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April 10, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Kasperowicz speaks out on Pitt, the stadium and today’s high school athletes

With no Pitt practice to attend Wednesday, I spent a couple hours before lunch at the Senator John Heinz History Center where the WPIAL announced its eighth class of inductees.
It was there that I ran into one of the inductees — former North Hills quarterback and current Pine-Richland football coach Eric Kasperowicz.
-spoken, experienced and unafraid to express his opinions, he is a good candidate to answer a few questions:
1. What makes high school student-athletes tick?
2. And what do the Pitt graduates in his circle think of the direction in which the football program is headed?
Kasperowicz, who coached high school football for the past 15 years (12 as an assistant to Jack McCurry at North Hills), believes the athletes today have “a sense of entitlement” that wasn’t nearly as evident 20 years ago.
“These kids have this sense that they deserve (starting jobs) without putting the work in,” he said. “When we played, we knew it was hard work. You work hard and do it with the team in mind, you are going to play for me.
“I was raised by some great coaches. The best kids are going to play. I don’t care if  you are 14 or 18.”
To the second question, he said “it’s a mixed bag.”
“We are happy where (the Pitt football program) is going, but the biggest complaint is the stadium … not being on campus and not having that college feel.”
I understand the stadium point of view that seems to be pervasive among many Pitt graduates, but my question is this:
Which Oakland neighborhood and/or hospital gets torn down to make way for a football stadium?
Kasperowicz has a unique relationship with Pitt coach Paul Chryst, whose son Danny will be a senior lineman at Pine-Richland next season. He said Chryst, who usually has other weekend commitments in the fall, attended nearly half the games last season.
“Great kid, great family,” Kasperowicz said of his young lineman. “You can tell he’s a coach’s kid.”
Kasperowicz watched Pitt practice Tuesday after joining Chryst in one of his quarterback meetings, sitting silently at the back of the room ”like a fly on the wall.”
“He treats them with respect; he doesn’t talk down to them,” said Kasperowicz, who plans similar visits to Ohio State and West Virginia this off-season.

April 9, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt takes off the pads for the 11th practice of the spring

The theme of Pitt’s spring football practice has become injuries, what they mean to the team and how best to avoid them.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst ordered his team to take off their pads Tuesday – NCAA rules mandate three such sessions, with the third at the coach’s discretion. Tuesday was the third.
Good call, coach. The team needed the break.
“I thought we did a good job of being physical up to this point,” he said.
Chryst might have gone helmets-only — even without the injuries Friday to running backs James Conner (knee) and Isaac Bennett (shoulder) and fullback Adam Lazenga (leg) that will keep them out the remainder of the spring.
But he did indicate he is wary of getting too many key players hurt when the first game is nearly five months in the future.
Asked about the possibility of putting red jerseys on some players, other than the quarterbacks, to remind teammates to be careful, he said the thought has crossed his mind.
“You think about that all the time,” he said. “(Tuesday), the guys were doing a pretty good of staying off bodies. The bottom line is you have to learn how to practice and there are some things that happen. No one likes to see it, but those are hard to control.
“You just have to keep educating and say a prayer that every guy leaves the field like they came on.”
Here is a list of the injured players:
Offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty. — “We have been careful with him,” Chryst said. (And that strategy likely will continue.)
Center Gabe Roberts and linebacker Zach Poker – “They won’t do much more than individual (work),” the coach said.
Defensive ends Devin Cook and Ejuan Price and Bennett – Limited.
Conner, Lazenga, linebacker Reggie Green, defensive tackle LaQuentin Smith and walk-on defensive end Trent Neavin – Out for the final four practices.
Chryst said every player on the list, with the exception of Neavin, will be ready to practice in August.
Quick thoughts about a few of the injured:
– Although the depth at tackle is improving, the team needs Bisnowaty to solidify the line with an experienced body.
– The successful recoveries of Cook and Price, assuming the best, will do wonders for a position lacking in depth.

