Pittsburgh Panthers EDGE rusher Habakkuk Baldonado is having a good start to his week at the East-West Shrine Bowl. On Sunday in particular he shows drop some great pass rush moves in practice and was pretty dominant. Earlier this weekend, Melanie Friedlander and I sat down with Baldonado here in Las Vegas at the 98th edition of the East-West Shrine Bowl and we got to talk all about his transition from Italy to the United States, interacting with Pittsburgh Steelers coaches at the shared Pitt and Steelers facility, and how he likes to prepare for games.
For those who don’t know, Baldonado grew up in Italy, a country which is known for the football played with one’s feet, not hands. Yet, despite that, Baldonado told Steelers Depot he always gravitated towards the American version of football.
“I saw it once on TV,” Baldonado said. “I watched the game and I was like, ‘Wow, this looks interesting.’ I didn’t know what the sport was. I was like, ‘This is interesting, let me look for it.’ And then I just started searching it, found more and more about it and became more interested about it. I found a team in Rome and I started playing for them.”
Given football is not popular in Italy, there were not too many players so Baldonado played both wide receiver and defensive line, a combination that is rarely ever seen. Baldonado said he played both positions all the way until the end of high school, but he ended up growing into a defensive line/EDGE.
“I would say it [defensive line] was more what I grew up into. I was like bigger, heavier.”
Baldonado is 6’3, 257 lbs, not the average height and weight for a wide receiver. And you can’t blame Baldonado for choosing defensive line/EDGE. In his five years at Pitt, he recorded 99 tackles, 15 sacks, 22.5 tackles for a loss, two fumble recoveries, and one forced fumble.
But how did a kid from Rome end up at Pitt? Well, Baldonado played one year of high school football in Florida. Then it was time to choose a college, but Baldonado wanted a place that had a city feel and could offer him a good education.
“I just felt like it [Pitt] was the best place for me in terms of people, in terms of school, what they could offer to me in terms of city. Because growing up in Rome, I wanted to be in the city, I didn’t want to be in the middle of nowhere. So I felt like overall it was the best place for me.”
Baldonado certainly made Pitt home. As a student-athlete, he was a semi-finalist for the Walter V. Campbell Trophy which is awarded to the top scholar-athlete of college football. In addition to being a great student at Pitt, Baldonado got the opportunity to meet Steelers staff due to Pitt and the Steelers sharing the same practice facility.
“They’re [Steelers staff] great people. Some of them will take time to explain to us a couple different techniques of what they do, how they prepare, how they got to the point where they’re at,” Baldonado said. “It definitely helps you transitioning to the NFL because you just see it in front of your eyes. You understand better at what it takes to get there.”
Looking towards the future, Baldonado believes he can succeed in any system. He doesn’t believe he is tied down to any specific position and can play anywhere on the defensive line and even outside linebacker.
“I’m pretty versatile. I can play as a 4i , I can play as a three, I can play as an outside linebacker. So I don’t think I’m really recluded to one particular type of scheme. I can play whichever scheme, whether it’s a three, four, an outside linebackers as a 4-3. I feel like I would fit good in every system.”
Then, Baldonado told Steelers Depot about his favorite thing: film study. Baldonadno raved about studying film saying it was a huge part of his game and it has helped make him who he is as a player.
“That’s a huge part of my game. I think that’s what makes me the player that I am. The amount of film that I study and the time that I spend preparing for a game or trying to improve myself. On a regular week, for example, we’re playing Saturday, depending on what time we play, if we play early, I’ll go back to the facility that Saturday, or the next Sunday early in morning and I’ll break down my whole game. Every play, look at what I like, what I don’t like, critique myself, and try to find something that I find that I have to improve the following week.”
Baldonado was able to use that film study to have a productive collegiate career. This past year he struggled with injuries, but in 2021 he had a great year when he was fully healthy earning All-ACC Second Team and recording 41 tackles, nine sacks, and 12.5 tackles for a loss.
With his talent, Baldonado will bring effort and ability wherever he goes and become only the 24th Italian-born player to ever play in the NFL. Would it be nice to be a Pittsburgh Steeler? Baldonado certainly thinks so.
“Hopefully they’re [the Steelers] going to keep me there [in Pittsburgh]. I wouldn’t be upset, I’ll stay in the same apartment.”
With the obvious Pitt and Pittsburgh connection it wouldn’t be surprising if the Steelers keep a close eye on Baldonado and take him if they see an opportunity in the 2023 NFL Draft.