Shanahan Expands Pitt's Passing Game

There was a point during his playing days at Norwin High School in suburban Pittsburgh that redshirt freshman wideout Mike Shanahan contemplated playing basketball in college.

Akron was the leader among Duquesne, several Mid-American Conference and Patriot League teams vying for his services, but Pittsburgh fans are glad that Mike Shanahan eventually chose the Panthers to play football.

Nearly two years after his commitment, Shanahan has become an integral cog in Pitt's offense, and he should provide the 14th-ranked Panthers (7-1, 4-0) with additional option when they face Syracuse (3-5, 0-3) in a Big East Conference matchup Saturday at noon at Heinz Field.

"Mike's a tough guy,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He's got really good hands, and he's a smart guy. He's not going to go out there and run a 4.5, and he knows that.

"(But) when the ball is in the air, he has a knack for using his body and his hands, and he's awfully smart. He's going to be in the right spot. (And) I think he plays to his strengths.''

Wannstedt also believed that guys like Shanahan and sophomore Jonathan Baldwin utilize their basketball skills to gain the best position possible when a pass is thrown their way. It's a skill that can be honed, but is more second-nature, Wannstedt noted.

"Some guys just have a knack for going up, using their bodies and catching the ball at the high point, and some guys don't,'' Wannstedt said. "Mike and Jonathan can make those difficult catches, and I think it's because they have great body control, and they have great hand-eye coordination.''

Shanahan missed a lot of time with a left hand injury.

While Baldwin improved steadily with game experience as a freshman last year, Shanahan was redshirted. However, the two were among the best receivers for Pitt early in training camp. And Shanahan certainly was the surprise at wideout.

But that changed when he broke the fourth metacarpal on his left hand (ring finger) when it hit off a helmet during a post-play, sideline incident. That cost him the remaining training camp practices and a spot as Pitt's No. 4 receiver.

"I just kept working hard after I got the injury and tried to focused the best that I could to process all the mental stuff to stay pace with everybody else,'' Shanahan said. "And all that hard work paid off. At first, it was just a matter of getting adjusted to the game with more practice and game reps.

"But now, I feel real comfortable with everything. In the running game, I want to do my job blocking downfield to get the runner to the next level. And in the passing game, I want to help us convert third downs.''

Shanahan missed the Youngstown and Buffalo games, played only on special teams against Navy and North Carolina State -- wearing a soft cast -- and finally got reps as a wide receiver at Louisville. He finally had the ball thrown his way against Connecticut and had two catches for 35 yards.

So, basically in the past four games -- all Pitt victories -- Shanahan has seven catches for 88 yards and no touchdowns with a 29-yard reception for a long play. While those are modest numbers, to be sure, Shanahan has become Pitt's No. 2 wideout with Baldwin, and since both are about 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, they could be among the toughest matchups for secondaries in the Big East.

"After spring, I had to work on my hands the most,'' Shanahan said. "I could catch the ball, but you can't be settled on that. I wanted to catch everything thrown in my direction, so you need to work on catching the ball all the time. In camp, I worked real hard at it, and my concentration was much better.

"While I was injured, I just tried to stay in shape and stay mentally prepared. That way, whenever my number was called, I'd be ready. And I also tried to be there for my teammates as much as possible, cheering them on. So, I worked really hard, but it was tough being out as long as I was.''

Because of their size, Baldwin and Shanahan are faster than they look. In Baldwin's case, he still has a sprinter's speed. Shanahan just plays faster.

"That's what people say, but I don't know,'' Shanahan said. "It could be true, because I'm not the fastest or most athletic guy out there. But I still try to get the job done the best way possible and to the best of my ability. (But) I'm a guy who's more of a possession receiver right now.

"As a former basketball player, when there's a jump ball where I need to go up to make a play, that's just like rebounding in basketball. And there's a lot of footwork involved, too. I need to stay square on blocks, and I think that translates over from basketball to football.''

Shanahan noted that his decision to play football was sealed after scoring five touchdowns his senior season in a game against Saddler, Shayne Hale and powerful Gateway High School in Monroeville, Pa. Acquaintances Baldwin and Shanahan became close friends, and the two discussed playing together at Pitt.

Eventually, Saddler committed to Pitt Dec. 5, 2007 (for the 2008 class). Shanahan committed Dec. 9, and Baldwin made his choice Dec. 10. Hale finally committed to the Panthers Jan. 5, 2008 as well.

"I love basketball, but I love football, too,'' Shanahan said. "In football, especially at receiver, I just love the fact that it's like a craft. I can go out and learn something different every day, and I'm definitely very happy that I chose to play football. Just the opportunity here at Pitt was better.

"Playing here, in the Big East and with a bunch of my friends that I played against in high school was big. Jon's a good friend, and playing at Pitt with him is great. It's really special. He's considered a big-play guy, and you guys call me a possession guy. But I think we do things to really complement each other. So, I'm really looking forward to the rest of this year and year's to come.''

But if the two former hoopsters had to go up for a jump ball, which one would come down with it.

"I guess Jonathan would get it,'' Shanahan said, as his 35-inch vertical leap can't match Baldwin's 42-inch height.

Either way, the Pitt football team has benefitted from Shanahan's sport choice.

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