How high can Pitt's Baldwin fly?

PITTSBURGH -- There are a few former standout high school basketball players on Pitt's football team, including defensive end Greg Romeus and receivers Mike Shanahan and Greg Cross.

So I asked Jonathan Baldwin, himself a former star on the hardwood, who would win a one-on-one tournament among the Panthers. Calmly and without any show of arrogance, Baldwin replied simply, "I would win."

That's the thing about Pitt's junior wideout. He's got a quiet confidence about himself and his abilities, and who could blame him for that?

At 6-foot-5 with great hands and a 40-plus-inch vertical, Baldwin is as gifted as any receiver in the country. And now that he's grown comfortable in doing everything a receiver must do, there appears to be little that can stop him.

"He's unique in his physical skills," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He'll play a long time on Sundays. He makes a catch almost every day in practice that you just don't see very often."

Todd McShay, the director of scouting for ESPN's Scouts Inc., recently released his top offensive and defensive prospects for the 2011 draft. He ranked Baldwin as No. 9 among offensive guys. Baldwin will enter the season as a leading Biletnikoff Award candidate, perhaps joining the tradition of superstar Pitt receivers like Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald.

Not that Baldwin thinks about much of that stuff.

"I'm doing the best I can, and that's all I really can say," he said. "If I work hard, all that stuff will take care of itself."

Sometimes, players with tremendous physical gifts aren't given credit for their hard work, as fans assume the natural talent does the job on its own. But quarterback Tino Sunseri says that's not an assumption you should make about Baldwin.

"People don't realize what a hard worker JB is," Sunseri said. "They see the great plays, but they don't understand he's in here every morning working on all that stuff, the over-shoulder catches and one-hand grabs."

Baldwin has steadily improved over his career. As a true freshman, he almost solely ran fly routes and post patterns as a deep threat. It was a job he did well, averaging 22.4 yards per catch. But he vowed to become a more complete receiver as a sophomore and worked at getting better on all the routes.

The result was a 1,111-yard season with eight touchdowns. Only two receivers in the country last year topped 1,000 yards while averaging more than Baldwin's 19.5 yards per catch. So what's next for Baldwin?

"My goal this year is to get better at my yards after catch," he said. "I want to run my routes crisper. And destroy defenders when I block them."

Other teams will certainly game plan around him, but if they roll coverage to him, that opens up things for other receivers like Shanahan. That's what happened in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, when Baldwin was held to just three catches for 31 yards, but Shanahan grabbed five passes for 83 yards.

"Pick your poison," Baldwin said. "Do you want to get beat my Mike or do you want to get beat by me?"

Trying to cover Baldwin with just a cornerback is asking for trouble, especially in the Big East where most corners are going to surrender at least five or six inches to him. And he's so big that it's hard to jam him at the line.

"On film, it doesn't look like I'm as fast as I am because my legs are so long," he says. "If you try to do that stuff, I'll beat the press and run right by you."

There's that self-confidence again, but it's delivered in a calm, quiet way. And why wouldn't Jonathan Baldwin be confident in himself?