When you think of dominant athletes wearing 87 in Pittsburgh, of course, Habbakuk Baldonado comes to mind. There’s Sidney Crosby across town, maybe, but the All-ACC defensive end clearly resonates internationally.
Baldonado, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound defensive end from Rome, Italy by way of Clearwater Academy International, emerged as one of the best edge rushers in the ACC in 2021. On the heels of an injury-plagued yet promising start to his Pitt career, he’s firmly entrenched as one of top returners in the conference in 2022.
Baldonado would’ve been able to capitalize upon his strong season with a serious NFL Draft opportunity, racking up 12 tackles for loss and a team-high nine sacks in 2021, and he seriously considered it. But it ended up making the most sense to return to Pitt — a place he’s come to love — for one last season.
“Looking at the team, and knowing that we had a great chance of making it happen again and making something better happen, I just wanted to stay close to my teammates and help them reach the final goal that we were trying to reach last year,” Baldonado said.
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi shared plenty of conversations with Baldonado leading up through the early draft process at the tail-end of 2021, and Naruduzzi feels like Baldonado’s decision to return wasn’t just a smart move in building his draft stock but a smart decision in securing a legacy at Pitt.
With 41 tackles (26 solo), 12 tackles for loss, nine sacks and a forced fumble and recovery, Baldonado earned second-team All-ACC honors in 2021, but that came despite leaving a lot on the field. Narduzzi felt like Baldonado was within seconds of half a dozen to a dozen more sacks, and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge felt the same way.
“I would say it was a pretty good season, but I missed a lot of plays I could’ve made,” Baldonado said. “So, that’s what I’m trying to do this year, tuning the fine details that on the plays that I missed last year.
“As coach (Partridge) likes to say, inches are miles,” Baldonado said. “So, I might try to shave half a second that would be the difference between a quarterback hit and a sack – or just a pressure.”
Partridge has been a key figure in Baldonado’s time in Pittsburgh, since before his commitment in 2018, and the relationship has only continued to flourish during the season and in the offseason. Baldonado has established himself as a teacher on and off the field, and it hasn’t been a surprise for Partridge.
“(Baldonado) comes to me after practice, and he’s already got cut-ups made of himself put in different sections,” Partridge said. “These are things he built to watch with me, that’s a sign of a guy who’s approaching the game the right way.”
After watching and learning from former Pitt stars like Patrick Jones, Jaylen Twyman and Rashad Weaver on the defensive line in his early days, Baldonado has grown from a player who eagerly watched Pitt’s veterans to one of those veterans that will stay after film sessions to tutor the younger players and attend morning and night sessions at Pitt’s South Side facility.
“There’s always something to learn, even from the young guys, like the basics, the fundamentals,” Baldonado said. “Sometimes you may grow up and miss something you didn’t know, so you might discover something else. I believe that by coaching somebody, you learn better because it demonstrates you deeply understand what you’re talking about. That’s why I always try to coach the younger guys.”
While Narduzzi isn’t in that defensive line room every day with Baldonado, he’s seen the strides made in four seasons. After picking up football as a teenager in Italy, and emigrating to the United States a few years later, Baldonado’s football IQ is insanely high despite just a few years of experience. And Narduzzi has watched it grow even higher.
“Last year to this year and this spring, he’s just — he’s so smart,” Narduzzi said. “He’s one of the smartest guys in there, like a Twyman, like a Jones and Weaver, he’s got that intelligence. So, that’s always gonna make him better, and the key is him finishing the play. You’re there you’ve got an opportunity to make the play, but in the NFL, they’re gonna want you to finish the play.”
Pro Football Focus rated Baldonado as Pitt’s second-best defender last season, only behind All-American defensive tackle Calijah Kancey, and his 48 quarterback pressures and 23 quarterback hurries led the team. With a high-impact motor and perfectionist mentality, Baldonado expects greatness from himself — and Pitt as a whole.
“It should have been first every year,” Baldonado said about Pitt’s sack totals. “That’s what our defense is. We create havoc in the backfield, and we try to be there every play. And that’s going to happen this year as well.”
With 54 sacks in 2021, Pitt ranked second in college football. And since 2019, Pitt has led all of college football in sacks, but despite the success. It hasn’t been enough for Pitt. With guys like Kancey, Deslin Alexandre, Dayon Hayes, John Morgan and a deep, talented cast of supporting pass rushers, Pitt’s defense has been built on rushing opposing quarterbacks.
“Thanks to the D-line culture,” Baldonado said. “Surely coach (Partridge), he brought in his culture and he’s a great coach. He trains us as hard as humanly possible, but everybody helps each other and everybody learns from each other’s mistakes and downfalls.”
In deciding to stay one more season at Pitt, Baldonado reached out to a former teammate — current Minnesota Viking Patrick Jones — about how the process works. What the NFL was like, how the draft process impacts someone and the entire ordeal. Baldonado watched Jones’s process in 2021, and he was able to get the inside information this year.
“I wouldn’t say I just observed,” Baldonado said. “I called Pat (Jones), we just talked on the phone, trying to decide what was best for me and how he went through the process and what was he thinking back then. He was one of the reasons I came back.”
With Baldonado back, if Pitt’s 2022 Blue-Gold Spring Game was any indication, Pitt’s pass rush is going to be a problem in 2022. Baldonado leads a deep, talented unit, and he’s helping coach up the unit during every practice and film session. Which has only helped his own game grow this season.
Because at the end of the day, with an ACC title in the bag, the next step is a national title. That was last season’s goal, but it wasn’t reached. Baldonado feels like Pitt has the weapons to reach the national title, and if that’s the case, he’s one of the biggest weapons across the board.