No player in the area has been scrutinized as intensely as Bo Baldwin. The South Aiken quarterback has been glorified and criticized in great frequencies, most of it for things beyond his control.

Now a rising senior, Baldwin burst on the scene when he was a sophomore – when great expectations were thrust upon him. At 6-foot-5 and more than 200 pounds, Baldwin possesses the physical attributes for a top-tier quarterback. It was easy to see why the Thoroughbreds would make him the starter, even as an underclassman. It was equally understandable why so many college recruiters started following South Aiken very closely.

But after helping the T-Breds’ snap a 13-game losing streak and open the season with a 2-1 record, Baldwin suffered a broken collarbone. He was lost for the season and South Aiken didn’t win another game in 2011.

When his junior campaign was set to begin, the expectations returned as a healthy Baldwin was back under center. But the good feelings didn’t last beyond the first game, as Baldwin broke his right hand – his passing hand – in the season opener. Baldwin missed the next five games, but was healthy enough to return for the start of Region 5-AAAA play.

“The best thing about last year, is that his season wasn’t over,” said South Aiken head coach Jeremy West of his team, which remained winless without Baldwin in the lineup. “Bo’s been through a lot. But with his work ethic and good character, he’s kept fighting and going.”

West admitted Baldwin was rusty when he returned, but credited his quarterback for finding his rhythm and leading the T-Breds to a strong finish. That included two wins, one of them coming in the season finale against crosstown rival Aiken High.

With his senior season nearly upon him, Baldwin remains a magnet for attention. He’s fully recovered from his broken hand and is looking to stay healthy for a full season of games. How he and South Aiken perform in that scenario is unknown, but past glimpses offer great promise.

This is also his final season to help the T-Breds return to the playoffs, as well as his last chance to impress college scouts. A who’s who of major college programs are still keeping close tabs on Baldwin, with possible scholarship offers looming.

For those reasons – and also because Baldwin’s one of the best players in the area when he’s healthy – he’s the No. 1 Player to Watch for the upcoming 2013 season.

“It’s been annoying to be held back the past two years and not playing,” said Baldwin, who has a 4-4 record in games he’s started and completed the past two seasons, 0-14 in the rest. “It’s been tough, but it’s out of my control. There’s nothing you can do. Hopefully the bad luck has run out.”

When luck hasn’t been a factor, Baldwin has produced some strong numbers. In three-plus games as a sophomore, he passed for 481 yards and six touchdowns. In five-plus games a year ago, he finished 11th among area quarterbacks with 588 passing yards, with two touchdowns. Although he isn’t considered a typical dual-threat quarterback, Baldwin’s a good athlete and capable runner and has been timed running a 4.77 40. Last season he tucked the ball away 31 times for 161 yards and three touchdowns.

“He runs better than people think,” West said, describing the attributes that make Baldwin such a talented quarterback prospect. “The thing he’s improved the most is reading coverages, but he’s got a strong arm and is a tough kid. He’s a competitor and wants to be the best.

“He’s a great young man and shown a lot of maturity. A lot of people might have quit, but he keeps coming back and wants to get better.”

When listing his goals for this season, it’s no surprise what was first for Baldwin’s personal achievements.

“I want to play a full season,” he said after listing doing well in the region and making the playoffs as his primary objectives. There were a few other individual milestones Baldwin has in sight. “I want to throw double-digit touchdowns and pass the 2,000-yard line. Doing that kind of puts you in the gunslinger category and if I have 2,000 yards, that means we’ll probably have a great season.”

There’s room for improvement. While Baldwin has been very good in limited action, he’s far from perfect. When he first returned from injury last season, he struggled. At times, he tried to do too much to make a play and forced a mistake. Other times, the bad luck popped up, when a pass would go off a receiver’s hands and get deflected toward a defender. He threw nine interceptions last season, bringing his career total to 12.

Baldwin said he believes his continued improvement reading defenses and checking down receivers will make him a better quarterback and could reduce the number of interceptions.

“When I was a freshman I had no idea how to read defenses. Now that I understand that, it make the job easier as a quarterback,” said Baldwin, who was lauded for his poise in the pocket and proficiency at a recent 7-on-7 passing camp at the Williams-Brice football complex by South Carolina quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus.

South Carolina is just one of many major college football programs interested in Baldwin. Although he hasn’t received an offer, Baldwin said he’s been talking regularly with the Gamecocks, as well as Georgia, LSU and North Carolina State. While he’d like to finalize his college plans before the season is over, Baldwin said he wouldn’t rush his decision. He added that it wouldn’t affect his performance, saying he’s learned how to deal with pressure.

“If you think too much, it will wear you down. I just try to keep it from getting in my head and stay humble,” Baldwin said. “You can’t worry what the scouts and media think. You can’t play your game when that’s in your head.”

West was quick to say that in spite of all of the attention, Baldwin is an unselfish player and good teammate.

“He’s not a me guy, he’s a team guy. He’s more worried about winning than scholarships,” said West, who added that Baldwin is very coachable and has learned a great deal from T-Bred assistant Ted Cain, formerly an assistant at North Carolina State and Vanderbilt. “He doesn’t think he’s better than anybody else, he wants to be treated the same.”

West said all of the attention Baldwin attracts is a good thing. He said it benefits the whole team, because it creates greater exposure for every player. The most important thing is having Baldwin in place at quarterback, allowing the rest of the T-Breds to focus specifically on their responsibilities – on both sides of the ball.

“We’re a different team with Bo in at quarterback. He makes us a better team,” West said. “When he’s on the field, we’re always a threat on offense.”

That’s something to watch for in 2013.

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.

Series glance

This story is the final part in a series highlighting the top 10 Players to Watch in the Aiken area for the rapidly approaching high school football season.

• July 12 — No. 10 Reggie Preston, RS-M

• July 13 — No. 9 Jaylen Lawrence, SB

• July 14 — No. 8 RJ Tyler, W-S

• July 15 — No. 7 Taylor Hearn, W-E

• July 16 — No. 6 Rasool Clemons, SA

• July 17 — No. 5 Nakeem Spann, AIK

• July 18 — No. 4 Daniel Carr, MV

• July 19 — No. 3 Trib Reece, NA

• July 20 — No. 2 Jauveer Hammond, ST

• Today — No. 1 Bo Baldwin, SA

The order was determined by Aiken Standard sports editor Noah Feit, staff writers Jeremy Timmerman and Eric Russell, North Augusta Star news editor Scott Rodgers, Aiken Standard intern Kyle Dawson, as well as ASTV broadcasters Ed Girardeau and Ken Brace.