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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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May 19, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Penn State/Pitt will kickoff at noon: Get over it

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Let’s get something straight before Twitter blows up:
THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH STARTING A COLLEGE FOOTBALL GAME AT NOON.
Should I count the reasons?
1. It’s only one hour before most Steelers kick times.
2. It gives you time to, say, party until midnight, sleep until 8 (a sound seven-to-eight hours, which is more than most college students get during the week), tailgate until 11:30 and walk inside Heinz Field. As Bill Cowher used to say, “What’s wrong with that?”
3. And, remember, there’s nothing wrong with moderation Friday and a good, clean party after the game (yeah, right!).
4. A noon kick gives you plenty of time to get back in the library by late afternoon and still go out to dinner with mom and dad that night.
5. If it started at, say, 1:30 p.m., you could only watch it on ESPN3 (as is the case with the Villanova/Pitt game the previous week).
Do I need to go on?
When the ACC announced Thursday morning a noon kickoff time at Heinz Field for the renewal of the Penn State/Pitt rivalry on Sept. 10, some fans were bound to complain. For example:
The requisite sarcasm.
Placing blame on the poor Pirates.
And this one.
Good humor from super Pitt fan @Sta7ic .
A warning
I did like this one.
They’re even blaming Jerry Sandusky
Tailgaters also aren’t happy. As one fan told me, “Who wants to eat steak at 9 o’clock in the morning?”
Let’s make something clear: Pitt fans should be happy ESPN and ABC are even considering putting one of Pitt’s games on TV. It’s great exposure for the program and can set up Pitt for an early appearance in the Top 25, if it can win the game impressively.
College games are played at noon all over the country, and those schools have no trouble filling their stadiums. It’s a traditional start time, and makes sense for the participants, fans (most of them) and people watching at home. Newspaper people love it, too, because games end way before deadline, but nobody ever asked for my opinion.
The Pirates aren’t going to trade places and start their game down the street at PNC Park at noon so Pitt can play at 7. It’s too much of a dramatic shift for their fans, and just unrealistic to expect it. And who said the networks even want Penn State/Pitt in prime time?
Noon is perfect for college football. If you don’t like it, adjust. That’s life.

Coach Pat Narduzzi met with reporters Thursday night at the Pitt script unveiling at Petersen Events Center. It was a night of celebration for a long overdue return of the script logo, and it was good to see some fans there who you normally only connect with on social media.
Narduzzi is pleased with his new uniforms, of course. He helped design them, after all. He would have liked to change them before last season, but as a rookie coach he had to wait a year.
He did offer his thoughts on the satellite camp controversy currently circulating throughout college football.
Narduzzi has been on record opposing the camps, just like most of the coaches in the ACC and SEC. But now that the NCAA has reversed its ban and allowed them to exist, Narduzzi believes he has no choice but to embrace the concept (if only with a half-hearted hug) to keep up with everyone else. To ignore them could be a recruiting disaster.
He said he will have some specifics about Pitt’s participation in the camps later this spring, but he did say his entire staff will participate. How many and where is yet to be announced.
“I’m still against it,” Narduzzi said. “But I’m not going to sit home and twiddle my thumbs. I don’t think it’s good for the game. I don’t think it’s good for the coaches. I don’t think it’s good for our kids.
“I’d like to be around our guys. It takes us away from our kids. Eventually, it will be get phased out.”

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May 16, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Is Pitt nine points better than Penn State?

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Las Vegas bookmakers caused a bit of a stir last week when a betting line emerged for the Penn State/Pitt game. What do you know? Pitt is a nine-point favorite.
If that sounds a bit generous for those folks who want to put a dollar or two on Penn State, can’t say that I disagree.
I’m a bit perplexed because the line is designed to get equal money on both sides. I can see taking the nine and betting Penn State. But giving the nine an expecting Pitt to cover in its first FBS game without Tyler Boyd … I don’t know.
But I understand the thinking behind the number.
First, the game is at Heinz Field. Pitt was only 3-3 there last year, but the home field is still considered about a three-point advantage.
Add another couple of points for Pitt’s edge with a returning quarterback. Nate Peterman enjoyed some success last year while Trace McSorley was merely a backup to Christian Hackenberg.
But those two factors don’t account for nine points. I believe the Vegas perception of fans’ perception of Pitt and Penn State is that there is more trust and belief in what coach Pat Narduzzi is doing at Pitt than what James Franklin has done in his first two years.
And that’s not to minimize what Franklin has done and is doing in recruiting. Pitt assembled a fine recruiting class in 2016 — 31st in the nation, its best in eight years, according to Rivals.com rankings — but Penn State was better at No. 24. And Franklin is off to a good start for 2017, with eight verbals, compared to three for Pitt.
But that is largely paper perception. Victories and defeats matter and Franklin has put together back-to-back 7-6 seasons while Narduzzi was 8-5 in his first year.
It will be interesting to watch the nine-point line as the calendar approaches Sept. 10. So much can change over the summer that the line is certain to fluctuate.
I think Pitt can beat Penn State (and with several more difficult games on the schedule, it’s almost a must win for the Panthers), but will it be by a margin of a touchdown and a field goal?
That’s why they call it gambling.
One more note: I appeared with Josh Taylor on TribLive Radio last week, filling in (trying to) for Chris Peak. Those are some big shoes to fill. Josh and I discussed James Conner’s recovery, Chad Voytik’s new home and more. Give a listen.

