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February 11, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Boyd will join 331 other prospects at NFL Combine; plus thinking spring

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I joined Ken Laird, Tim Benz and Josh Taylor on Friday morning to discuss Pitt (finally!) moving its spring game to Heinz Field. The game is April 16. Listen here.

Tyler Boyd will take his first significant plunge into the NFL Draft pool when he joins 331 other prospects at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, scheduled for Feb. 23-29.
Boyd, who left Pitt after setting school reception and yardage records in only three seasons, was invited, along with 12 other players with local ties. Let’s look at what NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein, a talk show host in Houston, wrote about Boyd, who was listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds last season:
Strengths: Ultra-competitive. Known for powerful hands that clamp instantly onto ball and finish heavily contested catches. Has over-the-middle toughness. Plays with outstanding body control and has ability to gyrate and contort in mid-air in order to make acrobatic catches look easy. Brimming with confidence. Targeted 124 times or more in each of his three seasons. Able to create window through route polish. Sinks into breaks and comes out low with good turn radius when needed. Sits in space and slows routes when necessary to prevent safety from crowding him in deep middle. Has handled some kick return and punt return duties during his time at Pitt.
Weaknesses: Relatively low touchdown production (21) to target rate. Marginal long speed. Isn’t a threat to run by corners and has to win with routes and hands. Just a possession receiver much of the year. Limited YAC (yards after catch) potential due to lack of shake in open field and power to break tackles. Became a fumble factory on punt returns this year and ball security must be addressed. Lacks juice to be a full-time kick returner. Separation windows close quickly due to average getaway quickness out of breaks. Needs to use body better to protect the catch rather than just relying on strong mitts.
Sources tell us: “I think he can overcome some of his speed deficiencies with good routes and he has hand strength like (Jarvis) Landry in Miami. I would take him in the second or third (round).” — AFC East scout.
NFL comparison: Keenan Allen of the San Diego Chargers.
Bottom line: Pitt asked Boyd to be a running back and possession receiver this season, but that doesn’t define what he can be in the pros. Boyd makes up for a lack of speed with vice grips for hands and intelligence in his routes. Boyd isn’t a standalone WR1, but he can be a very productive starter in a play-action attack that allows him to play to his strengths.

I can’t disagree with anything Zierlein wrote, but I might add that Boyd quickly picked up the nuances of the wide receiver position very quickly (he was not solely that at Clairton), and he worked with three different quarterbacks at Pitt (Tom Savage, Chad Voytik and Nathan Peterman).
What I found interesting about that latter factoid is that Boyd recorded his longest catch with Savage (69), most yardage and touchdowns with Voytik (1,261 and eight) and most receptions with Peterman (91).
Also, Boyd led the team in receptions in all three seasons, and the No. 2 pass catchers (Devin Street, J.P. Holtz and Dontez Ford) averaged 52 receptions behind him.
After Street left for the NFL in the 2014 draft, Pitt never found a consistently effective complement for Boyd. In the NFL, Boyd will have another talented wide receiver lining up with him; it will be interesting to see what he does when he’s no longer the sole target of the secondary.
The second or third round appears to be what most analysts are predicting for Boyd on draft weekend (April 28-30).
Boyd has been working out in California almost since the end of Pitt’s season. He wants it, and knows what it takes. His willingness to work hard and his adherence to the concept of team (in my eyes his two most admirable qualities at Pitt) will help him construct a good NFL career.

A couple other observations about the combine list:
Eastern Kentucky outside linebacker Noah Spence, a graduate of Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, is rated the No. 2 edge pass rusher available in the draft by respected analyst Mike Mayock.
While in high school, Spence seriously considered signing with Pitt and might have done so if Dave Wannstedt hadn’t been fired. But his college career was full of potholes.
He went to Ohio State and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2013, but he failed two drug tests and was treated for addiction, according to Zierlein. Spence, 6-2, 254, also was arrested last year and charged with alcohol intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct, but the incident was expunged from his record after he performed community service.
On the field, he knows how to rush the passer. He had 22 1/2 tackles for a loss and 13 1/2 sacks while earning FCS All-American honors last year.

NFL.com also listed a few notable players who weren’t invited to the combine:
— Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who set a record with 88 rushing touchdowns, but will switch to running back and/or kick returner in the NFL.
— Wisconsin’s Mike Caputo, a West Allegheny graduate, who is a two-time, second-team All-Big Ten safety.