 

April 5, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Injuries to Conner, Bennett deplete depth at running back

Sitting on the trainer’s table after injuring his left knee Friday at Pitt’s 10th practice of the spring,  James Conner looked up, smiled and gave me a definitive thumbs-up.
While walking past a group of reporters after a practice in which he injured his left shoulder, Isaac Bennett assured me, “I’m good.”
At the time, those responses didn’t necessarily mean good news for the Panthers because you get similarly pleasant responses from Conner and Bennett anytime you bump into them at the Pitt practice facility. The two running backs are two of the friendliest athletes I’ve encountered in 39 months on the Pitt football beat. Calling them good guys only begins to describe their personalities.
Later, word leaked through Pitt’s Twitter feed and other reliable sources that Conner had a sprained knee (not torn) and Bennett had a sprained shoulder. Neither will practice in the final five sessions of the spring.
What that means is this: rising sophomore running back Rachid Ibrahim will get most of the work at running back through April 15 (the last day of spring practice), and coach Paul Chryst needs to move someone else into a backup role. Redshirt junior wide receiver Ronald Jones took some snaps at running back after Bennett got hurt Friday.
Before Friday, Pitt looked to have depth at running back, but now incoming freshmen Chris James, Qadree Ollison and Dennis Briggs can’t get on campus fast enough.
Pitt also reported that Conner and Bennett would be recovered in time for the off-season conditioning program that begins next month.
The trick for coach Paul Chryst will be this: Both players may insist on returning before they are ready. That’s  just the way they are. Chryst needs to be aware of any misplaced courage among his wounded players. Now is not the time to be a hero.
It’s a long summer and if Conner and Bennett need more time to heal, they should take as much of it as necessary.

 

April 4, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Notes from Day 9 of Pitt spring drills

Pitt coach Paul Chryst put his team through the ninth day of spring practice Thursday, with six more to follow. It was mostly positional drills, with not much team action (the really good stuff). The 10th practice Friday will feature more physical play and plenty of 11-on-11 drills, with officials throwing flags. That always ratchets up the intensity.
Some highlights from Thursday:
Best collision of the day: Defensive end Shakir Soto, who looks like he might impact the line positively this season, on running back James Conner. Soto initiated it, which is a switch from most of the best hits this spring, which have been launched by Conner. But neither player seemed fazed, probably because Conner is only about 5 pounds lighter than Soto, who is listed at 255.
Best catch of the day: Tyler Boyd made a diving end-zone catch of a throw by quarterback Trey Anderson in which Boyd contorted his body nearly into a horizontal position.
Unfair fight: Big defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett, 6-3, 340, grabbing running back Rachid Ibrahim, 6-1, 185, and tossing him to the turf.
Best position battle: Clairton buddies Titus Howard and Trenton Coles at the cornerback position that was vacated when K’Waun Williams exhausted his eligibility. I took an unofficial poll of media and other regular practice watchers, looking for a leader. Howard got a 3-1 edge (small sample size, I know), but Coles remains an intriguing player — maybe the best pure athlete on the defense. Secondary coach Troy Douglas wasn’t part of my poll,  of course, but I loved how he described Coles the other day: “He has a lot of talent.” Douglas emphasized the word `lot.’ Actually, the secondary as a whole looks to be more athletic than at any time in the past four springs.
Race you’ll never see, but might be interesting to watch: Coles vs. wide receiver Jester Weah in a 100-yard dash. Both were state high school track champions in their respective states (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).
Player that teammates and coaches can’t stop talking about: Redshirt freshman wide receiver Zach Challingsworth of South Fayette. He catches everything and is fearless when running through the secondary at 6-2, 185.
Must-hear radio: Chris Peak had an interesting roster breakdown, plus insightful interviews with analyst Pat Bostick and incoming offensive line recruit Mike Grimm, on TribLiveRadio on Thursday. Listen here.

