Pittsburgh star receiver Jon Baldwin clearly wasn't too impressed with Notre Dame cornerback Darrin Walls last year. Which is understandable, since Baldwin burned Walls for several deep balls in a 27-22 win, including a 36-yard score.
"I never even heard of him before we played last year," Baldwin told reporters this week about Walls, who is a Pittsburgh native. "He didn't really press me that much so I couldn't really determine if he was physical and he didn't tackle me."
Walls doesn't mind the criticism. In fact, he was very critical of himself coming into this year, as his career at Notre Dame began with great expectations and very nearly fizzled out as he had to sit out the entire 2008 season.
So far this year, however, Walls is having a standout senior campaign. Meanwhile, Baldwin is struggling to get going. Their individual matchup will likely prove crucial to this Saturday's game in South Bend.
Walls leads the Irish with two interceptions and has been a sure tackler in space while providing great coverage this year.
"He's been outstanding," head coach Brian Kelly said. "He's probably been our most professional and locked in player, and I say professional from a day-to-day standpoint. He's very purposeful in what he does. He's somebody we can point to in our senior class and say, that's mental and physical toughness. He's displayed that each and every week."
Walls said he has matured a lot since he was banished from the team in 2008 for what the school called "personal reasons" and that he's much better than he was a year ago when he and other Irish defensive backs had trouble on deep balls.
"I'd say the biggest thing is just playing with confidence and not guessing so much," he said. "Just knowing what the offenses are going to do and receiver routes and knowing where the quarterback is going with the ball. I think just playing with confidence and knowing that my preparation has prepared me to play well."
There's little you can do to prepare for the physical skills of Baldwin, who's 6-foot-5 with a 40-inch vertical leap. But the preseason Biletnikoff Award finalist has yet to dominate this season as he and new starting quarterback Tino Sunseri continue to try and build chemistry. Baldwin has just 15 catches for 211 yards on the season.
Despite that, he sounded confident of breaking loose this week, when Pitt tries to beat the Irish for the third straight year.
"I circled the game on my calendar the last two years, and I circled the game again for this year, and I plan on having a great game," Baldwin told reporters.
Those quotes certainly made their way back to Walls, who refused to bite when asked about it.
"I've seen what he said," Walls said. "I really don't care really about it. I know that I'm a different player from last year, and so is he. I don't really talk much, and we'll see a lot on Saturday."
Whoever gets the last word in that matchup could help determine the outcome for both teams.