Pitt coach Paul Chryst is too grounded, humble and team-oriented to publicly admit it, but he has forcefully and purposefully put his stamp on the team.
When he raises his voice to make a point to players who aren’t working hard enough … when he suspends players for academic or other off-the-field issues that chip away at the team concept … when he refuses to praise individual players because they look pretty good in spring practice, he is putting an indelible mark — not only on the program — but on his players.
I noticed it in something as elementary as his spring practice schedule.
He scheduled two drills prior to the spring break so players would come back with a sense of what’s expected of them and wouldn’t be wandering aimlessly like people tend to do on the first day back from vacation. He also brought them back from break last Sunday — not waiting until the middle of the week — to resume as soon as possible the difficult task of rebuilding this program.
And he chewed out his players three times Thursday to let them know he means business and won’t accept lazy efforts, even if they are only wearing shoulder pads and helmets in the middle of March. His message was clear: You’re adults now and you will be accountable.
After consecutive 6-7 seasons with players feeling sorry for themselves amidst the upheaval in the program, Chryst has thrown a stake in the ground and brought change. He committed to the university and his players and all but said, “I’m in charge here. You have a problem with that?”
He hasn’t used those words, of course, but his actions produce the same effect.
If a program ever needed a good kick in the butt and fewer pats on the back, it’s Pitt football. Chryst brings those things. Every day.
Maybe I just don’t remember as well as I used to, but this spring there has been more after-the-whistle shoving between offensive and defensive players than at any time in the past two years.
The sensible side of Chryst hates it, because it can lead to personal foul penalties and loss of yardage in games.
The coach in him — the inner tough guy — loves it, because it sharpens his players’ attitudes and shows him that practice is important to them.
The one minor incident that especially stuck out to me was freshman tight end Scott Orndoff tangling with senior cornerback K’Waun Williams after a red-zone play. Orndoff started to walk away after some especially enthusiastic blocking, but he didn’t like something that was said and turned around to confront Williams. Nothing came of it, but Orndoff, who left Seton-La Salle early and enrolled at Pitt in January, sent a message to anyone paying attention: “I’m a freshman, but don’t mess with me.”
Sophomore tight end J.P. Holtz also got into a brief scrum with fourth-year junior linebacker Todd Thomas on Tuesday. Again, it was a minor matter that means nothing except that it shows coaches and players that there players on the team who will stick up for themselves.
Holtz also showed the kind of edge he brings to the game when he pointed out to reporters that the most memorable moment of his freshman season was lowering his shoulder and knocking out Syracuse cornerback Shamarko Thomas — not his touchdown catch at Notre Dame. There’s a guy with his priorities in order.
Practice observations (five down, 10 to go):
— Junior running back Isaac Bennett looks quicker to the hole and tougher between the tackles than in his first two seasons.
— Tight end Manasseh Garner has the size (6-2, 220) and athleticism to contribute this season. A Brashear graduate, Garner wanted to come home, but Wisconsin might regret letting him go.
— Somone may need to use a crow bar to pry middle linebacker Mike Caprara off the No. 1 defense. He’s undersized, but tough and unafraid to mix it up with blockers who outweigh him by 100 pounds or more. Starting middle linebacker Shane Gordon has yet to practice with his neck injury and could miss most — if not all — of spring drills. I get the sense that’s OK with Caprara.
— Former linebacker Eric Williams seems to have a nose for the ball at free safety, giving Pitt nice depth at the position as soon as Jason Hendricks, a second-team All-Big East choice last year, returns from a toe injury. Like Gordon, Hendricks could be out for a while.