Scintillating Saddler

Pitt's four previous opponents have kicked off 16 times this season, but only seven have been around redshirt freshman Cameron Saddler.

And that's been a mistake. Just 13 months since the freak training-camp knee injury and surgery that forced him to miss his entire first season, Cameron Saddler is back terrorizing coverage units.

Saddler's seven runbacks have covered 210 total yards, a 30-yard average, with a long run for 47 yards. He also had a couple go for more than 30 yards, which makes Saddler a dangerous weapon for Pittsburgh.

"I'm feeling good, but I still haven't taken one back to the house, yet,'' Saddler said. "So, I'm not feeling as good as I could be, but I'm happy with what I'm doing. And I'm happy to be setting up the offense in good field position.

"Because when they score a touchdown I feel like I scored the touchdown. And I get as excited just as much as the person who scored it.''

Saddler's best return yet, the 47-yard burst, came this past Saturday at North Carolina State. He also has two reverses for 15 total yards (long for 14) and three catches for 41 more yards (24) with a 13-yard TD against the Wolfpack.

It's clear that Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt believes Saddler is effective with the ball in his hands, so he could be used even more when the Panthers (3-1) visit Louisville (1-2) in the Big East opener at 8 p.m. And as far as kickoff returns go, Saddler's getting so close to going all the way for a touchdown.

"Close only comes in horseshoes, though,'' Saddler said. "But my average is pretty good, I think, and everybody is loving me right now on the offensive side of the ball. So, I'm all right with it. ... (And) I'm just happy to be getting the ball (on offense) and be out there contributing in any way that I can.

"Coach Cignetti's been coming up with great ways of getting me the ball when there aren't too many people around me when I get the ball, and that's what I like. So, I just want them to get me into open space, and I'll try do the rest.''

At Gateway High School in Monroeville, Pa., Saddler was considered to be among the best returners in WPIAL history with seven kickoff returns for touchdowns as a junior and senior, just one short of the national record. He ran two back as a senior and added two punt returns.

So, might the opposition see even more from Saddler on special teams this week? Are punt returns in his future?

"I have no idea what goes on in those wild staff meetings with our coaches,'' Saddler said. "(But) Aaron Smith's doing a good job. He's doing a good job catching the ball, and that's the big thing for me. But I'm starting to feel real comfortable back there now, and if Coach feels like he needs me out there to return punts I'll go out there and do my job.''

Smith has been solid with six punt returns for a 7.7-yard average. However, his long run was for 17 yards, and the opposition has punted 17 total times. Smith has three fair catches and four punts have landed inside the 20. Also, several times in recent games, Smith has not even fielded the punt, let it hit the ground and roll for additional yardage.

"(Saddler) has been working with Aaron Smith, (and) they've been working all along,'' Wannstedt said. "So, there's a possibility (Cam could return punts). But they both have to be ready to go. They've both been working at it in practice, so that is a possibility at some point here. (So), Cam's done a great job.

"Every time he's gotten his hands on the ball, he's made good decisions, No. 1. He's been smart with the ball, No. 2, and he's made positive yards (that's No. 3). So, not just as an offensive player, but as a returner, he brings something to the table. He makes some plays and has given us good field position.''

Wannstedt also was asked if he's happy with what he's gotten from his punt-return unit with Smith as the return man.

"Yes,'' Wannstedt noted, "we haven't mishandled any balls. ... (But) I probably should have gone to two-deep on (punt) returns. We had too many balls hit the ground last week. The one didn't hurt us, but the other one we probably lost about 12 yards on it.''

Louisville senior Trent Guy and Saddler are 1-2 in the Big East in kick returns. Guy averages 33.8 yards on eight returns with a long for 65 yards. He also has not run one back for a score. While coaches have always said that special teams are one-third of a game, along with offense and defense, the return game didn't appear to be stressed until recently.

"I think Devin Hester (from the NFL's Chicago Bears) deserves a lot of credit for that,'' Saddler said. "He's really changed the game with teams not kicking him the ball and trying to kick it away from him as much as possible. And even when they don't kick the ball deep, it's a pooch kick.

"And that turns out to be good field position, too. So, that's great, because field position is big. It's real big. It's especially important in our Conference, because the Big East is filled with good defenses. So, I always want to have a good runback to start our team off with good field position.''

While Saddler was just a little tentative in training camp and even during the opening game with Youngstown State, the breakaway speed and big-play ability that he displayed in high school appears to have returned. And the serious knee injury and ensuing surgery are in the past.

"It's gone now,'' Saddler said. "The Buffalo game, I was still sore, because of game speed. You can't simulate game speed. So, I was pretty sore at Buffalo still from the Youngstown State game. But I'm better now, and it's a process.

"(On) Sunday, you wake up, and your whole body's sore. Monday, you know, I can tell there's something fake in my knee. I know it's not my real knee, but on Tuesday I'm good. So, I'm always ready for Saturday.''

And that's bad news for Louisville's kickoff coverage unit.

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