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May 5, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Robinson’s Orange Arrow aims to point youth in the right direction

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Shawn Robinson was once one of the best cornerbacks in the Big East.
He set and still holds the Pitt record for pass breakups in a season (18, 2000). He returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown in a 38-13 victory against Oregon State in the 2002 Insight Bowl. Not only was it the first punt returned for a touchdown in Pitt’s bowl history, but it was the school’s most decisive post-season victory in nearly 40 years.
Some of the details of Robinson’s Pitt career escape him, but he remembers vividly the day recently when a 12-year-old boy walked up to him and said, “I’m a gentleman now. I open doors for ladies.”
Those are the type of life lessons Robinson teaches — and directs others to teach — as founder and president of Orange Arrow, a non-profit organization with a $250,000 budget that tries to lead young student-athletes (ages 10-13) toward off-the-field success.
Robinson, who founded Orange Arrow in 2013, said his group has coached almost 200 boys at several locations in the Pittsburgh area, including Wilkinsburg, McKees Rocks, Shadyside, Garfield and Regent Square. The skills taught range from “how to tie a tie to how to treat a lady,” he said.
Among Robinson’s points of emphasis to student-athletes are these sobering statistics from the NCAA:
Only 3.4 percent and 6.5 percent of high school basketball and football players, respectively, continue their playing careers in college. The NBA and NFL percentages are 1.2 and 1.6.
Among those who help spread the word through sports-themed programs and instruction are several Pitt football players, including Mike Caprara, Ryan Lewis, Jordan Whitehead, Avonte Maddox and Darryl Render.
The services are free, thanks to gifts from the Heinz Endowments and sponsorships from UPMC and Highmark. Former Woodland Hills and NFL player Lousaka Polite, who played with Robinson at Pitt, also has made a personal donation, Robinson said.
As part of its fund-raising efforts, Orange Arrow will hold a black-tie ball Sept. 9 — the night before the Pitt/Penn State game at Heinz Field — at Auto Palace Porsche on Baum Boulevard. Former players from both teams are expected to attend.
For more information, you can contact Robinson at info@orangearrow.org.

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April 19, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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One more look at Pitt’s spring drills

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi officially put a cap on spring drills Tuesday when players gathered on the South Side for lunch:
Steak and lobster for the winners (the Blue defeated the Gold, 19-17).
Franks and beans for the losers.
Meanwhile, I appeared on TribLive Radio with Tim Benz and Josh Taylor and offered this possibility for the Pitt season: The Panthers could have a better team, but with an inferior regular-season record to last season’s 8-4.
Road games against Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Miami and Clemson give Pitt, perhaps, the most difficult schedule in the ACC.
If Pitt loses all four, it must do no worse than 8-0 in its other games to reach 8-4. That’s still a good season because it would include victories against Villanova, Penn State, Marshall, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke and Syracuse.
But if Pitt manages to win two of its four most difficult games and takes care of business against the others, you’re talking about the first double-digit victory total in the regular season in more than three decades (1981).
Let me know what you think. Tweet your predicted victory total to @JDiPaola_Trib.
The day of the spring game, I presented questions that need answered at every position. Here are the questions and how they were answered:
Quarterback
Finding a backup is important, but the more pressing need is to ensure senior starter Nathan Peterman takes the next step in his development: Throw deeper, maintain accuracy, spread passes to people not named Tyler Boyd, including those who play running back and tight end.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Peterman completed 11 of 22 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns. He played much better in the second half.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: If Peterman develops some rhythm with Dontez Ford, Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson, the passing game will perform better than most people expect.
Running back
Quick-learning freshman Chawntez Moss has turned into a nice story, but what about the veterans?
Narduzzi initially will lean on Qadree Ollison, Darrin Hall and Rachid Ibrahim. If James Conner returns and runs with the same power and passion he displayed two years ago, the four others become backups. In any case, the running game has a chance to be Pitt’s biggest asset.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Moss carried only seven times for 28 yards and Hall and Ollison combined for 29 attempts. Overall, the running game was a disappointment (83 yards from four running backs).
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Don’t forget about James Conner, whose recovery from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is going well.
Wide receiver
Pitt’s offense could become imbalanced if the Panthers feel the loss of Boyd too acutely. Injuries this spring to Dontez Ford and Zach Challingsworth didn’t help, but they are expected to recover.
If Ford plays Saturday — he still is an uncertainty — he can make an impact. He’s smart and athletic, a combination coaches love.

