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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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April 20, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Gruden on Peterman, Pryor and the next Hugh Green

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Jon Gruden can be labeled in many ways.
At 39, he was the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl.
He coached in the NFL for 18 years (from 1990-2008, minus the ’91 season as Pitt’s wide receivers coach), including three seasons as offensive coordinator of the Eagles and 11 as head coach of the Raiders and Buccaneers.
Currently, Gruden is color analyst for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”
He also would be president of the Nathan Peterman fan club, if the former Pitt quarterback would allow such a thing to exist. (Peterman doesn’t even read his press clippings.)
When I visited Gruden and Peterman in Kissimmee, Fla., for the taping of ESPN’S “Gruden QB Camp” earlier this month, the former coach was very clear: Peterman has a future in the NFL. “Somebody is making a mistake not drafting you,” Gruden told him.
The show will have its first airing on ESPN2 at 10 a.m. Saturday, with nine re-airings before the draft begins next Thursday night.
Wednesday, on a conference call with reporters, Gruden was asked several questions about Peterman, who is expected to be among the first six quarterback selected.
Gruden, who will analyze the first round as it occurs for ESPN, was asked which of the quarterback prospects he would choose if he returned to coaching this season. (You have to love the ex-coaches – they aren’t afraid of the hypothetical questions. Current coaches hate them.)
“I like the kid at Pitt, honestly, if I had to go out there and strap it on,” Gruden said. “He’d allow us to do almost anything in the game plan. He throws the ball pretty darn good. He’s athletic and very, very sharp. A lot like (the Cincinnati Bengals’) Andy Dalton. I’d probably go with Peterman if I had to play him in a few months.
“His passing mechanics, his whole demeanor. He’s buttoned up all the way. He’s sharp. I think he’s going to be a really good pro quarterback.”
Peterman, a five-year collegian and a guy with two degrees, might have an edge by the time he arrives in a training camp because of his experience.
“Several of those underclassmen (quarterbacks) are a year away,” Gruden said. “(Peterman) can memorize. He can execute any play you dream up and he loves it. I’m smitten with him a little bit as a player.”
Gruden said Peterman would fit well with any team, although he mentioned the Chiefs and Saints, specifically.
“You can cater your offense for Peterman. He can handle an extensive amount of football. The teams that are really ambitious with deep, thick playbooks, those are the teams that Peterman would fit in with.
“I hope he gets with one of those guys who can really stretch him and challenge him.”
Gruden also wasn’t shy with his opinions on other NFL topics:

Here’s a sampling:

On whether free agent quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III have a future in the NFL:

“They lit the league on fire a couple years ago with the kind of quarterback play that hadn’t been seen before, a running quarterback, option quarterback. They really haven’t progressed. They have taken too many hits and too many sacks. For that reason, they haven’t found a team yet.
“I have no idea where those two fit. They both still have a lot of talent, but their style of play is different than what people are looking for, obviously.”
On whether Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon’s history of domestic abuse will impact the way the Raiders will look at him:

“Based on my history with the Raiders, I would say he would not be on their board,” he said.
On Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs:

“I would love to get my hands on him. He, to me, is a great sleeper in this draft. He stood out, along with (California’s) Davis Webb, in the Senior Bowl. as a guy who can make a quick transition.
“He’s smart, he’ll be a quick study. His athleticism will be hard to keep off the field. This guy has the heart of a champion. Hopefully, someone with a real creative mind gets him.”

Gruden, who said he never drafted a quarterback in the first round as a head coach, was asked how many will go in this year’s opening round:

“Three or four,” he said. “Deshaun Watson (Clemson), Pat Mahomes (Texas Tech) and Mitch Trubisky (North Carolina).” He also mentioned DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame).
“Who knows? It could be Peterman.”
On Trubisky, who left school early:

“I would have liked to see him stay, but he’s talented. He did get results. He did have some really good moments, bringing them back to beat Pitt. He is a mystery to a lot of people. It’s going to be very interesting to see how high he goes.”

On drafting Kizer in the first round: “He’s very sharp, well-spoken, charismatic in a lot of ways. He had a genuine, sincere, honest nature about  him. Strength of his arm is impressive. Would I use a first-round pick on him? Probably not. There are some things he is still rough around the edges. He’s athletic, tough and has a cannon for an arm.”

Of Watson’s 32 interceptions:
Gruden said: “I challenged him to slow it down and isolate the 32 INTs and see which ones you can eliminate. There are some correctable things he needs to take out of his game.
“His body of work impressed me the most, back-to-back national championship games. He plays his best football when they are behind and all the chips are on the table.”

