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August 15, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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NCAA student-athletes, including those at Pitt, enjoy their smorgasbords

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The night he led Connecticut to the national basketball championship, guard Shabazz Napier said he sometimes went to sleep hungry because NCAA restrictions limited how much food his school could provide him.
Not long after that, the NCAA said to its student-athletes: Eat as much as you want. There now are no limits on how much food schools can serve.
As part of the ruling, the NCAA said schools no longer need to trim the cost of so-called training-table meals from monthly scholarship checks.
But Dan Bartholomae, who is Pitt’s executive associate athletic director for compliance and administration, said all but two ACC schools will continue to take back the cost of the meals.
Pitt is one of the generous ones, he said.
At Pitt, it means a nutrition center has been set up in the weight room of the football team’s practice facility where players can get protein shakes and granola bars. “Quick fuel for a workout,” Bartholomae said.
Plus, breakfast foods are available in the players’ second-floor cafeteria, complete with a waffle iron.  Lunch and dinner also are served.
It amounts to what Bartholomae said is a “24/7 fueling station, all day long, every day.” It’s the same for athletes of all sports, including walk-ons, who still must buy a food plan, but are fed when they are with the team.
Is it too late for Paul Chryst to offer me a scholarship?

One more note from Friday:
Chryst gave his players a break at the end of practice when he organized a water balloon fight.
It was a welcome respite from the 13 consecutive days (so far) of camp.
“Camp is long and you are here all day,” senior safety Ray Vinopal said. “To be able to go out there and throw
some water balloons at someone who might have (ticked) you off earlier in practice is pretty fun.”
Long after practice, some water from a stray balloon accidentally splashed on a TV photographer and his camera. No harm was done, but Chryst found the player responsible and demanded he apologize to the photographer.
Just another example of how Chryst runs his program, making everyone accountable for every action.

 

 

 

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August 15, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Chryst’s experimentation makes sense, but it must end soon

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A mystery on the Pitt offensive line surfaced this week when offensive left tackle Adam Bisnowaty started taking snaps at left guard and redshirt freshman Jaryd Jones-Smith was inserted at left tackle.
Offensive line coach Jim Hueber said he was just getting players ready in the event something went wrong in the future. The next day, coach Paul Chryst said change was not out of the question.
I say none of it is a good sign.
Any offensive line coach — Hueber, too — will tell you that continuity among the five starters is important to consistent success. Find five guys and work them every day until they are so familiar with each other’s moves and thoughts that they are operating like one, efficient machine. You can’t do that by shaking up the depth chart.
Pitt still has time to keep its five together and have them build a strong rapport before the opener Aug.  30. There is another full week of training camp remaining before preparations for Delaware need to begin.
But, to me, it’s just another sign that Pitt is nowhere near where it needs to be — at a lot of positions (the secondary comes to  mind).
Is that normal in August? Actually, yes.
But Chryst and Hueber don’t want to be experimenting in October. If you see that happen, then Pitt fans can start to panic.
A similar situation has developed at quarterback where Chryst has yet to name a starter.  Everyone believes Chad Voytik will get the nod over Trey Anderson, but here’s my theory on why Chryst has kept silent:
Chryst comes from the old school of coaches where nothing is handed to a player until he earns it. Hard work throughout training camp — not someone’s perceived notion — is the currency that buys a starting job.
To name Voytik the starter on the first day of camp after he played only one half of football last season would send a wrong message. That would be contrary to how Chryst was raised by his father, a football coach, and what he now expects from the Pitt players.
That being said, no one works harder than Voytik. By all accounts, he all but lives in the video room with his coach. Over the spring and summer, he prepared diligently in daily throwing sessions with his teammates to play the game’s most demanding position.
Let me say this: If Chryst named Voytik the starter Friday or Saturday, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s been nearly two weeks since the start of camp, and putting matters in place on the eve of the final week would fit perfectly with Chryst’s sense of order.
At some point very soon, it will be time to stop experimenting and begin getting ready for the season.