SATURDAY’S RESULT: Ford had a good day, especially considering he missed most of the 14 previous practices with a leg injury — four catches, 55 yards.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: I get the feeling Ford will have a big season, enough that opposing defenses will need to know where he is at all times, thus, opening up lanes for the running game.
Tight end
Short on numbers, this position will go as far as senior Scott Orndoff can carry it and offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s play-calling allows.
Orndoff knows how to find the goal line. More than one-third of his receptions have been touchdowns.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Orndoff had a touchdown and a 20-yard reception among his three catches.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Orndoff will compile more receptions, yards and touchdowns than former tight end J.P. Holtz did in any season (somewhere north of 23 receptions, 209 yards and four touchdowns).
Offensive line
Assistant coach John Peterson has as many as seven players he can call on without losing sleep, and the left side with seniors Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson might be the best in the ACC.
Center? Alex Bookser manned it in the spring, but Alex Officer could grab it back when his injury heals. Both can play right guard, too, and John Guy will be there Saturday. Narduzzi believes sophomore right tackle Brian O’Neill can play at the next level.
Where does Jaryd Jones-Smith fit? No. 1 backup at tackle and guard, perhaps, but with experience as a starter.

SATURDAY’S RESULTS: Too many sacks (four) and TFLs (11).
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Officer’s recovery will do wonders for this unit’s stability. When Narduzzi settles on five starting offensive linemen, Pitt’s ground game will be just fine. From left, it will look something like this: Tackle Adam Bisnowaty, guard Dorian Johnson, center Alex Bookser or Alex Officer, guard Officer or Bookser and tackle Brian O’Neill
Defensive line
Keep an eye on Bisnowaty at left tackle when he lines up opposite end Dewayne Hendrix. It might be the highlight of the day: Pitt’s best offensive lineman against a potentially destructive pass rusher.
In the fall, it will be interesting to see how opponents block Pitt’s line because Ejuan Price has 16 1⁄2 career sacks at the opposite end. Plus, tackles Tyrique Jarrett at 335 pounds and former end Shakir Soto offer a blend of beef and a burst.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Bisnowaty and Hendrix had good moments, Hendrix ending up with a sack and two quarterback hurries.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: This could turn out to be a disruptive front four, with more quickness than Pitt opponents have seen in a long time.
Linebacker
Narduzzi can’t list this position as a strength because three players he was counting on — Bam Bradley, Quintin Wirginis and Anthony McKee — didn’t practice due to shoulder injuries.
Mike Caprara and Matt Galambos are solid fixtures, but there’s a spot open at outside linebacker. Any of five players can fill it, which is good for depth, but can any of them become playmakers? Coaches hope they won’t be afraid of the answer.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Elijah Zeise had a game-high eight tackles and Caprara added seven.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Bradley may be the most athletic linebacker on the team, so look for him to earn a starting job.
Defensive back
There is still a lot to do at cornerback, where Ryan Lewis and Phillipie Motley are competing and freshmen Therran Coleman, Damar Hamlin and Henry Miller won’t be ignored.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Lewis was one of eight players with a pass breakup.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: One of the freshmen will play well enough to win the open cornerback job.
Special teams
Avonte Maddox, Quadree Henderson and Jordan Whitehead offer big-play potential as returners. Narduzzi has a sense of security with kicker Chris Blewitt and punter Ryan Winslow back for their fourth and third seasons, respectively.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: There were no returns allowed in the game, Blewitt made his only attempt (40 yards) and Winslow averaged 39.4 per punt.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Henderson has a knack for finding holes in the coverage.

