Sure, Cameron Saddler was just a freshman, but his breakaway speed and big-play abilities -- especially as a punt and kickoff returner -- were expected to boost the Panthers' special teams.
But when Saddler's cleats caught in the outdoor turf as he bent over to pick up a football and his right knee popped, his once-promising freshman season ended the first week in training camp. And the Pittsburgh return game never recovered.
Those who know Saddler expect a broad smile every time they meet him, and that didn't change much during the rehab process. However, Saddler's smile is much wider these days, as he's taking part in Pitt's summer workouts.
"It's been a long time,'' Saddler said. "Too long. It's been so long since I played football. I can't wait to get going this summer. I'm just so eager to get back out there. For me, it's just a matter of honing back in on my football skills, but I'm healthy and ready to go. I'm back running at full speed, and that took time.
"The only other thing I have to do is work on my football skills, catching the ball, fielding punts and kickoffs and things like that. I have to work on my timing. That's what you lose when you can't do anything, really, for as long as I was out. It's been almost a full year since my injury, so it's been a long time.''
Saddler was a threat to go all the way every time he touched the ball for Gateway High School in Monroeville, Pa., but that didn't appear to be the case during light workouts this past spring. Saddler appeared to be shaky while fielding punts, and the extra gear he displayed a year earlier did not return.
"I really didn't participate much this past spring,'' Saddler said. "That was disappointing. I wanted to do more, but Coach kept me on a short leash. I guess his thinking was that he didn't want to waste anything from me in the spring.
"That way, I could give it my all at camp. I'm sure that was the best thing for me, but I really wanted to do more to test myself. I guess that time will come soon enough. Camp will be here before we all know it, and I'll be at 100 percent for that. Like I've said, I can't wait to start playing football again.''
It's been said that when a team makes a bowl game, the program benefits from more than the exposure. The additional practice sessions are especially helpful to those who redshirted, and Saddler took full advantage.
"Actually, everybody was real surprised, because I started running again about three months after the injury,'' Saddler said. "So, I was way ahead of schedule. By the end of the season, I was doing more and more, and I stayed with it when we went to El Paso (for the Sun Bowl).
"While the team worked out on the field, I was running steps through the bleachers and stuff like that. They just wanted to keep me busy, but I was glad to do it. At least I was doing something after basically doing nothing more than rehabbing my knee after the surgery.''
In just 10 months, Saddler proclaimed his rehab to be complete. Sure, he continues to work on strengthening the knee, but Saddler believes he's in terrific shape now. At about 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, there's a lot of power packed into Saddler's body. And that blazing speed, Saddler said, has returned.
"I know the fans have been waiting a while for me to show what I can do, but it's been a long wait for me, too,'' Saddler said. "It was a little tough getting back into it in the spring, catching punts and stuff, but the more practice the sharper I'll get. And I don't think it'll take me too long to get back into it.
"We'll be doing it at least one day a week here during our summer workouts, so that'll help out a lot. And once I get back under it and get comfortable doing it, it'll become second nature again for me. But believe me, I can't wait for that day to get here. I dream about it, daydream about it. I could be anywhere.
"It doesn't matter,'' Saddler said. "I think about getting on Heinz Field and making a big play for the Pitt football team. That's the reason I came here, to help put Pitt football back at the top. We're getting there already, but I hope to be a much bigger part of things this year. I'm looking forward to that.''
The same could be said for many Pitt football fans as well.
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