On Temple linebacker Haason Reddick: “Reddick reminds me of Hugh Green. This guy can run and smash you. Just get him on your team, tell him what to do and he’ll do it real well. God knows what he would do on special teams. He’d be a special teams demon.”

On Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams and his ability to win the 50-50 jump balls: “He’s not playing 50-50. He’s playing 80-20. When it’s up in the air, he’s getting it.”

On taking risks with players with question marks: “Sometimes, you get into the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds, that’s the time to take some risks. I personally like the idea of taking on some risks in the draft and counting on my locker room, my coaches, my support staff. If you have the right locker room, coaches and support staff, they can help turn these kids around. Nobody is incapable of changing.”

On the importance of speed in the NFL and a prospect’s 40-yard dash time: “Speed is the one thing you can’t coach. When you’re talking about 4.25 speed (such as Washington wide receiver Joe Ross clocked at the combine), that’s hard to coach that. You have to have speed. It strikes fear in the defense. Everybody goes to the Combine with their stopwatch for a reason.”

On Washington Redskins wide receiver and Jeannette native Terrelle Pryor, who worked with Gruden coming out of Ohio State:

“I really was intrigued with Terrelle Pryor. Probably one of the most interesting athletes I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I can’t tell you how impressed I was with how he moved around, how sharp he was and how much he loved it. He’s a freak. I really have not seen many athletes come through my doors like Terrelle Pryor. Maybe he’ll play quarterback. Who knows? (laughs).”

On what might happen if Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis will be available for the Lions to draft at No. 21:

“If he is there for the Lions, I would assume (quarterback) Matt Stafford would make a few phone calls to try to get that transaction done.”

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April 11, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Is Pitt’s defense better? Maybe, but it did give up the decisive TD in the scrimmage

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Pitt entered its final week of spring ball Tuesday morning, and coach Pat Narduzzi took advantage of the weather and worked his players outside on the South Side fields.
There’s been some buzz about the increased depth and speed on defense, and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin got a chance to look at some of it.
Of particular interest, to me (at least), is how junior Phillipie Motley continues to hang on to one starting job at cornerback. Motley is older and more experienced than players such as Damar Hamlin and Therran Coleman. Sophomore Dane Jackson, though, started three games last season to Motley’s two and had double the pass breakups (4/2).
That’s the key stat — PBUs. Narduzzi said he has seen a lot of plays on the ball from Motley. He said Coleman and Jackson are pushing Motley, and two-way player Maurice Ffrench lingers in the defensive shadows. He has played more wide receiver recently, but he got some reps on defense in the scrimmage Saturday.
Cornerback is another example of what more bodies can mean to a defense. Injuries will happen and Pitt seems better equipped to handle them than in the past.
Ditto on the defensive line where ends Allen Edwards and James Folston are getting significant work, some of it with the first team. I believe Dewayne Hendrix and Rori Blair will be the starting ends, but I’m sure line coach Charlie Partridge will want to rotate several linemen, especially on the potentially warm September Saturdays when Pitt plays Penn State, Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech back-to-back-to-back.
Narduzzi said young tackles Keyshawn Camp and Amir Watts “are bouncing back and forth as far as who’s running with the (first team).” He said he considers both of them starters next to Jeremiah Taleni.
Redshirt freshman Chase Pine, a middle linebacker, has been moved into multiple spots on the defense where he might be able to help as a pass rusher. He could assume the third-down role held last year by Quintin Wirginis, now starting in the middle. Wirginis is flanked  by outside linebackers Sean Idowu and Saleem Brightwell.
Coaches are pleased with the development of linebackers Pine, Anthony McKee and Elijah Zeise.
Said Narduzzi: “Elijah Zeise has had a really good spring. I mean really good.”
McKee was a highly regarded recruit who’s been on the sideline for two seasons, but Narduzzi said he’s getting better.
“He’s a sleeper. Obviously, you never give up on guys, but he’s a guy who’s come a long way. He’s going to play a lot of football for us.
“Some guys pick it up at different times. That’s part of the process. Coach (Mark) Dantonio (Michigan State) always said, `Don’t throw your trash out.’ ”
No matter how much happy talk is released this time of year, fans shouldn’t get too excited about spring ball. Maybe that’s just me being a cynic, but playing against your friend is different than playing against Penn State.
Plus, it’s more than three months to August and there is so much room and time for improvement — self-improvement, actually.
What happens Saturday at Heinz Field in the spring game will be important, but a good summer (when coaches aren’t around) matters just as much.