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April 13, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Ford’s return, even on a limited basis, is good news for the regular season

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The good news Tuesday from the 13th day of Pitt’s spring drills was that senior wide receiver Dontez Ford was back.
Maybe on a limited basis and maybe not far enough that coaches will feel comfortable allowing him to play in Saturday’s spring game. But the leg injury suffered on the second day of drills a month ago is healing. Besides, if there was a real game Saturday, Fod said there is no doubt he would play.
“For sure, whenever it comes to the fall and it was something like this, I would be out there the same week,” he said. “I could push right through it. Right now, it’s better to be smart about it.”
The fact that Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is handling Ford with care is an indicator that he believes the passing game largely depends on him. No sense risking further injury when there is no opponent to defeat this week.
Ford and Zach Challingsworth are the only Pitt wide receivers who caught a significant number of passes last year, and Ford led the team with an average of 19.4 yards per catch.
Pitt’s aerial game will be one of the most important focal points of the spring game. Pitt needs a balanced attack to maneuver through a difficult schedule. Among the wide receivers, Ford gives the team the best chance to reach that goal.
It’s also important for Ford to get back on the field because that’s the place where he can best fulfill his other role as a team leader.
He said he served as a mentor for younger players as early as last season, his first as a regular starter.
“I’m going to keep on getting into their heads and trying to help them become better wide receivers, which will in turn help myself,” he said.
“You can’t let little mistakes go and sweep them under the rug. You have to call them out whenever they are doing something wrong. At times, they don’t like it, but that’s what’s going to make them better at the end of the day.”
Because of Ford’s injury, first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada hasn’t seen much of Ford on the field. But he likes what he has seen on video from last season.
“He has that ability to be a matchup issue,” Canada said. “He’s got some physicalness to him. He’s not afraid to go in there and put his face on somebody and make some tough catches.”
If you don’t see that Saturday at Heinz Field, it’s because Narduzzi wants to make sure you see it this fall at Heinz Field.
For a closer look at the things Ford can accomplish off the field, here’s a story that shows he hasn’t forgotten his roots.

Five important members of the defense — safeties Jordan Whitehead and Dennis Briggs, linebacker Mike Caprara and ends Ejuan Price and Dewayne Hendrix – wore yellow jerseys Tuesday to protect them from aggravating minor injuries.
Narduzzi said they are expected to play Saturday. “I don’t think that yellow meant anything,” he said. “If you saw (practice), you would say, `Why do we have so many guys in yellow still smacking people?’ It’s kind of an alert (to other players) that, `Hey, I’m not 100 percent.’ ”

A total of 17 players were limited or not practicing Tuesday due to injuries, but Narduzzi said he expects everyone to be recovered in time for camp in August.

Narduzzi will conduct his second spring game draft Wednesday, with seniors picking players for each team.

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April 11, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Conklin talks Pitt defense on TribLive Radio

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Pitt defensive coordinator Josh Conklin is one of the smartest, most candid assistant coaches I’ve run across in my six seasons covering the team, and he didn’t disappoint when he spoke to my good friend and Trib Total Media colleague Chris Peak on Monday on the “Panther Lair Show” on TribLive Radio.
Among Conklin’s biggest concerns is getting production from interior linemen, something he pointed out was missing last season.
“We all know for us to be really successful and dominant, those guys have to be really good,” Conklin told Peak. “I felt like we left some out there. I don’t think (last year’s defensive tackles) were as productive as they needed to be.”
Conklin also said he hopes to “get back to basics” this season, perhaps decreasing quarterback pressure from defenders who may be of better use elsewhere.
“We ran a lot of pressure, really too much pressure (last year), in my opinion,” he said. “We would like to play more base.”
Conklin also didn’t shut the door on using freshmen at tackle and cornerback, although he said tackle even in the ACC (not known for consistently outstanding interior line play) is a “grown man’s game.”
He didn’t name names, but incoming freshmen (still in high school as I write this) such as tackles Keyshon Camp, Amir Watts and Central Catholic’s Rashad Wheeler and cornerbacks Therran Campbell of Brashear, Damar Hamlin of Central Catholic and Henry Miller could find their way onto the field this season.
“Whoever ends up showing up and gets it and is mature mentally,” Conklin said.
Speaking of cornerback, Conklin said coaches are making some schematic changes to ease pressure on those players, who were often in one-on-one matchups with wide receivers. That was a problem, especially in the Notre Dame game when Will Fuller caught seven passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-30 Irish victory.
“We took some heat in terms of leaving those guys matched up with the Fuller kid,” Conklin said.
But stopping the run is always the No. 1 priority in Pitt’s defense.
“If we take safeties off the run game and start double-teaming the receivers, we are picking our poison,” he said. Interesting comment.
I get the feeling senior linebackers Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara (cerebral guys who know the defense nearly as well as the coaches) are among the coaches’ favorite players.
“They aren’t sexy in terms of their look or their explosiveness,” Conklin said, “but they are good, solid players and they can have really, really good years and really, really solid years for us and be productive and do what we need them to do, for sure.”
The outside linebacker position coaches call the star (where Nicholas Grigsby played last year before graduating) could be a problem. Former wide receiver Elijah Zeise is among several young plays competing for playing time there.
“I think Elijah has a chance because he’s athletic,” Conklin said.
But Bam Bradley and Anthony McKee – two linebackers sitting out the spring with shoulder injuries – could end up there by the end of the summer.
The progress Zeise and the others have made this spring will be interesting to watch in the spring game Saturday at Heinz Field.
By the way, I appeared with Ken Laird and Josh Taylor on TribLive Radio, and we talked about many topics — football and basketball. Give a listen.

