Down-to-earth Kinder among nation's best receivers

Pittsburgh's Derek Kinder caught a break with intense special-teams play -- and is now catching the nation by storm.

Updated: October 3, 2006, 11:47 AM ET
By Joe Starkey | Special to ESPN.com

Pitt assistant coach Aubrey Hill used to play wide receiver and has spent a good part of his adult life working with wide receivers, so he knows how temperamental they can be.

Hill knows, for example, that if you were to ask the typical star receiver to cover a kickoff, the typical star receiver might look at you as though you'd asked him to climb the outside of the Empire State Building.

Derek Kinder
Jason Bridge/US PresswireDerek Kinder went from a one-catch season as a freshman to one of the nation's leaders in receiving yards as a junior.
Blindfolded.

Seriously, could you imagine Terrell Owens or Keyshawn Johnson racing downfield to bust a wedge?

Then there is Pitt junior Derek Kinder, who is among the national leaders in total receiving yards (485), yards per game (97) and touchdown catches (six) and who doesn't complain one bit about covering kicks.

In fact, he loves it.

"He doesn't have it in his mind that, 'I'm a receiver, and I shouldn't be doing some of these things,'" Hill said. "He's one of those guys who says, 'Hey, I'm a football player, and I'll do whatever the coach and the team asks me to do.' "

A 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior, Kinder earned a letter as a freshman because of his intense special teams play. He relishes contact, kind of like this city's other star receiver, Hines Ward.

"Don't get confused -- I still want the ball as much as possible," said Kinder, who leads the Big East in receiving yards per game and total receiving yards. "But I'm no prima donna. I started off on special teams. That's how I got my foot in the door, so by no means am I going to try to get off that."

Coming out of Albion (N.Y.) High School, Kinder was a star running back/cornerback with a knack for big plays. He scored 33 touchdowns his senior year and 63 in his career. He also rushed for 1,705 yards as senior, averaged 8.7 yards per carry, snagged eight interceptions, and starred on the baseball and basketball teams.

Once he arrived at Pitt, Kinder was converted to receiver, a position of prestige at the school. During the Walt Harris years, Pitt was dubbed "Wide Receiver U." for good reason. Antonio Bryant (2000) and Larry Fitzgerald (2003) each won the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's outstanding receiver.

Nobody figured Kinder would follow their path.

"I couldn't run a route when I got here," he said.

Quarterback Tyler Palko remembers.

"Obviously, I'd be lying to you if I said, 'Yeah, I thought he'd be leading the nation in receiving,'" Palko said last week, before a 41-yard receiving game versus Toledo dropped Kinder to eighth on the list. "But I believe Derek's a talented guy and somebody I can count on -- and he hasn't even scratched the surface of what he can do. I know you probably don't believe me, because he's leading the nation in receiving, but he'll only get better. This is his first year starting as the guy."

Kinder made one catch as a freshman. He won the No. 3 receiver spot early last season and opened some eyes with a 10-catch performance against Rutgers. He made the national highlight reels a few weeks later with a behind-the-helmet grab against Syracuse.

Shortly after he'd earned the No. 3 spot, Kinder had a good talk with Hill, his position coach and a guy who'd played at Florida under pass-happy coach Steve Spurrier.

"Derek said, 'Coach, I really appreciate having the No. 3 spot, but I don't just want that. I want the No. 2 spot and the No. 1 spot,' " Hill said. "That was a defining moment with me, letting me know he was really sincere about being the best player he could be."

Pitt's top receiver last season was junior Greg Lee, who was named All-Big East. When Lee opted to enter the NFL draft (he wasn't selected), a door opened wide for Kinder.

"I was ready to become that next great receiver here," he said.

Coming into the season, however, most considered Kinder to be more of a possession receiver than a game-breaker. The perception began to change when he caught a 78-yard touchdown pass in the opener against Virginia -- setting a Heinz Field record -- and hauled in scoring catches of 80 and 55 yards against Cincinnati.

Much of the yardage gained on all three plays came on the ground, not in the air.

It isn't raw speed that makes Kinder so dangerous -- although he wins his share of footraces -- but rather his soft hands, leaping ability, elusiveness and plain old want-to. He's not small, either.

"I wasn't surprised he made those plays because he does a great job of going up and getting the ball," Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio said. "Speed doesn't always get the job done for you."

Hill sees a bit of some of his old Florida teammates in Kinder. Guys like Ike Hilliard and Willie Jackson, both of whom made the NFL and stayed awhile because they were complete players.

"Ike Hilliard's still there [with Tampa Bay] because he does the little things," Hill said. "He'll go in there and block. He'll run the short and intermediate route. He'll go out there on special teams. Derek is one of those guys. I've nicknamed him 'Do-It-All.'"

Kinder is a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan who still hasn't gotten over the "Music City Miracle," when the Tennessee Titans knocked his beloved Bills out of the 2000 playoffs on a trick kickoff return.

Too bad the Bills didn't have Kinder.

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.