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March 28, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Wirginis’ return to practice makes an athletic linebacker group even more athletic

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The landscape is changing on the Pitt defense, especially at linebacker.
Pitt is more athletic at that position. Note that I didn’t use the words “appears to be more athletic.” It’s more definitive than that.
“We’re more athletic as a group,” linebackers coach Rob Harley said last week.
Pitt, actually, has become even more athletic in recent days with the apparent recovery of senior middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis, who was injured through many of the first six practices this spring. He was slotted with the first team Tuesday morning during the early portion of No. 7.
Maybe adding more credibility to Harley’s thoughts is the defense wearing blue jerseys at practice, which means it got the better of the offense in the scrimmage last Saturday.
During Harley’s chat with reporters last week, he seemed more interested in the cross-training aspect of his job than the increased athleticism across the board.
“They can play multiple positions and how critical is that in this day and age,” Harley said, “especially in the ACC where it’s like hockey. It’s like a line change. You have guys coming so fast, offenses coming so fast, you have to have guys playing multiple positions.”
Leading the way in that regard is Saleem Brightwell , an outside linebacker at the moment. But he was Wirginis’ replacement in the middle (to good reviews) earlier this spring.
I don’t get to watch enough practice to know for sure, but Brightwell might be the best linebacker on the team right now, certainly the most versatile. Make note of the words “right now.” It’s a long way to September.
Then, there’s Elijah Zeise, who’s recovered from his ankle injury suffered in the opener last year (he covered kicks in the bowl game) and looks bigger and stronger — more like an outside linebacker than he did last year when he started the spring as a wide receiver. He’s also learning both outside positions (money and star), but he must compete for first-team practice time with his former North Allegheny teammate Sean Idowu, who also made good use of the off-season.
“There is a lot to replace,” Harley said of losing graduated senior linebackers Mike Caprara, Matt Galambos and Bam Bradley. “But we still have a lot on the shelf.”

One other note from morning practice. Kicker Alex Kessman continues to display a strong leg. And he was accurate Tuesday, hitting field goal tries from 28, 33, 35, 42, 46 and 50 yards. The last one was high and long and would have been good from, perhaps, 60 yards. I asked an official on site, just to be sure, and he raised both hands.

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March 23, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt linebackers required to perform inside and outside

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Senior Quintin Wirginis will be a big part of Pitt’s group at linebacker, but juniors Elijah Zeise and Seun Idowu and sophomore Saleem Brightwell (still in the middle) were with the first team at the outset of the fifth day of spring drills Thursday morning.
Coach Pat Narduzzi was asked after practice where he would like to see Brightwell, who was an outside linebacker last year. He said he has no preference.
“The great thing, he’s learning both,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t think there’s anything better for a linebacker to say, `Hey, I can play anywhere, coach. Where do you want me to go?’ ”

Spring allows Narduzzi the time to use players at positions they may not play during the season. It gives coaches a dossier to fall back on if/when injuries occur. And it allows a contemplated position change to become reality in time for the season.
To that end, Brightwell is in the middle, Connor Dintino continues to get snaps at left guard and center and Jordan Whitehead is playing both safety positions.
In regards to Whitehead, if Pitt had two of him, that would solve most of its problems in the back end of the defense.
Is a Whitehead clone finishing up his senior year at Steel Valley? Paris Ford is expected to make an impact at one of the safety positions when he arrives on campus this summer.
Elsewhere on defense, Rori Blair and Dewayne Hendrix were manning the end spots, with Jeremiah Taleni and Amir Watts at tackle. Phillipie Motley joined Avonte Maddox at cornerback with the first team.
Narduzzi said he hasn’t seen many deep balls thrown or caught through five days of drills.

Narduzzi said there was a fight during the closed period Thursday. He made some unidentified players run gassers as punishment for disrupting the flow of practice, but he didn’t seem concerned.
“I love the way they’re competing,” he said. “Nice, little fight today we had to control. Looked like a brawl out there. Sometimes, that happens. But I love the attitude of the team.”
He also didn’t reveal who broke up the fight, only to confirm he didn’t get involved.
“I stay out of fights. We just get hit. We’re too old for that,” he said.

Bishop McCort coach Brian Basile was back at practice Thursday, with a big treat for Narduzzi and his staff.
Basile tries to connect with Pitt’s coaches when they recruit in and around Johnstown, and he likes to take them to lunch at his restaurant, Pizza-Deli Six Pack. Thursday, Basile brought a pan of hot sausage for the coaches’ lunch.
A bit of payback for Narduzzi allowing him to watch Pitt video and pick the coaches’ brains. Basile teaches and employs many of Pitt’s defensive concepts at Bishop McCort.