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August 12, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Chryst says Thomas’ injury isn’t serious

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It’s probably not ideal when the first sight at Pitt practice is this:
One of the starting outside linebackers pedaling on the exercise bike with strength coach Ross Kolodziej.
That, of course, is senior Todd Thomas, who came out of heavy traffic Monday with what appears to be a leg injury and, then, missed practice Tuesday.
Coach Paul Chryst said it is not serious.
“He’ll be back,” Chryst said. “I don’t know if it will be tomorrow or the next day, but it’s sooner rather than later.”
The outside linebacker position was further depleted by the absence of Bam Bradley, who was inserted into the lineup Monday after Thomas was injured. Chryst said Bradley was excused to attend to a family matter. That gave Nicholas Grigsby more snaps than usual.
Meanwhile, freshman middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis should circle Tuesday in red on his calendar. He made several plays on the ball, drawing unsolicited praise from Chryst when the coach met with reporters.
“I noticed him,” Chryst said of Wirginis.
I don’t claim to know the man better than anyone else, but one aspect of Chryst’s coaching style that is beyond question is that he saves his compliments for when they are truly deserved.
One more note: Not sure which of these two feats were more impressive: Freshman Qadree Ollison bursting through the middle for a 45-yard gain, or freshman cornerback Avonte Maddox running him down.
By the way, freshman wide receiver Adonis Jennings (groin) returned to practice and was hanging around the punt returners, including Tyler Boyd.

 

Todd he’ll be back I don’t know if it will be tomorrow or the next day but it’s sooner than later

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August 8, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt defensive end Devin Cook’s big moment of 2013

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Every morning, not long after 10, Pitt defensive end coach John Palermo dons a stylish Panama hat to protect  himself from the sun and gathers his players around him at a corner of the Beano Cook fields closest to the South Side railroad tracks.
Pass-rush class is in session.
Every sack recorded by the Panthers’ ends this season will originate on that patch of grass through the teachings of Palermo, 62. It’s not like Pitt’s ends have many sacks on their resumes: Sophomore Shakir Soto and junior Devin Cook  have one each. Palermo, who has instructed defensive players on 14 teams for the past 40 years, is showing them the way to the quarterback.
Palermo interrupted his lesson Thursday to remind his players of a play within a play last season that went largely unnoticed, but was one of the biggest in Pitt’s 58-55 victory against eventual ACC Coastal Division champion Duke.
“Cook doesn’t know it, but he is the one who won the Duke game for us,” Palermo said.
When he heard Palermo’s statement, James Conner gave Cook, a junior from Beaver Falls, a congratulatory fist bump. Actually, Cook remembers the game and the play well.
It was midway through the fourth quarter while the Pitt defense was trying to hold off a potent Duke offense. Pitt led, 51-41, but Duke had scored the game’s past 13 points. On third-and-4 from the Duke 35-yard line, Cook pressured quarterback Brandon Connette, forcing him to flick the ball away sooner than he wanted. Two yards beyond the line of scrimmage, Pitt linebacker Anthony Gonzalez was there for the interception and a 37-yard touchdown that ensured the victory.
Cook said he had changed pass-rush tactics on the Duke tackle, opting for a speed rush instead of the bull (power) rush he had been using previously that afternoon.
“I hit him with a nice chop rip and turned the corner real tight and got to the quarterback and made him throw to his check-down and Gonzo was right there,” Cook said.  ”(The tackle) was sitting inside and I went right around  him with speed.”
(Cook used plenty of football jargon that simply means he went around the tackle instead of trying to go through him and hurried the quarterback into doing something he didn’t want to do.)
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t  have a completely happy ending for Cook, who tore an MCL and ACL in his knee later in the game and was lost for the season after having surgery.
That was less than a year ago.
Diligent work in the trainer’s room — Cook credits trainers Rob Blanc and Tim Dunlavey — allowed him to return to the field this summer. He discarded the knee brace three months ago because he didn’t want it to hinder is pass-rush ability.
Knee surgery patients usually take  a year or more to return to normal. Former Pitt running back Ray Graham was wearing his brace more than a year after his surgery. Cook’s was gone in eight months.
If Cook is completely healed, he will give Pitt a needed boost at the defensive end position that lost Ejuan Price for the season with a pec injury.
I’m betting when Cook gets his first sack this season, he’ll go straight to Palermo, Blanc and Dunlavey and say, ”Thank you.”

