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January 3, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Two top wide receivers list Pitt among their final choices

On a cold, wintry night in Pittsburgh, Timber Creek (N.J.) High School coach Rob Hinson was speculating on what the Pitt passing game could look like next fall.
Hinson’s prize pupil is four-star wide receiver Adonis Jennings, who lists Pitt among his final three college choices, including Arkansas and Iowa.
Hinson and Jennings are in Carson, Calif., for the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, which will be played at 9 Sunday night (Fox Sports1 has the telecast).
Hinson said Jennings might announce his decision during the game. If he does and he picks Pitt, Jennings could make fans forget the recent disappointment of losing out on some of the WPIAL’s top stars.
“He would be another threat opposite Tyler Boyd,” Hinson said.
Jennings, 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, looks to be the perfect complement to Boyd. He set a school record for receiving yards this season (1,434) in New Jersey’s second-largest classification.
“He is a very explosive wide receiver,” Hinson said. “He is physical, polished. He has a lot to learn, but on the high school level he’s pretty much unguardable. When he gets one-on-one matchups, he can dominate.”
Hinson said Jennings, who also attracted offers from Clemson, Virginia Tech and Arizona, has attended and dominated many of the top camps in the nation. He is ranked the No. 9 overall prospect in New Jersey — the third wide receiver in the state and the 38th in the nation, according to Rivals.com.
Hinson said he doesn’t know which school will get the thumbs-up, but he said Jennings has several friends at Arkansas and an uncle, Leroy Smith, who played at Iowa. Jennings has scheduled visits to Pitt and Arkansas later this month.
At Pitt, wide receivers coach Bobby Engram has made a positive impression, Hinson said.
“He loves coach Engram,” Hinson said. “He (Engram) is a good dude. We seem to be very similar in our approach to how we coach kids and what we ultimately want for our kids, football-wise and outside of football.
“He would be like an extension of me.”
Pitt is also among the final three choices of Bishop Sullivan (Va.) High School four-star wide receiver Jamil Kamara. Virginia and Wisconsin are the others.
Kamara, 6-1, 202, is the 19th-rated player at his position in the U.S. and the seventh overall prospect in Virginia (No. 1 wide receiver), according to Rivals. Kamara is playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio on Saturday and may announce his decision at that time. He also has offers from Clemson, Florida, Miami, Michigan State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and several others.

December 28, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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I knew Pitt would beat Bowling Green; I just forgot to tell anyone

This is going to sound at best self-serving (or, at worst, fabricated), but I meant to pick Pitt to beat Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. I just forgot.
My reasoning was (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) was that the seniors would step forward and end a turbulent college career with a big effort.
Who knew the freshmen would steal the show?
Yet, it’s worth giving a shout to a few seniors who played exceptionally well, especially defensive tackle Ty Ezell (two sacks for a loss of 14 yards after getting none in the first 12 games). Ezell was energized by the accolades (and double teams) thrown at his neighbor on the Pitt line, Aaron Donald.
You also need to credit seniors Juantez Hollins and Ryan Schlieper, who stepped into the void on the offensive line and were part of a unit that amassed 487 yards after averaging 351.8 during the regular season.
While we’re recognizing seniors, defensive backs Jason Hendricks and K’Waun Williams each contributed a TFL (tackle for a loss), among the 12 Pitt collected in the game.
Seniors not as fortunate included quarterback Tom Savage, who couldn’t play the second half of his final college game because of injured ribs that have been nagging him for several weeks. Prior to the game, he had said barely a word, publicly, about them.
“He’s the toughest kid I know,” backup quarterback Chad Voytik said.
Also, what had to be going through the heads of seniors Devin Street and Cory King, also sidelined by injuries in the final weeks of their collegiate careers?
For Pitt fans, the future looks bright, but – as coach Paul Chryst will  tell you — that means nothing. Now, they have to go do it.
Several players who were productive against Bowling Green return — the freshmen’s stories have been well-chronicled, I think — but no one has said much about sophomore Nicholas Grigsby.
Grigsby, who brings something approaching sprinter’s speed to the linebacker position, led Pitt with 2 1/2 TFLs (minus-17 yards) and looks to be one of the keys to the 2014 defense that will miss Donald’s play-making ability. Coaches have paid special attention to Grigsby in each of the past three training camps, and he has responded well to some tough love.
Pitt has been in this position previously, winning its final game in 2007, 2009 and 2010, only to underachieve the next season. The last two times before Thursday that Pitt won a bowl game, its coach was gone by the end of the next season.
In 2009, the Panthers beat North Carolina, 19-17, in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, but opened 2010 2-3. Two months later,  Dave Wannstedt was fired.
Few remember Pitt won its first appearance in the BBVA Compass Bowl, 27-10, against Kentucky after the ’10 season before opening the 2011 season 3-4 under Todd Graham.
The thrill of the 13-9 upset of West Virginia to end the 2007 season turned into a season-opening loss to Bowling Green, 27-17, in 2008.
Is there work to do next year? You bet, both in recruiting and player development. Chryst also must hire a strength and conditioning coach after Todd Rice resigned earlier this month with a training room that housed a few too many sore backs.
One of the most interesting talking points of the victory against Bowling Green was how it conjured up memories of Pitt greats Tony Dorsett, Darrelle Revis and Larry Fitzgerald.
Tyler Boyd’s punt return for a touchdown was Pitt’s first since Revis did it in 2006 against West Virginia. Boyd also broke three of Fitzgerald’s receiving records.
James Conner ran for 229 yards to break Dorsett’s school bowl record.
But before I make any more predictions that I don’t release, I’ll wait to see how the offseason unfolds.