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March 21, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Revised Pitt blog: Speaking of Lyke, jumping jacks and running backs

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The Pitt football team welcomed a visitor to the fourth day of drills Tuesday morning, and athletic director Heather Lyke offered the players the ultimate challenge.
During her brief talk — less than two minutes — she reminded the players that 1976 was the most recent time Pitt has won a national championship. When she asked how many of them were alive then, only coach Pat Narduzzi raised his hand.
“I was 7,” she said.
I couldn’t get close enough to hear everything, but she did say (with some emphasis): “You’ve done it before.”
Later, Lyke did what Narduzzi called “Pitt jacks” with the team, shouting out P-I-T-T. “Pitt jacks” are the jumping jacks my high school gym teacher, George Allen (not the Redskins coach), said I couldn’t do properly a half-century ago.
In Lyke, Pitt has found a dynamic presence to replace Scott Barnes, who also was able to command a room when he entered it. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said the same of Lyke when she arrived for her job interview.
After her introductory news conference Monday, Lyke is in town only for the day — long enough to get in her daily (except Christmas) 5-mile (more or less) run, do a radio interview and watch practice. She’ll return to Eastern Michigan for the rest of the week to tie up some loose ends.
Her first day on the job at Pitt will be next Tuesday, which is a dramatic change from how Barnes got started. Hired in April, 2015, he didn’t start until June.

Lyke is an impressive public speaker, and she had a lot to say Monday. But the one quote that struck me above all else was this one that, she said, came from former Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger :
“The decisions we make impact the lives of other people’s children.” Then, she repeated those last three words. Perhaps those words need to be framed and hung in the office of every coach, teacher and administrator.

Met with running back coach Andre Powell after practice, and he had some interesting things to say about the guys in his room now, and those arriving this summer.
Asked about junior Qadree Ollison, he said, “The first couple days he really made an improvement. He’s shown some verbal leadership skills.”
And now? “I think (Chawntez) Moss caught up to him a little bit (Tuesday),” Powell said. “He was ahead of Moss until (Tuesday). But I’m pleased with where (Ollison) is physically.”
The room will change this summer when freshmen A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley arrive. Coaches are expecting to use both players this year.
Powell was making no promises, but he said of the freshmen: “They need to come in with the mindset that they’re the starter.”
Are the veterans ready for the challenge?
“They’re aware,” he said. “They’ve been made aware that we have talented guys coming in. We don’t recruit backups. We don’t recruit kids we don’t think are good. We recruit kids we think can come in and play. It makes everybody better.”
Junior Darrin Hall is sitting out the spring with an injury (at least, so far, he is), and Powell said Hall will have work to do when he returns.
“The biggest thing is going to be mentally,” he said “Anytime a guy comes back from a leg injury, they’ve got to feel confident sticking it in the ground. That’s the biggest hurdle.”

New kicker Alex Kessman showed off a strong leg, with a couple of long, high field goals (42 and 45 yards) before he missed from 48.

We also noticed Jordan Whitehead moving to free safety (a coverage position) and redshirt freshman Phil Campbell at strong safety. Just an experiment, of course. That’s the reason spring ball exists.
I don’t know if Pitt can afford to lose Whitehead’s tackling ability at strong safety, but he’s a better cover safety than any of his 2016 secondary teammates, so there’s that.

I also ran into a couple of high school coaches, Upper St. Clair’s Jim Render and Bishop McCort’s Brian Basile.
Render is checking out two of his former players, senior defensive end Rori Blair and redshirt freshman guard Brandon Ford. A third — offensive lineman Gabe Houy – will arrive this summer. Render said he’ll miss Houy’s athleticism on this year’s team.
This will be Render’s 39th season at Upper St. Clair (54th overall). I’d say he’s found his calling.
It was good to see Basile, who always reminds me of my days — in another life — covering the Pittsburgh Power indoor football team. Basile was an assistant coach for the now-defunct Power earlier this decade.