– The fourth day of training camp was unusual for the fact that coach Paul Chryst gave wide receiver Tyler Boyd the day off for what former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma might have termed a maintenance day.
“We wanted to give him some stuff (work) inside (probably in the weight room),” Chryst said. “We have to be smart and balance that workload and take care of the guy.”
Chryst said he may do the same for other key players this summer. Boyd did come out to the field near the end of the practice, but did not participate. Chryst said his star wide receiver will return Friday.

– Running back James Conner continues to have a busy and productive camp, playing on both sides of the ball. He had one of the biggest hits of a physical practice — players wore shoulder pads for the second consecutive day — when he got a running start and lowered  his shoulder into freshman safety Patrick Amara.

– Offensive line coach Jim Hueber liked the hitting today.
“We practiced a little bit the first day like we still had underwear on,” he said. “We made great strides at the end of practice. We showed some mental toughness.”
Players will wear full gear Friday.

– Speaking of the offensive line, sophomore left guard Dorian Johnson said he has gained 20 pounds to 310 since his freshman season and wants to be at 315 for the season.

– Freshman to watch: Defensive end Rori Blair of Upper St. Clair. At 6-4, 230 pounds, he looks the part (actually, that’s true of many players on the team this season), but he is also learning his lessons well after enrolling in January and taking part in spring drills.
“He has done a nice job of picking stuff up,” Chryst said. “There are times when he is playing fast and times where it’s still new to him a little bit.”
 

 

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August 6, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt training camp Day 2: The emergence of Chris James

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Pitt freshman running back Chris James has looked good over the first two days of training camp — or, as well as any player can look when no one is wearing pads.
But when senior linebackers Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas ran him down on a running play, James said, “That’s definitely when I realized you’re here now, and you’re not the fastest on the field anymore.”
Running backs coach John Settle said James is living up to the hype that buzzed around him when he was a star at Notre Dame (Ill.) College Prep last year.
But Settle said there is more to the young running back than breakaway speed.
“The biggest thing I like about him so far is he hasn’t shown any fear when it comes to pass protection,” Settle said. “He stepped up in blitz periods and took guys on, and he’s not with the young guys. He’s going against the vets.”
That’s promising and a testament to James’ toughness because he wasn’t asked to do much pass-blocking in high school.
“Our team was very run-first,” he said. “I told myself I’m going to have to start blocking (at Pitt). You definitely have to set your feet and sometimes take the hit.”
James said the next step is to learn the plays, so he can display his play-making ability.
“I can turn a 5-yard run into an 80-yard run,” he said.
While senior Isaac Bennett is practicing, but limited, due to shoulder surgery, James is the immediate backup to starter James Conner.

– Quick Conner story: The sophomore running back was waiting his turn during a pass-catching drill when a pass caromed off the intended receiver. Conner could have let it fall. He was only watching off to the side. But he dived for the ball, kept it off the ground and ran it into the end zone.

– Defensive coordinator Matt House praised both contestants in the battle for the starting position at strong safety.
Reggie Mitchell moved onto the first team Tuesday ahead of Terrish Webb, who was there Monday. Mitchell didn’t play last year after transferring from Wisconsin, but he is catching up to Webb, a big contributor last season as a freshman.
“Terrish is really, really bright,” House said. “Reggie is too. Reggie loves to compete. Reggie’s got great quickness. It’s a good battle going on back there.”
Actually, both will play extensively. One will start at strong safety, next to free safety Ray Vinopal. The other will be the nickel back in a five-DB alignment House will use frequently this season.
Pitt coaches expect to run into several sophisticated passing games in the ACC.
“Those three guys are sponges. They are fun to coach,” House said. “You go in the meeting room, they ask questions and they want to be coached.”