 

December 18, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Ohio State’s Spence might have been pass-rushing for Pitt

Bishop McDevitt coach Jeff Weachter told me the other day that he believes Ohio State defensive end Noah Spence, a five-star McDevitt graduate, could have ended up at Pitt.
If …
“He would have went to Pitt, if they hadn’t fired Dave Wannstedt,” Weachter said.
Of course, even if Wannstedt had stayed, Spence still could have had his head turned by Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Which is what happened when Meyer swooped in and got a commitment from Spence in December, 2011, three weeks after he was hired in Columbus. Actually, Meyer was lucky: Spence grew up loving Penn State, but looked elsewhere when scandal rocked the school.
Spence, a sophomore, had 14 tackles for a loss, including 7 1/2 sacks, for Ohio State this season.
The story shows how firing a college coach who is popular with high school coaches can set back a program. Wannstedt was a star when he walked into a high school, but he was an underachiever as Pitt’s coach. The administration correctly believed it was time for the program to start making more positive strides, both on and off the field.
Pitt’s mistake was following up with two unfortunate hires — the clumsy Michael Haywood and the impatient and ambitious Todd Graham.
Weachter wasn’t especially impressed with Graham.
“He was in that job for four months before he decided to contact Noah,” he said.
Although the two events are not related, it’s funny that Spence committed to Ohio State a few days after Graham left for Arizona State.
Weachter said he and his players had a better relationship with Wannstedt, and they are developing good rapport with Pitt coach Paul Chryst.
Chryst, by the way, is closely monitoring 2015 Bishop McDevitt running back Andre Robinson and a few other juniors and sophomores at one of the state’s top football schools.

Johnson could make a difference
Someone asked why Bowling Green, a Mid-American Conference school without the resources enjoyed by the ACC, can be a six-point favorite over Pitt in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
One reason is quarterback Matt Johnson, overlooked by major schools, including Pitt, largely because he is 6-foot-tall. But Johnson threw five touchdown passes against Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game in which he was the best quarterback on a field that included Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch.
Johnson played at Bishop McDevitt where Weachter marveled at his pupil’s work ethic. Weachter said Johnson worked hard, even in the offseason and during breaks in the school day.
“The joke was I had lunch with Matt more than I did my wife,” he said.
Weachter likes to tell the story of the 2010 state semifinals when McDevitt was trailing Erie Prep, 21-3, at halftime. Johnson had been working with former Steelers and Maryland quarterback Dick Shiner, a friend of quarterback Frank Reich, who led memorable comeback victories from 31- and 32-point deficits when he was with Maryland and the Buffalo Bills. Shiner spent a lot of time talking to Johnson about Reich.
“Matt looked at me and said, `Hey, coach, Frank Reich,’ ” Weachter said. ”He brought us back and we won, 24-21. That’s just Matt.”

