PITTSBURGH – In the last college game Santonio Holmes played, he set a BCS record for longest scoring play on his 85-yard catch-and-run touchdown against Notre Dame.
In the Fiesta Bowl, Holmes threw a wicked block on a Notre Dame defender that sprung Ted Ginn for a 68-yard touchdown run off a reverse.
"I was getting a lot of good feedback from that play," Holmes said. "People were telling me that I looked like Hines Ward."
If Holmes sounds like a Steelers fan, he is. "I've been a Steelers fan for the past 10 or 11 years and I know that those guys are very hard working," he said. "I love the great job that Hines Ward does blocking and making big plays and not complaining about anything and setting a goal of making 1,000 yards each year. And the rest of the guys are willing to follow and make a contribution to the team no matter what it is."
Holmes stands 5-foot-10 5/8, had a 38-inch vertical jump and ran a 4.34 40 at his Pro Day on the ultra-quick Ohio State track. He tests through the roof and his production made him the highest-ranked wide receiver in this year's draft.
The Steelers traded third- and fourth-round draft picks to the New York Giants to move up seven spots to pick No. 25 in order to draft Holmes, and once again, the Steelers' braintrust is walking on air.
"Look at his production. Look at his speed," said Coach Bill Cowher. "It was a very unique combination."
"When Antwaan (Randle El) left," said director of operations Kevin Colbert, "we said it would take a couple players to replace him, unless you can find somebody that could do the things he could do. In Santonio Holmes, we think we did find that player."
Holmes is the combination wide receiver and return man the Steelers needed. In three seasons at Ohio State, Holmes caught 140 passes for 2,295 yards (18.4 avg.) and 25 touchdowns. He also returned 38 punts at a 10.1 average and 19 kickoffs at a 22.4 average.
As a punt returner, Holmes split returns with Ted Ginn. "Every time," said special teams coach Kevin Spencer. "They both dropped and split the field for each punt."
Spencer admitted Ginn was the more explosive punt returner. "But Santonio is quicker into and out of his cuts," Spencer said. "He's a more fluid runner, whereas Ted Ginn ran more upright."
Holmes is much more than a return specialist. He moved into the Ohio State lineup at flanker midway through his redshirt freshman season. As a sophomore in 2004, Holmes started every game at flanker and was named second-team All-Big Ten Conference. He moved to split end last season and was named first-team All-Big Ten with 53 catches for 977 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In his last two games, Holmes caught 11 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan and Notre Dame and it propelled him to the head of a position group that was considered thin this season. And once again the Steelers were able to land a top-ranked player in the first round.
"I started jumping around at about pick 14 when Denver took a quarterback and Philadelphia took the defensive tackle," said receivers coach Bruce Arians. "I said all right, we have a shot."
A run on cornerbacks followed and then the Steelers called the Giants to talk trade.
"We don't follow a value chart," said Colbert. "If we want a player, we're going to get him."
Holmes, the second cousin of Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, is a native of Belle Glade, Fla., where he led Glades Central High to two state football titles, a state track title and a second-place finish in basketball.
He went to Ohio State and sat out the 2002 season with a redshirt. His best game was in 2004 when he caught 10 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns against Marshall. After the 2004 season, Holmes considered turning pro to support his growing family, but was told he'd be the fourth or fifth best receiver in the draft. So he came back for his redshirt junior season and it proved to be a smart move. With three children – Santonio III (3), Nicori (1) and Saniya (born Valentine's Day) – Holmes is on the verge of signing a multi-million dollar contract with his favorite team.
"I've been a Steelers fan since 1995 and I'm very excited about it," he said. "It's the way the team plays, the things that they accomplish together as a team, as a family. It is the same things that I've accomplished at a high-school level and at college. It's the things I've been looking to be a part of – a family, a great team and people that work together."
He found his match. And the Steelers believe they've found theirs. They were looking for a receiver who can get deep, return kicks and block.
"He's a very good route runner," said Cowher. "He's a very polished receiver. He has a way of separating. He's very quick in and out of cuts. He's got good hands, excellent speed. If there's anything that's a negative against the guy, it's probably his size. He's not a real big guy but he plays big. He's got good hands and he's a very good route runner."
Holmes believes his NFL comparison is "Marvin Harrison, because he has very deceptive speed and also stretches the field as much as possible and no one really knows."
Scouts knock Holmes because he lacks the A-plus explosiveness of, say, a Lee Evans of the Buffalo Bills. But Arians, who plans to use Holmes in the slot this season, likes his rookie's overall game.
"Hines is not that big and is the most aggressive receiver in the league," Arians said. "Santonio is probably 10 to 15 pounds lighter but is strong and real wirey. It's more effort. You block with your heart. It's all about heart.
"He has shown the ability to know coverages, find holes in the zones, know when it is man-to-man and he is not shy. He's not shy at all or he wouldn't be a Steeler."