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March 18, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Hendrix’s recovery will be worth watching

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Pitt wore pads for the first time Saturday — the third day of spring drills — but reporters were ushered out before the hitting got intense.
Later, coach Pat Narduzzi said the session was full of enthusiasm and passion, as you might expect he’d say. He also had praise for freshman offensive tackle Jerry Drake, an early enrollee. “He isn’t playing like a freshman,” Narduzzi said.
Narduzzi called practice a “thud” session in which they try to keep guys off the ground as much as possible. There will be plenty of time to hit for real later this spring and in the summer.
One observation (from me): Defensive end Dewayne Hendrix looks different. He is listed at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds (same as last year), but he’s noticeably bigger and thicker (especially in the upper body). It looks like good weight, too.
With the loss of Ejuan Price to graduation, Pitt needs Hendrix to be great. Coaches were expecting that last season before his foot injury in the opener kept him on the sideline for the rest of the season.
Hendrix is limited now while coaches try to nurture him back to health, but he’s still suiting up and that’s better than spending time with the trainers.
The defensive end rotation includes James Folston and Rori Blair as bookends on the first team, with Allen Edwards and Kaezon Pugh on the second team.
All but Pugh are juniors and seniors; they’re older, but only Blair has logged significant playing time at Pitt.
In the middle of the line are senior tackle Jeremiah Taleni and Keyshon Camp, a redshirt freshman.
Elijah Zeise and Sean Idowu continue to man outside linebacker, with Saleem Brightwell showing his versatility and football sense by lining up in the middle.
Narduzzii said defensive end Patrick Jones and Pugh “showed some good things … Camp is really playing well. We have numbers at least, as long as we stay healthy.”

Pitt offensive line coach John Peterson continues to experiment. Saturday, it was redshirt freshman walk-on Jimmy Morrissey lining up with the 1s at right guard, with Connor Dintino at center and Alex Officer at left guard. Junior Alex Bookser is the starter at right guard, but Peterson needs to find depth up and down his line. Jaryd Jones-Smith was back at his accustomed right tackle spot after Tony Pilato spent some time there Friday.
Again (and I keep repeating this), that was only at the outset of practice in the viewing window (which stretched from the usual 30 to almost 45 minutes).
The development of players such as Morrissey and Pilato will be key if the line is hit with injuries during the season.

We did get to see the latest scholarship recipient Alex Kessman showing of a strong leg, hitting once from midfield, but also missing a few from shorter distances.

Big day for director of player development Bob Junko. Along with new director of player personnel Graham Wilbert and director of recruiting Mark Diethorn, Junko welcomed 19 high school prospects to practice. He said he plans to get about 19,000 steps on his Fitbit.

Among the been-there, done-that crowd were three Woodland Hills graduates in various stages of their post-Pitt life.
Lafayette Pitts is preparing for his second season with the Miami Dolphins, Price is back from the NFL Combine and getting ready for Pitt’s Pro Day on Wednesday and Mike Caprara is helping the coaching staff as a volunteer assistant.
It was interesting to see them standing together, watching practice.

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March 17, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Leaders, of a sort, emerge during Pitt’s second day of spring drills

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It’s been well-documented this week that Pitt is looking for leaders after the loss of one of the best group of seniors in more than a decade.
OK, here were the leaders Friday morning — or, at least, the guys in the front of the lines — when the team did its calisthenics as part of the first 30 minutes of the second day of spring drills.
Senior offensive lineman Alex Officer , junior offensive tackle Brian O’Neill, junior right guard Alex Bookser, senior wide receiver Jester Weah, junior running back Qadree Ollison, junior linebacker Seun Idowu, senior quarterback Max Browne, senior defensive end Rori Blair and junior fullback George Aston.
Of course, there could be others leading the lines Saturday and in subsequent days, but that’s what it looked like Friday. Each player deserves whatever distinction leading calisthenics carries with it because they’ve all been productive members of the team — with the exception of Browne — at various times over the years.
Every player on the list will be a starter at some point, if not for the entire season.
Browne, a first-year transfer from USC, is the quarterback and that automatically entitles him to a bit of swag. Although, by all accounts, he has shown no sense of entitlement, which is probably one of the reasons coaches placed him at the front of one of the lines.
Weah has been a quiet guy through his first four years at Pitt. But when you average 24.2 yards every time you make a catch, you deserve to stand up and be heard.