December 15, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt gets second Florida recruit

Pitt successfully reached into Florida for the second time this year when linebacker James Folston Jr. of Cocoa High School told coach Paul Chryst on Saturday that he plans to enroll next year.
Quarterback Wade Freebeck of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., gave Pitt a verbal commitment earlier this year.
Pitt, which has 20 verbals from nine states, needs to build pipelines throughout the ACC to supplement its resources in the WPIAL. It also has a promise from defensive tackle Mike Herndon of Staunton, Va.
Pitt has received promises from six WPIAL players. Top area players Shai McKenzie of Washington, Alex Bookser of Mt. Lebanon and Montae Nicholson of Gateway are uncommitted.
Folston, 6-3, 201 pounds, is the son of former Oakland Raiders linebacker James Folston. He is one of seven two-star prospects, according to Rivals.com rankings, in this year’s class. His brother Tarean Folston is a freshman running back at Notre Dame.
With at least 20 recruits coming in next year and only 17 seniors exhausting their eligibility, Chryst will continue to rework the Pitt roster as he enters his third year as head coach.

December 9, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt bowl game means difference between 6-7 and 7-6

Maybe I wasn’t listening well enough, but I didn’t hear much complaining about Pitt getting an invitation to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
I guess fans are just happy it’s not Birmingham — which gets a bad rap, by the way. Most of them are aware that with a losing record (3-5) in the ACC, Pitt is fortunate to have a 13th game on its schedule. Even if it’s a weekday game in Detroit on the day after Christmas.
The per-team payout is $750,000, and only seven bowls pay less. Even the BBVA Compass Bowl will offer Houston of the American Athletic Conference $900,000.
But it’s not about the money. Coach Paul Chryst just wants the extra practices to start making preparations for next season when he’ll have to start over with a new quarterback.
I’m sure athletic director Steve Pederson tried to politic and call in some favors, but he just didn’t have enough ammunition. Even though Pitt owns impressive victories against Duke and Notre Dame, losses to Navy, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami — good teams; nothing special — were too much to overcome. Turn around just two of those five, and Pitt’s bowl fortunes would have been greatly improved.
Pitt and Maryland are the only two of 11 bowl-bound ACC schools with a losing conference record. Maryland was targeted long ago for the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Md., for a logical reason of geography. Pitt might have liked that game, but Maryland is playing Marshall (who cares?) and the Panthers get MAC champion Bowling Green (tougher opponent).
Pitt is 29-3 all-time against MAC schools, and one of those was a loss to Bowling Green in the 2008 opener. If Pitt had won that game, it would have won 10 games two years in row (the Panthers also did it in 2009).
That’s history, though. Chryst wants only to live in the moment. A victory against Bowling Green would give Pitt (6-6 overall) its first winning season since 2010 when all the coaching turmoil erupted.
There is a big difference between 6-7 and 7-6.

 

December 1, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Trying to make some sense out of Pitt’s bowl hopes