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April 8, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Holtz works out daily in hopes of hearing his name during NFL Draft

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When he’s not hanging out at the E Town Bar and Grille in Etna (I hear the fish sandwich kills), former Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz is getting ready for the NFL.
He has visited with several teams, including the Browns, Chargers, Bears, Bengals and Saints. Other than that, he’s working out almost every day – often with his former Pitt teammates at the South Side facility.
“It gets boring sometimes,” Holtz said Friday during an appearance on TribLive Radio. “All you do is work out all day. It’s kind of nice, actually.”
Holtz is ranked the 23rd tight end available in the draft, according to NFLDraftScout.com, after catching 81 passes for 931 yards and 11 touchdowns in four years at Pitt where he never missed a game or practice. In his freshman season, he caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown in Pitt’s near-upset at Notre Dame.
At 6-foot-3, 238 pounds, he could morph into a run-blocking fullback with the ability to catch short flips.
“I’m a pretty decent blocker,” he said. “I’ll do whatever a team needs me to do. I can do both. I really doesn’t matter to me. I just want to play football.”

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April 5, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Tyler Boyd speaks of the Bengals, Civil War and a lesson learned

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Former Pitt wide receiver Tyler Boyd showed up on TribLive Radio on Tuesday, saying he’s spending “a little more chill time” in advance of one of the biggest days of his life — the NFL Draft April 28-30.
He seemed more relaxed than he did in any of his three seasons at Pitt, poking good-natured fun at former teammate James Conner, who one-hopped the ceremonial first pitch to Pirates catcher Chris Stewart on Sunday at PNC Park.
“Once I saw him throw a dirt ball, I was a little shaky on him as an athlete,” said Boyd, who was a three-sport athlete at Clairton (baseball and basketball). “The catcher still caught it. Some people get out there and don’t even make it to the catcher.”
Most mock drafts have indicated Boyd will be a second-round draft choice, and that matches projections he received from the NFL before giving up his last year of college eligibility.
He ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in February, but improved three weeks ago at Pitt’s Pro Day to between 4.47 and 4.52, depending on what NFL stopwatch you use.
“That let them know I wasn’t a mediocre guy,” he said.
He said several teams have asked him about his DUI arrest last year, and he said it was a one-and-done transgression.
“I don’t know if they trust me or not, but they have to take my word that I’m not going to do anything like that again,” he said. “My record is clean, besides that.”
When Boyd was asked by TribLive Radio’s Tim Benz about any weird questions the NFL threw at him, he said the Bengals inquired about his knowledge of Civil War history.
“They asked me what year was the battle of something,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that. If they draft me, I’m going to ask them the same question they asked me to see if they get it right.”
Boyd said he has been in contact with several NFL teams, including the Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin. He said he plans to meet with the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers in the coming days.
Asked how he would react if he was drafted by the Bengals and became teammates with Steelers antagonists Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones, he gave a thoughtful answer.
“Those guys are definite warriors who would help me get better,” he said. “I know I would be hated in Pittsburgh. But, hopefully, I’ll keep the same support here.”
The draft offers no guarantees, and players projected to be picked early often spend a lot of time waiting for their name to be called.
But my pal Joe Butler of Metro Scouting Index, who has watched Boyd since he was a freshman at Clairton, believes he has what it takes.
“Tyler Boyd makes it look easy, snaps ball out of air, always looking up the field, sure fire.”