Coaches continued to experiment with the offensive line, but nothing dramatic.
Hempfield’s Tony Pilato lined up with the first team at right tackle, at least in one drill during the open practice session. Jaryd Jones-Smith was at right tackle Thursday, but he got some work at left tackle with the second team Friday.
Officer took snaps at center with Connor Dintino moving to left guard. That was a swap of positions from Thursday.
You should know, however, that occurred during only one five-minute session on a Friday in March with no game scheduled for nearly six months.
Still, it’s not outrageous to believe O’Neill, Officer, Dintino, Bookser and Jones-Smith will be the starting offensive linemen, from left to right, Sept. 2 against Youngstown State.
Dintino is the only one of the group who hasn’t started a game on the offensive line. He was a starting fullback for last year’s opener. If Dintino can handle the center duties, moving Officer to left guard looks like the right move.
The problem is developing depth. None of the backups have any significant experience, but that’s why teams practice in the spring.
Offensive line coaches will try different combinations in March, April and August, but when the games start, I bet the same five are intact every day (barring injury).

If you’re not aware, there is a fifth quarterback on the roster behind Browne, Ben DiNucci, Thomas MacVittie and freshman Kenny Pickett. Indiana High School graduate Jake Zilinskas is on the roster as a walk-on. I’ve been told this could be the strongest quarterback room at Pitt in many years.

Kicker Alex Kessman, a redshirt freshman from Clarkston, Mich., was banging field goals from inside the 40. He didn’t try any longer kicks during the open window.
The good news is that Kessman, a former walkon, has been awarded a scholarship, bringing Pitt up to the maximum number allowed (85). That includes 23 freshmen, most of whom haven’t arrived yet.
“We promised him when (Chris) Blewitt left, he’d have one,” coach Pat Narduzzi said. “He earned it. But you still have to go make the kick.”

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March 16, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Spring football brings back a good memory

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First day of Pitt’s spring drills (although the calendar says winter) and you can be sure of this over all else:
Coach Pat Narduzzi will wear shorts (he did) inside the chilly practice facility.
Today marked my seventh year covering Pitt spring football, and it doesn’t look much different than it did under Todd Graham and Paul Chryst:
Lots of whistles piercing the air, coaches barking instructions during drills, injured guys off in the corner or just watching with sad faces and the obligatory “Practice is now closed to the media” from director of football operations Ben Mathers when the viewing window ends for reporters. Mathers, a good guy who works hard, seems to enjoy saying that a bit too much.
The first day always reminds me of former offensive line coach Jim Hueber, probably my favorite Pitt assistant of all-time.
The first day of drills in 2012 — Chryst’s first year — I walked in the back door of the facility and there was Hueber, sitting on a golf cart. The players hadn’t arrived yet, so Hueber had a minute to chat.
He introduced himself to me — that doesn’t always happen — and we chatted for a few minutes. He referenced Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who was on the same Vikings staff with Hueber.
Hueber was proud of his coaching career, which stretched into five decades, as well he should be.
Hueber is retired now, living in Minnesota last I heard. I talked to him three years ago when the Vikings drafted former Pitt offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings, who arrived as a defensive end and left as rich NFL offensive lineman.
Clemmings moved to offense at Chryst’s urging and learned the nuances of the position under Hueber. I always enjoyed talking to him about the line. He was an old-school guy who didn’t accept any excuses from his kids, always looked out for their well-being and was honest with the media.
His son Joe, who worked in Pitt’s recruiting office, is now with the Green Bay Packers as a scouting assistant. Hope to see Joe on Wednesday at Pitt’s Pro Day when the place will be overrun with NFL scouts.
Here is the list of 19 former Pitt players (11 of whom are WPIAL or City League products) who will work out for the scouts:
Offensive linemen: Adam Bisnowaty, Dorian Johnson and John Guy.
Running back: James Conner.
Quarterbacks: Nathan Peterman and Manny Stocker.
Wide receiver: Dontez Ford.
Tight ends: Scott Orndoff and Jaymar Parrish.
Defensive linemen: Ejuan Price, Tyrique Jarrett and Shakir Soto.
Linebackers: Matt Galambos and Bam Bradley.
Defensive backs: Ryan Lewis, Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb.
Kicker: Chris Blewitt.
Long snapper: Pat Quirin.

Speaking of the Packers, new Pitt quarterback Max Browne is wearing No. 4. No, I’m not making a comparison.
But No. 4 also was Nathan Peterman’s number and Browne almost apologized Thursday morning for taking it.
“I didn’t want to step on Peterman’s toes, by any means, but that’s what I’ve been for a while,” Browne said.
Browne said he took the number in high school because he was — you guessed it — a Brett Favre fan.
“He’s a good guy to look up to, a gunslinger,” Browne said.