There have been several questions recently about Pitt’s bowl hopes.
As there should be.
Pitt ended its regular season 2-4, landing on the soft, 4-2 cushion it built over the first half of the season. Plus, there are 78 bowl-eligible schools for 70 slots.
OK. The math looks bad, but if you’re counting on that Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26 in Detroit — and I know you are — you need not fret.
Despite its problems, Pitt’s victories against Duke  (10-2 and headed to the ACC championship game) and Notre Dame (8-4) will carry some weight. Although it’s true Pitt fans typically don’t travel well to bowl games (and the day after Christmas in Detroit doesn’t sound like a party), several other teams have similar travel problems.
Of those 78 teams with the requisite six victories, five are from the Sun Belt and seven from the MAC, all hoping to get a bid. (Sun Belt champion Louisiana-Lafayette is already making plans for the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 21.). If it comes down to Pitt, Troy, Texas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Central Michigan, my money’s on Pitt.
I can say representatives from the AdvoCare V100 Bowl (Shreveport, La., Dec. 31) were sniffing around Pitt before the loss to Miami, but that’s an ACC bowl (No. 7 pick). The ACC leads the nation with 11 bowl-eligible teams, but nine are ahead of Pitt. The bowl holding the eighth ACC choice (Military Bowl on Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Md.) might be a landing spot for Maryland, at least logistically.
Army (3-8) is leaving a Poinsettia Bowl berth on the table, but that game is in San Diego on Dec. 26. Too far from Pittsburgh? Perhaps.
Has anyone mentioned the Pinstripe Bowl? The game (Dec. 28 in Yankee Stadium) is ticketed for the seventh Big 12 team, but that conference only has six bowl-eligible teams. Thank you, WVU.
That’s also the case in Detroit where the pizza guys would have preferred the eighth Big Ten team, but there are only seven.  Thank you, Penn State.
And, because you asked, a fourth return trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl (Jan. 4 in Birmingham, Ala.) isn’t theoretically impossible. Yeah, really. That bowl, which gets a new sponsor in 2015, is counting on the fifth team from the American Athletic Conference (you remember it as the Big East), but the AAC has only four. The AAC’s Rutgers (5-6) can gain bowl eligibility with a victory Saturday against visiting South Florida. Wouldn’t that be a nice parting gift for Rutgers, which is leaving for the Big Ten next year? Thank you, Rutgers (in advance).
Of course, closed-door meetings, secret telephone conversations and athletic directors and coaches calling in favors can and will change several bowl scenarios.
Note to Steve Pederson: If you need anyone to take notes at those meetings, I’m available.

November 29, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Bad news for Pitt: No snow, no rain, no bitter cold

Bad news for Pitt on Saturday – the newly resodded turf at Heinz Field is dry, and temperatures are in the 30s.
If any Miami players find it difficult to endure what is normal weather for November — in any venue, north of Florida — the Hurricanes are in real trouble.
Actually, Pitt’s in the most trouble, with the left side of its offensive line — Adam Bisnowaty and Cory King (back injuries) – and wide receiver Devin Street (elbow and ankle) not expected to play on Senior Day. Street would give Pitt a speed element to counteract Miami’s athleticism, which isn’t just at wide receiver. Plus, he’s a senior and a team leader.
I try not to tell Paul Chryst how to run his program — he doesn’t tell me how or what I should write — but if I’m Pitt’s coach, I let Street get up in front of his teammates for a pregame, Rockne-type speech. I’d like to have video of that.
Pitt will need an exceptional effort to win, but expect a close game. Every Pitt game since New Mexico — that’s nine in a row — has been decided by 11 points or fewer. Five were one-possession differences, and Pitt is 3-2 in those games.

November 26, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Busy December for Donald

Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a finalist for four national trophies, will attend at least three award ceremonies in three cities during the week of Dec. 8.
So far, Donald is a finalist for the Lombardi, Outland, Bednarski and Nagurski awards.
He will be in Charlotte on Dec. 9 for the Nagurski event, along with the other two finalists — cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State and Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State.
Accompanied by school officials, he will then board an airplane for the Lombardi on Dec. 11 in Houston.  His competition there will be linebackers Anthony Barr of UCLA and C.J. Mosley of Alabama and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.
After that, he heads to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for The Home Depot College Football Awards Dec. 12 where he will be joined by 22 other finalists who are up for nine awards. The Outland and Bedarik trophies will be handed out there. Texas A&M and Florida State have four and three nominations each. Donald is one of four players — quarterback Johnny Manziel, A.J. McCarron and Jameis Winston are the others – who are finalists for two.
Barr and Mosley are the other finalists for the Bednarik; offensive linemen Jake Matthews of Texas A&M and Cyril Richardson of Baylor will be Donald’s competition for the Outland.
Donald  is also a semifinalist for the Lott IMPACT award, and those finalists, who will attend the banquet Dec. 8 in Newport Beach, Calif., will be announced Wednesday.
Oh, one more …
The Heisman Trophy will be awarded in New York City on Dec. 14. If Donald has an exceptional game Friday against Miami, don’t be surprised if he gets an invitation. Donald’s dominance around the line of scrimmage and his infestation of opposing backfields have opened a lot of eyes around the country.
That would make five banquets in seven days. By the end of the week, I’ll bet Donald will be relieved to be back at the Pitt cafeteria.