– Middle linebacker Matt Galambos got an earful from assistant strength and conditioning coach Kenechi Udeze when he made a nice move to step in front of a pass intended for tight end Scott Orndoff, but couldn’t hold onto the ball.
Udeze, by the way, won a national championship at USC in 2003 and was a first-round NFL draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings in 2004.

– Coach Paul Chryst is eager to advance training camp to the next stage Wednesday – shoulder pads.
“When we get the pads on, we’ll be able to do a little more work in the run game,” he said. “It’s a little bit safer.”

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August 5, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Sights and sounds of Day 1: Pitt training camp

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Too bad there are no homes close to the Beano Cook Fields adjacent to Pitt’s training complex on the South Side. Anyone who overslept would have been awakened by the sounds of the first day of the Panthers’ training camp.
And I’m not talking about the regular click-clack and rumble of the trains that roll by the fields.
The first outburst was from sophomore cornerback Trenton Coles, suddenly thrust into one of the most pivotal positions on the field with the suspension of his former Clairton teammate Titus Howard.
Coles ran onto the field like he was chasing someone or being chased, clapping his hands and shouting, “All right, everyone’s here.”
Later, Coles sounded almost defiant when he told reporters that he can handle the important and difficult responsibilities at cornerback.
“I have to stay confident,” he said. “If you’re not confident, you aren’t playing right. I believe in myself. I believe in what I can do. I’m going to do it.”
The secondary will be an interesting topic of conversation all season, with so little depth behind starters Coles, Lafayette Pitts and safeties Ray Vinopal and Terrish Webb. But don’t forget about Shady Side Academy graduate Reggie Mitchell. (That’s four out of five from the WPIAL, by the way).
Coaches love Mitchell’s athleticism and versatility – he can play safety, corner and nickel – and he has made the transition from Wisconsin with little apparent trouble.
Speaking of noise, secondary coach Troy Douglas made a little when he implored his defensive backs to “Play the ball, please.”
Yeah, he said, `Please,’ but he wasn’t being polite.
Douglas has emphasized an all-out attack on the football – whether it’s in the air or in the arms of a running back.
“If we chase the ball, we have a chance on defense,” he said.
Coles agrees. “The ball is the issue,” he said. “That’s money floating around.”
One other exchange between player and coach caught my eye. That was when wide receivers coach Greg Lewis insisted that freshman Adonis Jennings pick up the football and run it into the end zone after a pass intended for him fell incomplete.
Lewis, who played eight seasons in the NFL, repeated the command three times to Jennings before the young man got the idea, found the ball that had bounded far out of his reach and, indeed, ran it across the goal line.
Trivial events? Maybe.
But Douglas and Lewis are teaching their players accountability and a refusal to look for shortcuts.
By the way, I’m no scout, but Jennings looks like a promising wide receiver in the swift, crisp manner he runs his routes and with his mere physical presence (6-3, 195). He’s going to contribute, perhaps, before any of the other freshmen.

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July 29, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Some Pitt thoughts on the brink of training camp