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March 9, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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A college basketball insider’s view of the Dukes, NCAA Tournament and “Rocky” movies (I know this is a Pitt football blog, but let’s see if you can find the Narduzzi reference)

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Tough loss for the Dukes on Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena. Coach Jim Ferry called it the toughest he’s been involved with since he began his coaching career in 1990.
Well into the second half, with the Dukes beating Saint Louis by as many as 18 points, I was planning my Thursday. I wanted to get everything done in advance of the Dukes’ second-round game against George Washington. Off to the side, Duquesne women’s coach Dan Burt told me he thought the Dukes would win that one, too.
Burt knows his hoops, but it never happened. The victory would have been only Duquesne’s second Atlantic 10 Tournament victory since 2009. More importantly, it would have been a springboard into next season, with four starters returning.
Instead, this season ends with a 10-22 record. Except for the last 24 seconds — where one rebound, one foul shot, one less turnover could have changed everything — the Dukes played better than their record.
Looking for some basketball wisdom, I dialed up CBS Sports Network college basketball insider Jon Rothstein (follow him on Twitter @JonRothstein).
I’m guessing a guy who admits to watching parts of either “Rocky II,” “Rocky III” or “Rocky IV” before going on the air isn’t afraid to swing for the fences. His opinions about Duquesne, the rest of the A-10 Tournament and the upcoming NCAA Tournament are intriguing.
First of all, he said not only does Ferry deserve to keep his job, but he added, “Duquesne should make a commitment to him.”
“There are reasons why Duquesne has had such poor won-lost records. They keep getting rid of coaches every five or six years. You can’t have success that way.”
Didn’t the Trib’s Kevin Gorman write that very thing a few days ago? Yeah, he did.
For the record, I counted up the losing and the coaches: The Dukes haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1977 under John Cinicola. Since then, they have had nine coaches and 27 losing seasons in 40 years.
Ron Everhart never should have been fired, but that’s another story. That’s not a jab at Ferry, who I believe is the right man for the job. He did lure to the Bluff promising freshmen and A-10 All-Rookie team members Mike Lewis II and Isiaha Mike. This is the first time the Dukes have had two freshmen so honored in the same season.
More interesting takes from Rothstein:
— He doesn’t think Dayton coach Archie Miller, a Blackhawk and N.C. State graduate, will take the job at his college alma mater. “Archie is too smart not to acknowledge,” Rothstein said, “that he is in the company of guys who figure out the grass is always greener on the other side until you have to pay the other guy’s water bill.”
His point: Mid-major coaches such as Miller, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and Gonzaga’s Mark Few have good situations at their schools, and don’t need to jump (and haven’t done so) at the first Power 5-type job that comes along.
— Put on the spot, Rothstein picked No. 4 seed Rhode Island — not No. 1 Dayton — to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament that resumes Thursday with four second-round games and concludes at 12:30 p.m. Sunday with the championship game at PPG (and also on Channel 2). Rhode Island is 21-9, but more importantly 11-3 since mid-January.
You can see Rhode Island meet either St. Bonaventure or UMass at 2:30 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals. I wonder if Pat Narduzzi will be there to support his alma mater.
— Rothstein said there is so much parity in college basketball this season that the four presumed No. 1 seeds — North Carolina, Kansas, Villanova and Gonzaga — aren’t locks to advance to the Final Four. Of Kansas, he said: “I have major questions about what the Jayhawks can do defensively up front.”
His pick: Oregon, a team he said has seven starter-caliber players.
“The Ducks have a large number of players who went through the scenario last year. They are older and they have a little bit more firepower than they had last year,” he said.
He added Oregon’s Dillon Brooks “has the gene in his DNA” to carry a team through six games.