Although I couldn’t see much, the players seemed to enjoy the bull-in-the-ring session this morning. It’s a classic drill where the team forms a circle around two players who try to push each other into the crowd in a battle of wills as much as strength.
It drives the energy and competition (it’s usually offense vs. defense), which is why Narduzzi likes it.

Quick note: on the 134-play scrimmage last Saturday. It went into overtime — “Unplanned,” Narduzzi said — and was won by the offense on a touchdown pass from Ben DiNucci to walk-on tight end Drew Schifino, who is getting a lot of work due to graduations and injuries.
“Probably one of the best scrimmages I’ve been around,” Narduzzi said.

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April 10, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Italian-American Hall of Fame inducts its 2017 class

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The Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame topped off a busy sports weekend in the city Sunday with its 31st annual banquet at the Westin William Penn.
The NIASHF has awarded scholarships to nearly 200 high school seniors, and the latest four — Mohawk’s Pablo Salazar, Peter Township’s Daniel Florentino, Laurel’s Mykenzie Davey and Slippery Rock’s Mari Reott – deservedly sat atop the dias.
I have to admit: I go to these events for the speeches, and I was honored to receive an invitation to sit in the audience to hear them. The 10 honorees spoke from the heart, telling the interesting tales of their lives, proud of what they accomplished and the roots from which they grew.
The 2017 group included:
Ryan Matsook (Coach of the Year), who led Beaver Falls to WPIAL and PIAA football championships last year.
Danny Pacella (Lifetime Achievement), who was Dan Marino’s quarterback coach at Central Catholic and later won 395 games as basketball coach at Central and McKeesport.
Carmella Mullen (Community Achievement), who serves on several community boards, volunteering her time and talents.
E.J. Borghetti (Dominic T. Roppa Award), who is in his 20th year as executive associate athletic director/media relations at Pitt where he has promoted 10 first-team All-Americans. No one loves his school like E.J. loves his school.
Richard L. Caponi (Organized Labor Award). a longtime labor leader representing more than 8,000 workers.
Dr. Richard Saladino (Medical Professional), Professor of Pediatrics at Pitt’s School of Medicine.
Jerry Bergman (Pittsburgh Legend), whose 30 years as an NFL official is the second-longest tenure in league history.
Bo Pelini (Sportsman of the Year), the head football coach at Youngstown State.
Joe Azzaro (Hall of Fame inductee), a Central Catholic graduate and former Notre Dame kicker, whose field goal beat Pitt, 17-15, in 1964. Azzaro was the first kicking specialist recruited by the Irish.
Dan Onorato (Man of the Year), who was a two-term Allegheny County Chief Executive and whose loyalties are often split after earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting from Penn State and a law degree from Pitt.
A couple of highlights:
— Pelini, who lost to Pitt in Pat Narduzzi’s first game as a head coach in 2015, paid tribute to Narduzzi’s father, Bill, a former YSU head coach and a posthumous NIASHF Hall of Fame inductee two years ago. Pitt’s coach was seated in the audience with his wife, Donna.
Bill Narduzzi was YSU football,” Pelini said. “I could coach for the rest of my career and never do for YSU what Bill Narduzzi did.”
— Finally, Onorato hit me where I live when he talked about Sunday dinners attended by 30 or 40 family members, a staple of Italian families (including mine). While listening to Onorato’s speech, I could smell the sauce simmering on grandma’s stove.

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April 6, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt building depth in its secondary