April 2, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Voytik `inconsistent’ so far, but there’s plenty of time to fix that

The education of a quarterback takes time, and fortunately for Pitt’s Chad Voytik he has a lot of it. There are just short of five months before the opener against Delaware on Aug. 30.
After the eighth of 15 spring drills Tuesday, coach Paul Chryst said Voytik has been “inconsistent.” Two of the three interceptions were thrown by Voytik.
“He’s working, that I appreciate, doing some good things,” Chryst said. “Inconsistent. Gotta keep working on it.”
Last week, Voytik mentioned — and we wrote about it in Saturday’s Trib – that he is working on some fundamental changes in his drops and delivery that Chryst wants him to clean up. So, accuracy may be an issue for a while. Pitt has seven more spring practices, starting Thursday, and the entire summer out of the coaches’ vision (thank you, NCAA) to iron out the wrinkles.
Let’s not forget this, though: After his interceptions, Voytik hit Tyler Boyd with a 63-yard touchdown pass. He throws the ball with a purpose, even if his arm isn’t as strong as what Tom Savage displayed last season.
If Voytik’s progress seems slow,  you should remember that his only meaningful playing time since leaving high school less than two years ago was the second half of the bowl game Dec. 26. And he did well that night, thanks to a competitive streak that, I believe, eventually will serve him well at Pitt.
After all, he’s pointed in the right direction by a coach who knows quarterbacks and how to build them.

 

 

 

 

March 28, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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No signs of union movement at Pitt

Football players at Northwestern have been given the go-ahead to create the first labor union for collegiate athletes, but their Pitt brethren aren’t showing a lot of interest in going along for the ride.
Reporters spoke to quarterback Chad Voytik, center Artie Rowell and coach Paul Chryst after practice Thursday, the sixth of 15 spring sessions, and the subject eventually arose. From the players’ remarks concerning the NLRB ruling that opens the door for labor unions to form at private institutions, there doesn’t appear to be much enthusiasm for following Northwestern down its trail-blazing path.
Play for pay? Nobody seems all that interested, probably because it seems like such an unattainable dream for Pitt players consumed with more immediate concerns – the final days of the semester and the rigors of football practice.
The most interesting and intelligent comment came from Voytik, the rising sophomore who will be Pitt’s starter this season.
“Truthfully, I feel like we are compensated enough,” he said. “We get a free education.”
Thank you.
The value of a college education, which can open doors to a variety of lifetime riches, goes far beyond a nominal paycheck that may not even cover every players’ needs.
Do football players get more than tennis players because they fill huge stadiums with paying customers? And, if so, is that sending a message that the NCAA really doesn’t care that much about those athletes in minor sports?
Of course, Voytik and Rowell indicated they wouldn’t turn down pay, if offered, but Rowell made a good point.
“You go play for pay and you are going to get into the Johnny Manziels and those guys getting way more money than what I’m going to get,” said Rowell, a junior who ascended to the starting job last  year after impressing coaches with his work ethic — a work ethic that didn’t need the lure of a paycheck to manifest itself.
Voytik and Rowell are only two voices — albeit from two of the brightest players on the team — but they said there hasn’t been a lot of union talk in the locker room since the NLRB ruling Wednesday. After all, the ruling only applies to private schools at the moment.
Predictably, Chryst had no interest in offering an opinion as pre-occupied as he is with getting the team ready for the 2014 season.
“There is so much I don’t know about it,” he said. “I was actually more excited to get on the field (for practice).”
Pitt officials offered this statement (again no surprise):
“The University of Pittsburgh remains committed to the concepts of amateurism and student-athletes that have always been the foundation of our athletic endeavors. We do not believe that treating student-athletes as employees will be beneficial for the students.”
My feeling? OK, since you asked:
Giving the players bigger stipends as part of their scholarships wouldn’t be a bad idea. And if the union can team with the NCAA to increase concussion awareness and deal with other medical issues nationwide, I would be on board with it.
But a players’ strike? It never will happen in collegiate sports. I know never is a long time, but I’ll repeat: Never.
Players have a limited number of games to showcase their skills to the NFL. No one wants to further deplete those opportunities that, for some players, may only occur a dozen times in their four-year careers.