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March 8, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt at the NFL Combine: Some guys made themselves some money

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While en route to looking up something else, I came across another in a long line of mock drafts where NFL writers and bloggers try to predict what NFL executives and coaches are thinking.
These things appear almost from the day the NFL draft ends to the moment before the Cleveland Browns make the first pick the following year (most years, right?). Each mock is different than the next.
This one, authored by Matt Miller of Bleacher Report (follow him at @NFLdraftscout), carries significance to me, even though almost two months remain before the big three-day party April 27-29.
Miller writes about the top prospects and predicts all seven rounds, based on workouts at the recently concluded NFL Combine.
I looked up the five Pitt players Miller believes will get drafted. All of them opened some eyes at the Combine. He left tight end Scott Orndoff undrafted, a mistake I’ll address later.
1. Miller predicts quarterback Nathan Peterman will be the first pick of the third round (No. 65) by the Browns, one spot before the 49ers take Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya.
Peterman, 6-2, 226, ran a 4.82 40 at the Combine with a 31-inch vertical leap. North Carolina’s Mitchell (Don’t Call Me Mitch) Trubisky , considered a first-round pick (No. 3 to the Bears), ran faster (4.67) and is 4 pounds lighter on the same-size 6-2 frame. Peterman had a better vertical leap by 3 1/2 inches.
Here is some of what an anonymous NFC director of personnel said about Peterman on NFL.com: “I like him. He made me a believer when I watched him against Clemson. … has to prove he has enough arm to challenge the same tight windows he did in college.”
2. Next among Pitt players on Miller’s list is guard Dorian Johnson , 98th to the Carolina Panthers in the third round. Johnson, 6-5, 300, ran a 5.27 and pushed up 225 pounds 21 times on the bench press. An unidentified NFC South scout, quoted on NFL.com, described Johnson as a “10-year starter.”
Unless I’m missing someone, Johnson will become the first Belle Vernon graduate to play in the NFL since former Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. Belle Vernon fans, help me out.
3. Pitt offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty ran a 5.23 with 23 bench presses. Miller projects Bisnowaty, 6-6, 304, going to the Cardinals in the fourth round (120).
Here’s what NFL.com wrote about Bisnowaty: “In a phone booth, Bisnowaty can handle himself with pure brawn and power, but once he’s forced to play in space, his athletic limitations become more pronounced.”
Just to compare: Utah offensive tackle Garett Bolles (first round, No. 20 to the Broncos) ran 4.95 and didn’t lift. His 28-inch vertical was 2 inches short of Johnson’s and 1 1/2 inches short of Bisnowaty.
4. I believe James Conner did himself some good at the Combine, running a 4.65 and recording 20 bench presses — the latter number not that far behind his offensive line teammates.
Conner, 6-1, 233, has trimmed down since the end of the season and maybe his two months of training improved his speed. Miller says Conner will go to the Eagles in the fourth round (139).
NFL.com about Conner: “Arm tackles are a waste of time. Conner’s lack of speed and reactive quickness could limit his role as a pro, but his heart, work ethic and ability to keep the chains moving could make him a red-zone specialist with the ability to handle some third down duties as well.”
Just to compare: Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, who ran a 4.49 with 22 reps on the bench, is projected to go 19th overall to the Buccaneers.
5. Edge rusher Ejuan Price, 5-11, 241, is projected to go in the sixth round (200) to the Colts. He ran a 4.84 with 20 bench reps. NFL.com quoted an NFC scouting director on Price: “He’s got some physical limitations, which will keep him from getting picked early, but I see an NFL rusher.”
NFL.com reported further: “Can be quick to shut motor down if he doesn’t think a tackle is within range. Appeared gassed at times.”
6. OK, what about Orndoff, who ran a 4.84 and did 17 bench presses at the Combine on a 6-5, 253 frame?
An NFC North scout had an interesting observation on NFL.com: “He will get better as a blocker, but he’s as good as what we have now.”
If that’s true, Orndoff will get drafted because, as a downfield receiver, he has shown the ability to split the seam in a defense.

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March 8, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Every victory is good, even this one

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Quick-hit thoughts on Pitt’s 61-59 victory against Georgia Tech in the first round of the ACC Tournament:
— Georgia Tech is bad. Pitt is better, but just barely.
— If the Yellow Jackets earn an NCAA Tournament berth — coach Josh Pastner thinks his eight ACC victories are enough — someone on the selection committee isn’t paying close enough attention.
— Pitt’s 13 turnovers were nearly twice as many as Georgia Tech committed, a fact coach Kevin Stallings noted after the game. You win a game when you’re that sloppy with the ball only if the other team can’t score (and Georgia Tech missed 40 of 62 shots from the field and six of 17 free throws).
— Pitt won the game with an 11-0 counter-punch in the second half after Georgia Tech had rallied to take a lead.
Cam Johnson’s foul trouble limited him to 26 minutes, four shots and five points. Pitt will need his shooting touch Wednesday night in the second round against Virginia.
— Pitt led, 58-51, with 38 seconds left, but here’s what followed: A foul by Chris Jones, a turnover when Pitt couldn’t inbound the ball and three missed free throws after the Panthers had hit 11 of their first 12. It wasn’t a miraculous or surprising victory, but far short of Pitt’s most impressive of the season.
— Yet, single-digit victories say a lot about the players’ fight (something else Stallings noted after the game).
— Would a victory against Virginia put Pitt in the NIT? My guess is no, but there are a limited number of teams worthy of the post-season. An ugly record of 17-17 might be good enough in this age of everyone getting a ride on the merry-go-round.
— Betcha can’t guess the only other team that failed to score 60 points against Pitt this season … Maryland, the 25th-ranked team in the nation. Pitt won that game by four, its first of three victories against teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 (Florida State and Virginia).

