The words “It’s better to give than receive” apparently don’t apply to Thomas Jefferson seniors Sean Sullivan and Jason Salman when they are on the football field.
When a quarterback giveths — whether their own or their opponents — one of the two typically takeths away, either via reception or interception.
Sullivan believes the pair, who have combined for more than 1,300 yards receiving this season, have no peers when it comes to top receiving duos in the WPIAL.
“We’re definitely the best,” said Sullivan, a three-year starter and two-time all-conference pick. “That’s what our expectations were coming into the season. Cherp [Coach Bill Cherpak] knows that we can both make plays, so that’s just what we do.”
And those plays come on defense, too, with the two giving opposing offenses headaches due to their thievery — they’ve combined for 12 interceptions — while leading an opportunistic TJ secondary that has 18 interceptions in all.
Add that up, and Thomas Jefferson boasts a pair of two-way gamebreakers as it nears the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs. The No. 4-ranked Jaguars (8-1, 4-1) hope Sullivan and Salman are both at their best Friday when the team hosts No. 2 McKeesport (8-1, 5-0) in a battle that will decide the Big Seven Conference championship.
Thomas Jefferson is one of only two teams in the WPIAL that boast a pair of players with at least 31 catches and 600 yards receiving. (Gateway is the other.) Sullivan (6 feet, 180 pounds) has 37 catches for 691 yards and eight touchdowns, while Salman (5-9, 158) has a receiving line of 31-613-6.
“Between the two of them, they kind of do things differently, and they know what they do differently,” Cherpak said. “Sal’s more of our slot, scat type guy, where Sean is more of the vertical, deeper threat guy, the more physical type guy. So they’ve complemented each other pretty well. We’re going to need a lot out of them this week.”
Sullivan is one of the leading active career receivers in the area. He has 114 receptions for 2,150 yards and 24 touchdowns, with nearly all of that production coming since his sophomore season. A season ago, Sullivan ranked 10th in the WPIAL with 48 receptions and added 922 yards and 11 touchdowns.
This season, Sullivan started with three consecutive 100-yard performances, giving him eight of those in his career. He then hauled in a career-best three touchdowns last week against Connellsville, the sixth multi-touchdown effort of his career.
“I just learn from him in practice,” Salman said. “I’m going against the best in practice every day. He helps me learn and helps me step up when I need to. The best players guard him, and that gives me an opportunity.”
Salman has emerged as the perfect complement to Sullivan this fall after finishing his junior season with 21 catches for 233 yards and a touchdown. Salman has a pair of two-touchdown games this season, but his biggest performance came in a 24-19 win at defending PIAA Class 3A champion Belle Vernon, ending the Leopards’ 14-game win streak. Salman had five receptions for 166 yards, the highlight being his 49-yard game-winning touchdown catch on a throw from junior Luke Kosko with about three minutes left.
“It’s helped us a lot,” Sullivan said of Salman’s emergence, “because if teams want to put a safety over me, I trust him 1-on-1 with any corner in the WPIAL. That’s easy for us. I’m taking him all day.”
Making what Sullivan and Salman have done this season even more impressive is that they’ve done it with Thomas Jefferson using the two-quarterback platoon of Kosko and senior Brody Evans. But no matter who is throwing them the ball, both Sullivan and Salman seem to produce.
Sullivan, a safety, and Salman, a cornerback, have risen to the occasion defensively, too. According to MaxPreps, Salman ranks among the state leaders with seven interceptions and Sullivan has five. Salman has intercepted a pass in all but two games. He has two pick sixes and has also returned a punt for a touchdown. Sullivan has a team-best four fumble recoveries and ranks among the team’s top tacklers.
“We put them out on islands all the time,” Cherpak said, “and I think that’s how they get a lot of their picks. Teams see that and say, ‘It’s 1-on-1 out there. Let’s see if they can defend.’ And they make some great plays.”
Chances are Sullivan and Salman won’t get many opportunities to intercept passes against McKeesport. That’s because the Tigers rarely throw the ball, relying instead on their vaunted flexbone rushing attack to bludgeon foes. However, look for Thomas Jefferson to throw the ball plenty, meaning its prolific pair of receivers should get lots of chances to make plays.
“This is always one of the biggest games of the season,” Sullivan said. “It’s going to be senior night, so we’re definitely going to come to play. I’m really confident coming into this game. It’s going to be a big game for sure … physical.”