November 24, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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Final thoughts from Syracuse

Quick blog post before boarding a plane in Syracuse for a trip to Philadelphia and, finally, home:
It was pointed to me this morning that, for all the positive vibes from Pitt’s 17-16 victory at the Carrier Dome on Saturday, the Panthers are still in next-to-last place in the Coastal Division of the ACC.
Plus, a loss to Miami will  mean Pitt finishes the regular season 6-6 for the third consecutive season.
Is that progress?
I can’t say that it is until I see how performs in its bowl game — the last two were disasters in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. — and what the spring holds.
(Just as an aside, I think the quarterback situation will be interesting with coach Paul Chryst choosing from among Chad Voytik, who will entering his sophomore season, and two incoming freshmen — Wade Freebeck and Adam Bertke — who will not arrive on campus until after they graduate from high school in June.)
The bottom line is Chryst has the program pointed in the right direction, building an attitude among his players of accountability and responsibility. You had to like the way that cornerback Lafayette Pitts reacted to getting benched in the first quarter of the North Carolina game. He said he wasn’t working hard enough and needed to get better, and it was Pitts who knocked away Syracuse’s final fourth-down pass that ensured the victory.
It starts with Chryst, a humble man who refused to take credit for calling the timeout that prevented Syracuse from scoring a decisive touchdown on a fake field-goal attempt. There are a lot of college and NFL coaches who would step forward and say, “Hey, look at me.”
Bill Cowher in Super Bowl XXX comes to mind when he walked up to the line judge and asked him how he liked the successful onside kick call.
Chryst also knows a thing or two about offense. Having quarterback Tom Savage go to the short drops and quick releases wasn’t a genius move — many coaches would have done the same thing – but it worked.
That’s what matters.

November 23, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola


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No snow in Syracuse — yet — as Pitt prepares to meet Syracuse

Arrived safely at the Carrier Dome Saturday morning, even though the nice lady on the television machine this morning was using phrases such as “bitter cold” and “snow squalls.” I only saw a trace of flakes on my car (didn’t need the scraper).
Yet, it’s windy and cold outside the Carrier Dome  (not much warmer inside, truth be told, but brighter than I remember from last year), and I wonder what we might encounter after the game. Reminds of the 1993 Big East Tournament when I walked to Madison Square Garden on dry sidewalks, only to emerge at the end of the day and be greeted by 2 feet of snow. Found a cabbie, who got me safely to the hotel, but he drove through snow-clogged streets like he was trying out for the Indianapolis 500.
Pitt could use similar speed Saturday against Syracuse (how’s that for a transition, Dejan?) while trying for the second week in a row to become bowl-eligible. Here are the keys:
Protect Tom Savage.
Cover punts.
I predict a big day for one of the two Pitt freshmen (Tyler Boyd or James Conner).
Final score (watch, but don’t bet): Pitt 27, Syracuse 24.
Pitt is hampered by injuries, most of them caused by big hits in games and the natural wear and tear of 10 games and a month of preseason practices. But back injuries are becoming a nagging concern for Pitt.
Starting offensive linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Cory King won’t play Saturday for that reason. They didn’t even make the trip, which has to be especially depressing for King, a senior.
Bisnowaty will miss for the third time in four weeks; King, who also has a hamstring issue, hasn’t played since the Virginia Tech game Oct. 12. Plus, Ejuan Price, an emerging pass rusher, has a back injury that will keep him out for the fifth consecutive game after he started the previous four. A concussion kept freshman defensive back Titus Howard at home, but Trenton Coles, who missed last week for the same reason, will dress.
Look for senior wide receiver Devin Street to wrap that injured ankle tightly and try to play. Street has played this season with passion, and with his college opportunities dwindling, he doesn’t want to let this one get away from him. But Pitt will need him even more next Friday against Miami.
Some trivia before signing off: Pitt is playing in the Carrier Dome for the second year in a row for the first time since 1974-75. Is that Pitt’s penance for having two nationally televised, prime-time home games this season (Florida State and Notre Dame)?
For updates on the game throughout the day, follow @JDiPaola_Trib on Twitter. I am also planning to join Tab Douglas on 93.7-FM The Fan Saturday night at 11.

 

 

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