The Shrine Bowl came calling for Haba Baldonado, and while he accepted the invite to one of the premier NFL Draft all-star games, he has one more order of business.
Pitt listed Baldonado as a starting defensive end on its Sun Bowl two-deep depth chart, which surprised many who expected Baldonado’s collegiate career to be over. Still, Pat Narduzzi confirmed that he’s attempting to play against UCLA Friday.
“Still expecting Haba to possibly play,” Narduzzi said Thursday in El Paso, Texas. “He’s still day-to-day.”
It hasn’t been the season that Baldonado envisioned when he decided to come back.
Injuries have certainly impacted Baldonado this season, missing full games against Rhode Island, Duke and Miami and a couple of halves here and there, but that still has led to a season of reduced production. He led Pitt in sacks last season, and he recorded just two this season — a half sack against West Virginia, another against Syracuse and a sack against Virginia.
Baldonado recorded 25 tackles (nine solo), five tackles for loss, two sacks and two pass breakups this season. And Pat Narduzzi feels like while Baldonado’s stats haven’t flashed, NFL scouts have still seen his potential impact.
“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 in November. “That’s what they want to see.”
Baldonado has the size, physical tools, football IQ and leadership to be the next Pitt defensive end to make the jump to the next level and succeed. There were questions about what he would decide to do next season, but those appear to be answered.
In four seasons at Pitt, Baldonado recorded 99 tackles (48 solo), 21.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, a forced fumble and two recoveries and two pass breakups. He earned All-ACC honors in 2021.
And while Baldonado may or may not cap his Pitt career with a Sun Bowl appearance against UCLA, Narduzzi is excited to see what he has from the younger guys on the roster.
Pitt, even without Calijah Kancey on the defensive line, is ‘old on the inside,’ according to Narduzzi. Devin Danielson, David Green and Tyler Bentley provide a veteran trio up the middle of the defense.
And on the outside, Narduzzi said that Dayon Hayes — who is coming off a four tackle for loss, three sack performance against Miami in the season finale — is the leader. Without Deslin Alexandre, John Morgan and possibly Baldonado, he’ll need to be.
And with young defensive ends in Nahki Johnson, Jimmy Scott and Samuel Okunlola, Narduzzi isn’t worried about future star power either.
“Sam Okunlola is a young guy that we’re expecting big things,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t even know what number he is, 17? He played a little bit at the end of the Miami game, but he’s a talented guy. He’s gonna be a star in a Pitt uniform in the future.”
With a matchup against UCLA’s high-powered offense, which will feature Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Zach Charbonnet and Jake Bobo, it’s an immediate test for the young guns.