August 7, 2007

A Different Kind-er Leader

In this decade, Pitt has become a hotbed of wide receivers. Antonio Bryant started the decade by winning the Biletnikoff Award. It had been some time since Panther fans had seen a playmaking receiver. Bryant declared for the draft with one year of eligibility remaining. Larry Fitzgerald came to Pitt the very next fall, and put up the most prolific receiving career in school history in just two years, finished as runner-up in the Heisman and was the third overall selection in the 2004 NFL draft.
Five times this decade has a Panther receiver led the conference in receiving yards per game and three times has a Panther receiver led in receptions per game. Continuing that trend is Derek Kinder. Kinder put up big numbers in his first season as a starter, replacing All-Big East performer Greg Lee by becoming a first-team All-Big East selection of his own in 2006. Kinder came to Pitt as a running back, and is one of two skilled players remaining from Pitt's Fiesta Bowl team of 2004.

To sum it up, Pitt receivers have owned the Big East over this decade. Even when Dave Wannstedt came to Pitt in 2005 with a desire to focus on running the football, Pitt now has more depth at the receiver position than any season this decade. This particular group isn't just a bunch of bodies. This is a group of quality receivers who were a question mark a year ago, but quickly developed into a strength as the season wore on.

"A year ago, I stood here and I said I know we have one wide receiver, Derek Kinder," Wannstedt said. "When the year was over, (Marcel) Pestano, (Cedric) McGee and Oderick Turner made some plays and Kinder had a great year. That turned out to be a strength for us."

Kinder paced the Panthers with 847 yards receiving, and finished the season tied for second in the conference in receptions per game and touchdown receptions. While other receivers in school history have been known for their numbers, and Kinder still has a chance to add to his, most folks nationally know Kinder from a bone-jarring hit he had in a game against West Virginia last season. The play was voted ESPN's college football play of the year. Most receivers strive to catch the ball, and find it tough to accept a role as a blocking receiver. Kinder has proved that you can be a playmaking receiver and a devastating blocker all in one. A year ago, the receiving corps was a question mark, but today it's an exclamation point. Derek Kinder's role on the field and off the field has had a big impact on that.
"Obviously, Derek brings great leadership," receivers coach Aubrey Hill said. "A lot of guys really relished the way things went and appreciated how things went for him. His sophomore year, he was a special teams guy. Last year, he really did some good things. He really took off last year. He's the first one there, from a practice standpoint, and the last one to leave. He comes in every day with his hard hat on."
Oderick Turner, Marcel Pestano, TJ Porter and Cedric McGee have all developed similarly the way Kinder has developed. These players took a hint from Kinder's path to being a big-time player. Turner started in all 12 contests, and was named a freshman All-American by Rivals. Pestano finished third on the team in receiving in 2006, and Porter and McGee have shown abilities to make big plays as well. This is without including talented incoming freshmen Mo Williams and Aundre Wright. Pestano is quick to point out that having a player like Kinder has helped all players of the receiving corps.

"Derek is one of the leaders of the team because he has helped everyone out," Pestano said. "He's helping everyone get to where he's at."

Pestano said fans caught a quick glimpse of Kinder's team-first attitude on his block in the West Virginia game. It's an attitude that is contagious on Pestano and his fellow receivers.

"(Blocking) looks great on your resume," Pestano added. "That's a big part of it. Everyone likes to see receivers block, and we try to make it just as important as making catches. We take it personal."
Kinder realizes that his importance as a leader to his position is certainly something that can carry over to the rest of the team. The emergence of the receiving corps in 2006 is a perfect example. No one expected anything from the receivers, and by the end of the season, they all became playmakers, and they all return for 2007.
"It's going to be a different role for me this year," Kinder said. "Last year I could lead by example. This year, I have to lead vocally."

The way that individual leadership carried over to the receiving corps, Kinder is focusing less on putting up big numbers, instead hoping the receiving corps will lead the team the way he led as an individual.

"We're going to be the leaders of this team, and show these young guys what it means to be a Division I athlete," Kinder said. "We've done a lot in the off-season, and I think we've improved a lot. It's been a long off-season, and we are real eager to start fall camp."

Tony Greco can be contacted at pittpath@hotmail.com..









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