

"Toward the end of season, teams were putting more guys in the box to stop LeSean and make us throw," Kinder said. "But I think this year we'll be able to stretch the field, and everybody knows what LeSean can do. It's going to be nice to see what defenses do this year."

Kinder is also anxious to see what he can do after a year off. He went through light workouts in the spring while wearing a brace and stepped up his running in the summer. He sat out for a couple of days earlier this month with some knee soreness but says now that he's 100 percent healthy.

"I got hit for the first time two weeks ago, and everything went well," he said. "I feel like my old self."

The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder can go over the middle and make tough catches, and he can also go deep. He had touchdown receptions of 80, 78 and 55 yards two years ago.

And if you've seen Pittsburgh's ESPY-nominated play against West Virginia from 2006, you know this: Dude can block, too. Kinder annihilated two Mountaineers pursuers to help spring a spectacular 73-yard punt return touchdown by Darrelle Revis.

While Kinder was out, junior Oderick Turner emerged as the team's top wideout, hauling in 36 catches for 496 yards and five touchdowns last season. Kinder said he has no problem deferring to Turner.

"He's the No. 1 guy," he said. "Hopefully I can match him and we can split reps and split touchdowns. We'll probably be battling it out for leading the team in receptions all year."

They will be joined this year by 6-foot-5 true freshman Jonathan Baldwin, a big-time recruit who adds a new element of athleticism to the offense. Kinder said he and Turner have taken Baldwin aside and tried to get him up to speed on the playbook as quickly as possible.

Kinder used his time off last year to finish his degree in economics and is now seeking a second degree in communications. He and Stull also spent a lot of time in the rehab room together, talking about how things could have been different if they were on the field. Now comes their chance to prove it.

"My personal goal is to try and get back to my junior-year form," Kinder said. "But the main goal is for us to have a successful year as a team and get back to a bowl game."