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Random thoughts, with Pitt training camp opening Aug. 4:
* The Panthers look solid in terms of experience on the offensive line, but the player to watch is big tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith. Yes, he is glaringly inexperienced, but he is 6-foot-7, 335 pounds, with an incredible reach that must make weightlifting an adventure for him. Line coach Jim Hueber trusted Jones-Smith enough in the spring to give him most of the reps with the first team while Adam Bisnowaty recovered from a back injury. By all accounts, Bisnowaty is OK, but Jones-Smith, a redshirt freshman, gives Hueber a nice alternative in the event of injury or ineffective play (one of which will surface somewhere on the line at some time in camp).
* But, among the starters, the player to watch on the line is senior right tackle T.J. Clemmings. He struggled last season in his debut effort on offense after playing defense for his first three years at Pitt. But coaches are raving about him, he has become a leader among his teammates and coach Paul Chryst has great respect for the hard work he has put into his position switch. Clemmings was named one of three winners of the Ed Conway Award for the most improved offensive player in the spring. Keep an eye on Clemmings’ development.
* The other Ed Conway winners were two other seniors, defensive end David Durham and linebacker Todd Thomas (special teams). Both are keys to the defense this season. Durham plays a position where the Panthers are thin — that was the case even before Ejuan Price was lost for the season with a pec injury — and Thomas is eager to make an impact on the team in his final year of eligibility.
* The initial depth chart, released last week when Pitt passed out its media guides at the ACC meetings in Greensboro, N.C., shows only seven  seniors among the 25 first-team players. They are Clemmings, Durham, Thomas, wide receiver Manasseh Garner (who is developing into a respected presence in the locker room), right guard Matt Rotheram, outside linebacker Anthony Gonzalez and free safety Ray Vinopal. Of course, depth charts in July are rarely worth the paper they are printed on  (it is some nice, glossy stuff, though), but there are only four other seniors on the entire roster.  They are: running back Isaac Bennett (recovering from shoulder surgery), wide receiver Kevin Weatherspoon (one of Chryst’s favorites), fullback Adam Lazenga and defensive lineman LaQuentin Smith.
* Of the 11 seniors, nine are the last personnel remaining from the Dave Wannstedt era. The exceptions are Bennett and Smith, who were signed by Todd Graham in 2011.
* Actually, there are other key players — recruited and signed by Graham that year — who will be of immense help this season. They include three starters — center Artie Rowell, defensive tackle K.K. Mosley Smith and cornerback Lafayette Pitts. The others are listed backups Nicholas Grigsby at linebacker and Ronald Jones at wide receiver, plus defensive end Devin Cook and safety Jevonte Pitts.

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July 16, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Price’s injury: Bad break for Pitt

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Every time I write or hear about Ejuan Price — or see him perform at practice or in a game – I think about a conversation I had with former Pitt defensive coordinator Keith Patterson.
That walking-out-to-practice chat with Patterson came back to me Wednesday morning when Pitt reported that Price is lost for the season with a second pectoral injury. (This time to the left side — he missed the 2012 season with a right pec injury.)
I asked Patterson to name the best pass rusher he had coached, and he said, “Ask me that same question in about three years and I might say, `Ejuan Price is the best pass rusher I’ve coached.’ ”
It should be noted that Patterson coached former Steelers great Jason Gildon at Altus (Okla.) High School.
It’s now three years later, and Price will miss his second full season at Pitt. He was scheduled for pec surgery Wednesday.
Pitt officials reported that Price was injured this week during an informal workout.
Price, a Woodland Hills graduate, originally signed with Ohio State in 2011 before changing his mind and switching to Pitt four months later. He started five games and recorded four sacks as a freshman in ’11 before his first pec injury. He missed seven games last season with a back injury after recording one sack, and he also was out for much of the spring.
But he was listed at 255 pounds this summer — a significant gain of 25 pounds since the spring — and was expected to seriously compete for playing time at a position where Pitt needs the help.
Price was listed as a redshirt junior — he took a redshirt two years ago — and would have been an experienced hand and a source of quickness and power off the edge. Now, Pitt is left with projected starters David Durham, a fifth-year senior, and sophomore Shakir Soto. The rest of the depth chart at defensive end includes redshirt junior Devin Cook (coming off a knee injury), redshirt freshman Luke Maclean and incoming freshmen Rori Blair, Shane Roy and Hez Trahan.
Of course, running back James Conner probably will spend some time at defensive end after training camp opens Aug. 3. But his ultimate availability there depends largely on the depth situation at running back, a position that may be without a fully recovered Isaac Bennett (shoulder) for the start of camp. Freshman running back Chris James’ transition to the college game will be a storyline worth watching next month.
Meanwhile, Price will undergo rehab. Bad break for him; bad break for Pitt.

