Habakkuk Baldonado shouldered expectations that weren’t restricted to just Pittsburgh, or even the United States, when he decided to return for his fifth season.
The journey for Baldonado began in Rome, Italy, where he was born and raised. He arrived in the United States for his senior year of high school — his only year of high school football at Clearwater Academy International — and he quickly drew the admiration of college teams.
He arrived at Pitt as a raw defensive end, towering over the coaching staff at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, and it didn’t take too long to make an impact. His non-stop motor and ability to soak up every ounce of knowledge from the veteran unit around him led to a breakout season last year.
With a 12-sack, 9-tackle for loss campaign last season, leading Pitt in sacks, the NFL Draft buzz arrived with it. He decided to turn down the interest — a potential Day 2 selection — to return for a push at solidifying Day 1 status and repeating as champs.
It hasn’t been the season that Baldonado envisioned when he decided to come back.
Injuries have certainly impacted Baldonado this season, missing a full game against Rhode Island and a couple of halves, but that doesn’t take the dent out of his underwhelming performance when he has been on the field. He led Pitt in sacks last season, and he has just one this season — a half sack against West Virginia and another against Syracuse.
Pat Narduzzi felt like if not for an armbar from a Syracuse offensive lineman, which did draw a holding call, Baldonado would’ve had a bigger day — at least on the stat sheet. Because Narduzzi feels like the box scores haven’t told the full story this season.
“Haba has been outstanding, and again, sometimes for all these All-Americans, let’s just look at numbers, but I’ve talked to a lot of scouts that walked through here, and they see almost the strips, they see ‘almost,'” Narduzzi said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “That’s what they want to see.”
Those ‘almost’ plays were an area of emphasis for Baldonado before the season. He felt like — along with defensive line coach Charlie Partridge — he left a lot out on the field last season. So, the pair put their heads together over the offseason, Baldonado put his nose to the grindstone in the film room and on the practice field.
Even when the months — years — of hard work haven’t translated on the field, Baldonado hasn’t let frustration seep into his day-to-day work ethic. He’s still a leader who leads by example in every aspect of being a football player and with his voice when the time calls for it.
“We’re all adults standing here, the more you invest in something, the more it means to you,” Partridge said earlier this season. “So, in those moments you’re gonna speak up, and Haba is fully invested.
“The time that he’s put in, the time that continues to put in, so when things aren’t going exactly the way we want, he speaks up on behalf of the group and really does a great job of being a strong leader — not worrying if someone likes what he says, he doesn’t care. He’s gonna say what needs to be said, and if they like him, they’ll like him down the road.”
When it comes to Baldonado’s on-field struggles this season, through the eight games he’s dressed for and stepped onto the field, he’s played exactly half as many snaps as he did last season (329 in 2022 to 658 in 2021).
According to Pro Football Focus, Baldonado has recorded 21 total pressures this season, forced 14 quarterback hurries and hit opposing quarterbacks six times — with a 15.3%-win rate against opposing offensive linemen. All of these compare favorably to last season’s per-game basis.
The only stat that doesn’t is actual sack totals. Which, admittedly, is pretty important.
And in the run game, Baldonado has missed just one tackle this season, a low 5.6% missed tackle rate, and he’s stuffed opposing running backs eight times. The two-way ability in defending the run and opposing quarterbacks is still there. The production just hasn’t quite matched up.
The box score stats are what is highlighted in the preseason magazines and on the NFL Draft websites, but Narduzzi said that the scouts he’s actually interacted with have seen the level of attention and detail that goes into Baldonado’s game on a consistent basis.
“Haba is about the details,” Narduzzi said. “If there’s one guy — and again, Deslin had a heck of a day, but if there’s one guy that’s really been as detailed as anyone at that defensive end spot — it’s been Haba. We’ve been happy with where he is, and he wants to go make plays, and he’d like to get those stats like everybody would.”
There are three games left this season, against Virginia, Duke and Miami, and Baldonado very likely will not reach the numbers he put together last season. But for a player who has led the defense all season, coming up just short on numerous occasions throughout the course of the season, he has the opportunity to finish on a high note.
And put together the production and attention to detail that will truly draw the attention of NFL scouts.