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March 31, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Idowu opens eyes on the eighth day of spring ball

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Make room in the outside linebacker competition for North Allegheny graduate Seun Idowu.
He is one of three players who came to Pitt at other positions, but have been moved to linebacker to help fill a big hole in the defense left by graduating senior Nicholas Grigsby.
At practice Thursday, Idowu caught everyone’s eye when he recognized a jet sweep by wide receiver Quadree Henderson and made the tackle.
“He was like a jet,” senior middle linebacker Matt Galambos said.
Idowu, who came to Pitt as a walkon, said he remembered the play from previous film study. Earlier in the day, he didn’t make the tackle on a similar play, but he refused to be fooled twice.
“It’s a great feeling to recognize something you saw in the film room,” he said.
Idowu said it takes time for walkons to attract attention.
“The results aren’t always immediate, but you have to keep working,” he said. “Hopefully, at the end of this spring, things will be going the right way and that scholarship is earned.”
One example of a walkon earning a scholarship is fullback George Aston, a sophomore from Stephens City, Va. He played in all 13 games last season, started four and caught eight passes (two for touchdowns).
“I look up to him as a role model,” Idowu said. “He’s a workhorse.”
Idowu, a former safety, plays the outside linebacker position coaches call star. It combines linebacker and safety skill sets.
Idowu is competing with Jalen Williams, who also moved from safety, and former wide receiver Elijah Zeise.
All three will face even more competition this summer when Anthony McKee recovers from shoulder surgery. Coaches also could opt to move seniors Mike Caprara and Bam Bradley from the other side (the money position), if they determine those two, plus Galambos, are the team’s three best linebackers.
That would give Pitt three seniors starting at linebacker (not a bad idea, considering the position is so cerebral). But that decision is a long way off, and will depend on Bradley’s and McKee’s recoveries from their shoulder surgeries and the development of Idowu, Williams and Zeise.
Just another example of how spring ball isn’t always a true indicator of what will happen when the season starts. It’s an important way for coaches to set a base for summer camp, and it keeps players close to the game. But performances and opinions are always subject to change.
It’s five months and two days until the opener against Villanova. That’s a long time.

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March 30, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Halfway home: A quick look at Pitt’s spring roster

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I appeared on TribLive Radio on Wednesday with good friends Guy Junker, Tim Benz and Josh Taylor, and part of the conversation revolved around Conner, his chances of playing this season and the news that he will throw out the first pitch Sunday at PNC Park when the Pirates open the Major League Baseball season against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Here’s the link.

Halfway through spring drills — the actual midway point arrives about 10 a.m. Thursday — Pitt is lining up as a team with question marks at wide receiver, tight end (no depth), outside linebacker and cornerback.
Quarterback looks good in terms of bodies and a seasoned starter in Nathan Peterman, and running back is strong (even without James Conner). The offensive line is OK, and will get even better when Alex Officer returns this summer from his foot injury.
Defensive end? I believe Pitt’s coaches will be disappointed if Dewayne Hendrix doesn’t have an All-ACC season. And there also are veteran hands such as Ejuan Price (All-ACC himself) and Rori Blair.
At defensive tackle, Tyrique Jarrett takes up a lot of space (6-foot-3, 335 pounds), with impressive athleticism. He’s a senior now, and coaches will expect more consistency from him this season.
Outside linebacker (the one that is a hybrid safety/linebacker position) also has a lot of bodies, most of them inexperienced. It could get one more if coaches decide senior Bam Bradley can fill it after his shoulder heals or if they talk themselves into moving Mike Caprara from the other side.
One thing about Caprara: He’ll seldom have a mental lapse. The senior constantly has his nose in his I-pad.
There’s nothing wrong with the secondary that another player such as strong safety Jordan Whitehead couldn’t fix. Will Central Catholic’s Damar Hamlin be this year’s Whitehead — that rare freshman who plays like he’s much older. I get the feeling Pitt will need Hamlin at the cornerback spot opposite Avonte Maddox.
That about covers it. Except this prediction: Chris Blewitt will become the first kicker in school history to hit from 60 yards. If I know Pat Narduzzi, he won’t be afraid to let Blewitt try. Maybe it’s just me, but Blewitt looks a little bigger this year.
And, by the way, who made up this schedule? Oklahoma State and North Carolina on the road after playing Penn State, and back-to-back games at Miami and Clemson. Pitt needs to win one of those five just to have a chance at matching last season’s 8-4 regular-season record.

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