March 26, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Of Conner and Voytik and Chryst’s discontent on the fifth day of spring drills

Here are three highlights from the fifth day of Pitt spring drills Tuesday:
– Coach Paul Chryst was unhappy with his team’s energy level.
– Running back James Conner – make that marquee running back James Conner — lined up for a few snaps at defensive end for the first time this spring.
– Quarterback Chad Voytik struggled at times, but threw two long, pinpoint passes to redshirt freshmen wide receivers Zach Challingsworth and Jester Weah that would have been touchdowns if this was a game that mattered.
Hey, it’s spring. Nothing matters all that much (except to the coaches, and to them everything matters). But I ranked the three events in what I believe is their order of importance.
CHRYST
Let’s start with the head coach’s discontent.
If you watch the man for any length of time, you can’t help but respect the way he holds his temper, keeps the veins from bulging in his neck, but still gets the message across to the team.
Less than halfway through the session, Chryst stopped practice and called the team together in the middle of the field. The music that had been blaring through loudspeakers was shut off.
I couldn’t get everything Chryst said – I guess it would have been poor form if I inched toward the huddle so I could hear – but he did say, “… way behind on day 5.”
His lecture was brief, and when it broke up and practice resumed (without the music), I didn’t notice as many guys jumping offsides or dropping passes.
Message received.
Later, Chryst talked about the day.
“As a group, as a whole, I didn’t think we had the energy we needed,” he said. “We have to get better as a team.”
When he was asked if the players’ timing was bad – the poor effort coming after three off days – Chryst was only half-kidding when he said, “I think we should just practice every day. We would be better off for it.
“We got off to a slow start and some guys didn’t get out of that funk.”
Chryst wasn’t especially angry with his team. (If I’m wrong, he hid it well.) But he did admit that players are having a lot of plays and alignments thrown at them in a short period of time, and sometimes young people hit a wall.
“Some guys can reach a saturation point,” he said. “You have to find out what that is.”
That is REALLY what spring is about.
CONNER
The Conner situation is interesting for a simple reason: When he played running back and defensive end in the bowl game Dec. 26, he became the first Pitt player to play both sides of the ball since quarterback/safety Rick Trocano in the late 1970s. If there was someone else between Trocano and Conner, please let me know.
Conner is the team’s best running back. He has a chance to be one of the ACC’s best by the end of the season.
Why play him at defensive end and risk wearing him out or, worse, increase his chance of getting injured?
I’m glad you asked.
Most importantly, he can do it. He is a supremely talented athlete who was, actually, recruited from Erie McDowell to play defensive end. He’s young (not yet 19), and he doesn’t think about getting tired like many people twice his age do.
Second, Pitt has a need at end. It was magnified Tuesday when Ejuan Price missed practice while resting a back injury that forced him to sit out most of last season.
(Although, I’ll say this: Starting defensive end David Durham looks to be having a good camp. He was throwing ball carriers around with little regard to their safety.) At the other end, sophomore Shakir Soto, 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, at least looks the part.
But Pitt needs depth at the position. Using Conner in that role in certain situations – not more than 10 snaps per game – probably isn’t a bad idea.
VOYTIK
I don’t think I’ve seen a quarterback practice harder and put more effort into his throws than Voytik has done over the past several days.
He’s not blessed with great size or the rocket arm that hangs from Tom Savage’s shoulder. But Voytik puts everything he has into his throws, calling on his right arm, shoulder, legs, hands and feet to get the football where it needs to go. His 40-yard (or so) throws to Challingsworth and Weah couldn’t have been more accurate.
Only one-third of the way through spring drills, Voytik has a long way to go. But he’s a fighter. That matters, too.
INJURY UPDATE
Offensive left tackle Adam Bisnowaty missed practice for the fifth consecutive day, but Chryst said he’s making progress from his back injury.
“He’s feeling a little bit more confident about everything, slowly building (up) that level of work and — so far, knock on wood — no setbacks. It’s good, but he’s in the process.”
Also missing was outside linebacker Anthony Gonzalez, who is day-to-day, according to his coach. Bam Bradley stepped into Gonzalez’s starting spot.
Defensive linemen Devin Cook and LaQuentin Smith, offensive lineman Gabe Roberts and wide receiver Kevin Weatherspoon also were limited by injuries. … Cornerback Trenton Coles returned from a groin strain and practiced with a slight limp.
AND, FINALLY …
Offensive right tackle T.J. Clemmings had two pancake blocks of Bradley and middle linebacker Matt Galambos. … Redshirt freshman Jaryd Jones-Smith, 6-7, 295, is getting a lot of work at tackle and guard.