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July 7, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Maxwell, Hornung award namesakes played prominent roles in the history of college and pro football

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Pitt sophomores Tyler Boyd and James Conner were added to the watch lists for the Maxwell and Hornung awards Monday.
For no particular reason — other than simple curiosity — I decided I wanted to know more about the awards’ namesakes — Robert ”Tiny” Maxwell and Paul Hornung.
They played college and professional football to great success 50 years apart, but they also are indirectly linked through — of all things – gambling. One man did gamble; the other refused.
Hornung played halfback, safety and kicked for Notre Dame, winning the 1956 Heisman Trophy by 72 points over runner-up Johnny Majors. Hornung also played basketball for the Irish.
The Hornung award, which is only four years old, goes to the college football player  judged to be the most versatile. Conner is expected to play running back and defensive end when Pitt opens training camp Aug. 3; Boyd is one of the nation’s top pass catchers and a threat in the return game.
Hornung, who played on the great Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960s, was suspended in 1963, along with Alex Karras, by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for betting on games and associating with undesirable characters.
Maxwell, who played for Swarthmore College (near Philadelphia), also played professionally for two Ohio teams, the Massillon Tigers and Canton Bulldogs, and an outfit known as the Pittsburgh Lyceums.
Just as an aside, the Lyceums, according to some accounts, was the city’s last championship football team until the 1970s. Later, in 1924, Art Rooney Sr. played for the Lyceums, according to a photo from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That has nothing to do with Tiny, but I thought it was a cool anecdote.
Anyway, when Maxwell played for Massillon in 1906, he was approached by a teammate to throw a game against Canton in what became known as the first major scandal in pro football.
Maxwell, a man of great character (after all, he later became a game official and a sports writer), reported the perpetrator and the scandal died.
Maxwell also is tied to an incident that enraged President Teddy Roosevelt.
In 1905, Maxwell played guard for Swarthmore – he was its best player — in a game against Penn. Maxwell left the game with a broken nose, eyes swollen shut and his face resembling steak tartare, according to a 1984 Sports Illustrated story.
When Roosevelt saw a photo of Maxwell’s bloodied face, he wanted to ban football from the U.S. landscape.
Eventually, he relented – Roosevelt was said to have been a fan – but subsequent regulations were aimed at making the game safer. Those included doubling the first-down yardage to 10, reducing the game from 70 to 6o minutes, tougher penalties against roughing, the establishment of a neutral zone on the line of scrimmage the length of the football and the legalization of the forward pass.
In other words, shaping the game much as we know it today.

 

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June 30, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Chryst’s talk, hands-on efforts capture crowd at Wolvarena

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When Pitt coach Paul Chryst showed up at the Woodland Hills Wolvarena last Friday night to speak at a football camp, no one expected him to stay until dark.
But Chryst was in no hurry to leave.
He spoke to about three dozen young adults with Down Syndrome at the “Camp For The Stars,” capturing their attention with his message of seizing opportunities. Then, when he finished, he stayed for the game.
“And he wasn’t just watching,” said Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak, who was there along with Woodland Hills coach George Novak and their entire teams. “He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and he was showing (the players) how to throw, catch and kick.”
The two-day camp, in its sixth year, allows the young adults to mingle and learn from the high school players.
The camp has flourished largely due to the efforts of San Francisco 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who was born in Homestead and played for Novak and with Cherpak at Steel Valley High School. Tomsula participates in a similar camp in San Francisco, through former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci’s foundation.
Cherpak said Tomsula’s entire family gets involved in all aspects of the camp, and the night turns into a homecoming for him.
Joining Chryst was Pitt’s director of football relations Bob Junko, who gave a 15-minute talk. I’ve been a fly on the wall for some of Junko’s talks to recruits, and, believe me, the man can capture a room.
Also helping out were former Pitt stars Scott McKillop, now a graduate assistant, and Dom DeCicco, who will be in camp this summer with the Minnesota Vikings. 49ers CEO Jed York and former Pitt wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, now with the Baltimore Ravens, have participated in the past.

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