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March 7, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Johnson, Luther may play important roles in Pitt’s 2017-2018 season.

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Tuesday night in Brooklyn, N.Y., Cam Johnson may repeat his ACC Tournament effort of last season when he scored 24 points to help Pitt beat Syracuse.
Pitt might actually beat Georgia Tech in its first-round game. The Yellow Jackets lost by 29 at Syracuse on Saturday and are only 2-4 over the past three weeks.
But no matter what happens to the Panthers in Brooklyn, N.Y., this week (short of an improbable run to the title game), nothing will be as important as coach Kevin Stallings’ recent meetings with Johnson and Ryan Luther.
There is nothing Pitt needs more going into next season than mature leaders with an adult approach to the game. Stallings believes Johnson and Luther will provide it.
“I’m very hopeful of Cam’s and Ryan’s abilities to lead this program going forward,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we’ve already begun conversations about that.
“Both of them have some of what it takes to lead this program in a good way. It will require some work from all of us because I don’t think they have been in a role of having a strong voice, but they’re going to need to have a strong voice.”
Johnson used his big game against Syracuse last year to springboard into his first season as a regular starter when he averaged 11.8 points per game and led the team with 74 successful 3-point shots (2.4 per game, eighth in the ACC).
When I asked Johnson, who will be a junior in 2017-2018, if he was ready to be a leader, he sounded insulted.
“Of course,” he said. “I’m ready to be a leader this season, next season, whenever we need it.”
That’s good because upperclassmen leadership, something that helped carry the Pitt football team last season, is lacking in basketball.
Luther, who will be the only senior with extensive experience next year, also could point the way for what will be a young team. Stallings has seven new players who have committed to enroll next school year.
Luther led the team in shooting percentage (54.5), an indication of a smart player who is willing to sacrifice stats for the team. Luther averaged only 4.3 shots per game.
“You want your best players to be leaders, you want your oldest guys to be leaders,” Stallings said. “The way (Johnson and Luther) handle their business on and off the court, they will be in a position to impact the other guys on the team in a positive way.”

Sheldon Jeter was caught looking past Georgia Tech when he saw how the ACC Tournament bracket developed for the Panthers.
The way he sees it, Pitt could be matched through the quarterfinals with three teams it can beat or has defeated — Georgia Tech, Virginia and Notre Dame.
“Georgia Tech, we let them off the hook,” he said of a 61-52 loss in Atlanta last week in which Pitt led at halftime.
(He has a point: Georgia Tech has scored 70 points only once in its past 10 ACC games. I’m not counting a 96-58 victory against Division II Tusculum that coach Josh Pastner shamelessly scheduled just to get an easy victory.)
“Notre Dame, we really let them off the hook (in a 78-77 overtime loss on New Year’s Eve),” Jeter said. “We blew two five-point leads in overtime and regulation.
“With Virginia (last Saturday), we just didn’t have people take care of business and it affected us on the court.”
Jeter was referring to Michael Young and Jamel Artis getting punished and benched for the first 10 minutes of the 67-42 loss. Pitt defeated Virginia at the Pete on Jan. 4, 88-76, in overtime.
Pitt lost to those teams for a reason, but give Jeter credit for setting lofty goals. It was poet Robert Browning who wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” (Couldn’t resist the reference.)
But Pitt hasn’t won more than two in a row since December when it won five against Buffalo, Penn State, Rice, Omaha and Marshall. It will be a bit different in Brooklyn for a team whose point total fell from 80 against Florida State and Syracuse to 63, 59, 67, 52 and 42.
No matter, Jeter said. “It’s a chance for us to show if we have some pride or not. I know one thing, I’m ready and I’m not going up there to lose, either.”

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