March 22, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Notes, quotes and anecdotes after four days of Pitt spring drills

I end the week with the sound down on UCLA/Tulsa while trying to figure out which event earlier Friday was more stunning:
– Pitt running back James Conner flattening safety Terrish Webb on a run play during only the second day of padded practice. It was a violent collision that even concerned coach Paul Chryst, but I’m betting it would have made Jerome Bettis smile.
– Or, the Power firing Derek Stingley after one game, tying the all-time, any-sport record for the quickest dismissal of a coach after the start of the season. (I mention it here only because I got the news while watching the fourth day of Pitt’s spring drills.)
I get the feeling there will be more than one defensive back who will want no part of tackling Conner this season.
Conner says he weighs 248 pounds on a 6-foot-2 frame — 18 pounds over his listed weight. But the extra pounds don’t seem to bother him; they merely make him look more intimidating.
The hit on Webb, a promising safety who is in a fight for a vacant starting spot in the Pitt secondary, was impressive. Conner didn’t break stride as he rolled over Webb, who courageously didn’t flinch and jumped right back to his feet at the end of the play.
After practice, Chryst was slow to condone such friendly fire, but he also didn’t want to discourage Conner’s physical way of carrying the football.
“That’s the tricky thing,” he said. “We keep learning how to practice. There’s a guy we are saying thud it and all that.”
He added, “But he’s not (holding anything back).”
By the way, I still haven’t seen Conner take any snaps at defensive end.
Some other notes:
– Cornerback Lafayette Pitts keeps catching the coaches’ attention. New secondary coach Troy Douglas praised Pitts, but also cautioned he has a long way to go in his third year as a starter.
“I’ve got to get him to play with his eyes better,” Douglas said. “He has so much talent. The young man can run. He’s a very talented player.”
He also agreed when I mentioned that Pitts, a Woodland Hills graduate, plays with an edge.
“He’s got some swagger to him, no doubt.”
– Quarterback Tom Savage watched practice for the second time this week and reports the NFL is bearing down on him in advance of the draft May 8. The Oakland Raiders have invited Savage for a visit, and other teams are making similar plans for him, he said. Aaron Donald also stopped by on Thursday.
– Keep an eye on cornerback Jahmahl Pardner, who is more than a year removed from a serious knee injury and could fill the spot vacated by K’Waun Williams. He looks as active as he did before the injury in  2012 — and two years smarter.
– Almost every day, another player mentions the good things going on in the weight room under the supervision of new strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej. Good move by Chryst, promoting the former Wisconsin defensive tackle and shot putter from his assistant’s position.
– Lots of high school prospects and incoming freshmen watched practice Friday. More than one person commented on Adonis Jennings’ imposing size for a wide receiver (6-3, 195).
– I had a chat with new Gateway coach Tom Nola, who is looking forward to tackling a roster probably twice the size of what he had at Clairton. He also mentioned the possibility that Pitt’s secondary in 2015 could have three Clairton graduates — Webb at safety and Titus Howard and Trenton Coles at cornerback. The fourth member of those great Clairton defensive backfields also plays for Pitt, but Chryst is content to keep Tyler Boyd at wide receiver.
– Overall, Chryst liked the hitting at practice. Not bad for Day 2.
“Today was a little bit cleaner, not right or perfect all the time,” he said, “but I thought it was a little bit better as far as the physical part of it. I thought that part was pretty good.”
– Couple of injury notes: Coles is dealing with a groin that he injured this week. Offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty (back) and wide receiver Kevin Weatherspoon (foot) have done next to nothing, but Chryst is wisely being cautious with both players.
– Wide receiver Ronald Jones looks, potentially, like a more productive player than he was before his season-long suspension last year.