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While Pitt progresses through the final days of spring practice — Thursday was No. 11 of 15 — it’s becoming clear that coaches will have choices (maybe even some good ones) when piecing together the depth chart in the secondary.
Perhaps the biggest decision will be where to play Jordan Whitehead, free or strong safety. The move to free may help coverage, but weaken the run defense. That’s what coaches are trying to determine now and will continue to explore over the summer and into training camp in August.
Junior Dennis Briggs, an experienced hand, could play the strong position, but redshirt freshman Phil Campbell also must and has been considered strongly. You also hear good things about sophomore Jay Stocker and redshirt freshman Bricen Garner. If Whitehead moves to strong, Stocker could replace him at free, with Briggs moving to his accustomed nickel position.
Then, we shouldn’t forget about Paris Ford, who can play safety (either spot) or cornerback. He’s still at Steel Valley High School, but his world — and maybe Pitt’s — changes dramatically the minute he takes off that cap and gown two months from now.
That’s a lot of names in bold for only two starting spots.
At cornerback, Avonte Maddox, 5-foot-9, is the only scholarship senior in the secondary, and (I think) the toughest of the group. This will be his fourth year as a starter, and you have great respect for his longevity and durability. If he stays healthy and Pitt reaches the ACC Championship game, he will have played in 50 games in his career.
Maddox is the shortest player on defense, but also the quickest, which makes him a candidate to move to the slot on third down. There may be enough depth at cornerback to make that happen. That list goes on for a while and includes Therran Coleman, Dane Jackson, Phillipie Motley, Maurice Ffrench (when he’s not playing wide receiver) and Henry Miller.
I’d keep an eye on Ffrench. Coaches believe he can be special.
All of these guys are athletic and all flash the skills coach Pat Narduzzi craves in his defensive backs.
The question: Can enough of them make plays on the ball (both with PBUs and INTs) to make Pitt a contender in the ACC?

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March 30, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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Treading lightly around the I word at Pitt practice

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is not unlike most coaches when confronted with questions about injuries. Whether it’s in-season (understandable) or in the spring (still scratching my head), Narduzzi prefers to keep such information in-house.
So, when he was asked to clear up the situations of tight end Chris Clark and cornerback Damar Hamlin, both of whom did not attend the early portion of Thursday’s practice, Narduzzi provided some clarity.
Trying to be as diplomatic as I could, I said, “A lot of people, fans, writers, are talking about Hamlin and Clark. Can you shed any light on those two guys.”
Narduzzi: “In what regards, being banged up?
Me: The I word, yeah.”
Narduzzi: “That’s good. You didn’t say injuries. Good. I like that. (Smiling, fist bump.) They’re both going to be fine. It’s spring ball. We’ve got no game to play tomorrow. Both are things they will be back from easily, easily.”
Follow up question from Chris Peak of Panther-Lair.com: “But not (able to practice) the rest of spring, though?”
Narduzzi: “Maybe, maybe.”
At that point, Narduzzi lost interest in that line of questioning, but he continued chatting with reporters for another two minutes.
In the end, we found out that whatever injuries Clark and Hamlin are dealing with (yes, he was short on specifics) aren’t especially serious, according to the coach. If those two won’t be back for any of the seven remaining practices this spring, Narduzzi gave the impression the injuries (sorry, the I word) are not serious enough to end their 2017 seasons.
Now, to be clear, it’s not fair to hold the coach to what he said because situations change, injuries don’t heal like some might expect and it’s a long way to August. For now, I’ll accept Narduzzi’s answer as a professional response to a professional question.

On a cold, dreary morning, Narduzzi took his team onto the outdoor grass practice fields for the first time this year as spring drills passed the halfway point.
“Great to get outside in sunny, Pittsburgh weather,” he said.
There will be a closed scrimmage Saturday at Heinz Field.

One other note: redshirt freshman Henry Miller has moved to safety from cornerback, which might be an indicator that corners Dane Jackson, Phillipie Motley and Maurice Ffrench are progressing nicely. And the more coaches use Ffrench on offense — Narduzzi wants him on both sides of the ball — the more reps will be available for Motley and Jackson.
Miller’s move to safety may be another indicator that Narduzzi doesn’t consider Hamlin’s injury to be serious.

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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. Harley wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.
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.
Wirginis’ return certainly pleased coach Pat Narduzzi.
“Big difference when he’s in there, communications-wise,” he said.
Saleem Brightwell, who moved to money Tuesday, had been holding down the middle in Wirginis’ absence.
“Saleem did a nice job,” Narduzzi said, “but he’s a deer in the headlights out there, first time doing it, with all the shifts and motions and all the stuff our offense does.
“(Wirginis) brings that calming factor to the middle. The D-line is going to feel good when he’s in there and making them not have to think and wonder. “There’s a little more confidence coming out of Quintin’s mouth. Saleem will get there, without question.”

The defense wore blue jerseys Tuesday, an indication that it won the scrimmage last Saturday. But that’s just a way to keep score and keep the proceedings interesting for the players.
One of the hallmarks of spring drills for Pitt’s linebackers is the cross-training emphasized by the coaches.
“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 Brightwell, who is working inside and outside. 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 is 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 when he was a wide receiver at the outset of the 2016 spring drills.
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: 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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