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Junior Cameron Saddler to start season as Pitt's third wideout

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Monday, Aug. 15, 2011

The Pitt football player who attracts more attention than most of his teammates is also the one coaches really don't know. Makes no sense• It does if you know the story of Cameron Saddler.

The garrulous wide receiver/punt returner from Gateway High School is entering his fourth season at Pitt, still trying to make an impact on the field. He has only 10 receptions for 74 yards and two touchdowns, and he hasn't caught a pass since the third game of last season.

"I have a blank sheet with him since I got here," wide receivers coach Mike Norvell said. "There wasn't a whole lot of film to watch on him in game situations."

That should change. Norvell plans to use Saddler, a 5-foot-7 junior, as the team's third wideout behind starters Mike Shanahan and Devin Street.

"Cam is one of the guys I have been pleasantly surprised with," Norvell said. "He improved himself as a route runner over the summer."

Coaches want to see Saddler become a better blocker, too, but Norvell remains intrigued.

"You see a guy with great quickness who can do something with the ball in his hands," he said.

Despite limited opportunities, Saddler has become a team leader, thanks to an effervescent personality. He said young players often come to him for advice.

"Guys thrive off the fact that I am the way I am," he said. "I thrive off the fact that guys thrive off me."

Saddler's background is anything but typical. At the age of seven, he appeared on stage at the Benedum with actor Tom Bosley in the musical "Showboat." He was one of several young extras in the performance, but he had an opportunity to dance and ride a bicycle while wearing "ridiculous" brown overalls and glasses, he said.

He also posed for department store newspaper ads and appeared on a Channel 4 weather promotion with meteorologist Steven Cropper. "My parents used to just sign me up for random stuff," he said. "I was a little kid, so I didn't know."

He also comes from an athletic family. His father Champ is grandfather to San Antonio Spurs player DeJuan Blair, making Saddler an uncle to an all-time Pitt basketball great who is five months older than him. Another nephew, Blair's brother Greg, is a linebacker at the University of Cincinnati.

While growing up, Saddler played a variety of sports and even tried karate. He was an excellent baseball player, but his passion was football.

At Gateway, he returned seven kickoffs for touchdowns over two seasons — one short of a national record — and rated him the No. 8 all-purpose player in the country.

His Pitt career has developed slowly after he tore his ACL during his first summer camp in 2008. Three years later, he looks like a natural for coach Todd Graham's hurry-up, speed-based offense.

In the first practice last Monday night — under the lights at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex — Saddler raced into the open to catch a long pass in the corner of the end zone.

He fell to the ground, and skidded into a small scoreboard, tearing his gloves to shreds, but holding onto the football. No one was sure if he was hurt, but he quickly jumped to his feet, skipping away and shouting, "Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah."

"It hurt," he said, "but once I heard everybody yelling, I was like, 'I don't think I can lay here.' I jumped up and let everybody know I just made a big-time catch, so you all should pay attention to me."

That same night, an errant throw struck Cameron's mother Darlene in the face while she was watching practice. She just picked up her glasses and sat back down, without a whimper.

"My dad says I get my toughness from him," Cameron said of Champ, a regular at Pitt practices. "I really get it from my mom." Darlene taught Cameron a valuable lesson when he was 9.

Cameron was the goalkeeper for his soccer team when he decided to quit in the middle of a game.

"Something happened, and when I was young I was a cry baby, so I started crying. I said, 'I quit. I don't want to do soccer anymore. This isn't me.'

"So, I was walking off the field and my mom yells, 'You better turn around and get out on that field, or I am going to get out of these stands and kick your butt.' "

Cameron smiles at the memory. "That's one of my favorite stories," he said.

Mom's tough love may be one reason Cameron isn't disappointed by the slow start to his Pitt career.

"Stuff happens all the time to people," he said. "Why does it happen• It's life. You have to roll with the punches.

"If the next two years go right, I'll be all right with whatever happened in the past."

Additional Information:

Cameron Saddler

Junior, 5-7, 170 lbs.

Wide receiver/punt returner

Did you know• Saddler compiled 2,299 all-purpose yards and 31 touchdowns during his senior season at Gateway.

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