 

 

 

 

March 13, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt seniors Murphy and Giubilato leave team

Pitt seniors Bryan Murphy and Mark Giubilato will not return to the team this season, coach Paul Chryst said Thursday. Both players, who had been with the program since 2010, will remain in school.
Murphy started 21 games the past two seasons at defensive end, totaling 11 tackles for a loss, six of which were sacks. With spring practice starting Sunday, he faced competition from rising sophomore Shakir Soto, who started the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl last season in place of Murphy. Also, junior defensive ends Devin Cook and Ejuan Price are expected to return from injuries.
Giubilato, a fullback, played in 37 games the past three seasons, with two starts in 2012. He played mainly on special teams last year, totaling 11 tackles.
Pitt opens spring drills with 11 seniors on scholarship.

March 12, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Upper St. Clair’s Repischak picks Pitt, and he isn’t going to just stand around at practice

Upper St. Clair senior Joe Repischak isn’t going to Pitt to ease the burden on the scholarship arms at summer practice (although he certainly will do that).
He decided Wednesday to walk on for two of the most basic reasons: Pitt gave him a chance and he plans to eventually compete for the starting quarterback job.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “I believe I definitely can be a starter.”
Repischak, 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, had no scholarship offers — although Cornell and Penn were among several schools that had shown considerable interest — but he said he wanted to play big-time football.
He will be one of four quarterbacks on campus this summer, joining sophomore Chad Voytik, senior Trey Anderson and incoming freshman Adam Bertke.
At the 2015 spring drills, Repischak could be one of only three quarterbacks at practice. Although he clings to loftier ambitions, he at least eases a personnel shortage at the position.
Pitt contacted him about walking on about a month ago. He and his parents visited the football facility last week, met coach Paul Chryst and other staff members and received a guided tour of the campus from director of football relations Bob Junko (an Upper St. Clair man himself).
“It felt like it’s the best fit for me,” Repischak said. “It seems like they care about their players a lot. It made me feel good about my choice.”
Anderson is the most recent quarterback to enter Pitt as a walk-on and play in a game. In 2011, he played four games as a freshman in relief of Tino Sunseri, completing 12 passes after coach Todd Graham had awarded him with a scholarship.
The most famous walk-on quarterback at Pitt was Tom Yewcic, who started three games in 1976 after injuries to Robert Haygood and Matt Cavanaugh. Pitt won all three on its way to a national championship. In the Navy game, Yewcic made the pitch to Tony Dorsett on the carry in which he broke the NCAA rushing record.
At Upper St. Clair, Repischak led the Panthers (11-1) to an undefeated regular season and the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals where they lost to Woodland Hills, 28-21.
He finished the season throwing for 1,411 yards and seven touchdowns and running for 304 and eight scores. Late in the season, when Upper St. Clair had injuries at running back, he became an important part of the running game.
Repischak, who has a 4.3 grade-point average, plans to major in finance and enter Pitt’s business school.  He will enroll in June when he will begin working out with the team.

 

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