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April 11, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Conklin talks Pitt defense on TribLive Radio

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Pitt defensive coordinator Josh Conklin is one of the smartest, most candid assistant coaches I’ve run across in my six seasons covering the team, and he didn’t disappoint when he spoke to my good friend and Trib Total Media colleague Chris Peak on Monday on the “Panther Lair Show” on TribLive Radio.
Among Conklin’s biggest concerns is getting production from interior linemen, something he pointed out was missing last season.
“We all know for us to be really successful and dominant, those guys have to be really good,” Conklin told Peak. “I felt like we left some out there. I don’t think (last year’s defensive tackles) were as productive as they needed to be.”
Conklin also said he hopes to “get back to basics” this season, perhaps decreasing quarterback pressure from defenders who may be of better use elsewhere.
“We ran a lot of pressure, really too much pressure (last year), in my opinion,” he said. “We would like to play more base.”
Conklin also didn’t shut the door on using freshmen at tackle and cornerback, although he said tackle even in the ACC (not known for consistently outstanding interior line play) is a “grown man’s game.”
He didn’t name names, but incoming freshmen (still in high school as I write this) such as tackles Keyshon Camp, Amir Watts and Central Catholic’s Rashad Wheeler and cornerbacks Therran Campbell of Brashear, Damar Hamlin of Central Catholic and Henry Miller could find their way onto the field this season.
“Whoever ends up showing up and gets it and is mature mentally,” Conklin said.
Speaking of cornerback, Conklin said coaches are making some schematic changes to ease pressure on those players, who were often in one-on-one matchups with wide receivers. That was a problem, especially in the Notre Dame game when Will Fuller caught seven passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-30 Irish victory.
“We took some heat in terms of leaving those guys matched up with the Fuller kid,” Conklin said.
But stopping the run is always the No. 1 priority in Pitt’s defense.
“If we take safeties off the run game and start double-teaming the receivers, we are picking our poison,” he said. Interesting comment.
I get the feeling senior linebackers Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara (cerebral guys who know the defense nearly as well as the coaches) are among the coaches’ favorite players.
“They aren’t sexy in terms of their look or their explosiveness,” Conklin said, “but they are good, solid players and they can have really, really good years and really, really solid years for us and be productive and do what we need them to do, for sure.”
The outside linebacker position coaches call the star (where Nicholas Grigsby played last year before graduating) could be a problem. Former wide receiver Elijah Zeise is among several young plays competing for playing time there.
“I think Elijah has a chance because he’s athletic,” Conklin said.
But Bam Bradley and Anthony McKee – two linebackers sitting out the spring with shoulder injuries – could end up there by the end of the summer.
The progress Zeise and the others have made this spring will be interesting to watch in the spring game Saturday at Heinz Field.
By the way, I appeared with Ken Laird and Josh Taylor on TribLive Radio, and we talked about many topics — football and basketball. Give a listen.

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April 8, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Holtz works out daily in hopes of hearing his name during NFL Draft

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When he’s not hanging out at the E Town Bar and Grille in Etna (I hear the fish sandwich kills), former Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz is getting ready for the NFL.
He has visited with several teams, including the Browns, Chargers, Bears, Bengals and Saints. Other than that, he’s working out almost every day – often with his former Pitt teammates at the South Side facility.
“It gets boring sometimes,” Holtz said Friday during an appearance on TribLive Radio. “All you do is work out all day. It’s kind of nice, actually.”
Holtz is ranked the 23rd tight end available in the draft, according to NFLDraftScout.com, after catching 81 passes for 931 yards and 11 touchdowns in four years at Pitt where he never missed a game or practice. In his freshman season, he caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown in Pitt’s near-upset at Notre Dame.
At 6-foot-3, 238 pounds, he could morph into a run-blocking fullback with the ability to catch short flips.
“I’m a pretty decent blocker,” he said. “I’ll do whatever a team needs me to do. I can do both. I really doesn’t matter to me. I just want to play football.”

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April 5, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Tyler Boyd speaks of the Bengals, Civil War and a lesson learned

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Former Pitt wide receiver Tyler Boyd showed up on TribLive Radio on Tuesday, saying he’s spending “a little more chill time” in advance of one of the biggest days of his life — the NFL Draft April 28-30.
He seemed more relaxed than he did in any of his three seasons at Pitt, poking good-natured fun at former teammate James Conner, who one-hopped the ceremonial first pitch to Pirates catcher Chris Stewart on Sunday at PNC Park.
“Once I saw him throw a dirt ball, I was a little shaky on him as an athlete,” said Boyd, who was a three-sport athlete at Clairton (baseball and basketball). “The catcher still caught it. Some people get out there and don’t even make it to the catcher.”
Most mock drafts have indicated Boyd will be a second-round draft choice, and that matches projections he received from the NFL before giving up his last year of college eligibility.
He ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in February, but improved three weeks ago at Pitt’s Pro Day to between 4.47 and 4.52, depending on what NFL stopwatch you use.
“That let them know I wasn’t a mediocre guy,” he said.
He said several teams have asked him about his DUI arrest last year, and he said it was a one-and-done transgression.
“I don’t know if they trust me or not, but they have to take my word that I’m not going to do anything like that again,” he said. “My record is clean, besides that.”
When Boyd was asked by TribLive Radio’s Tim Benz about any weird questions the NFL threw at him, he said the Bengals inquired about his knowledge of Civil War history.
“They asked me what year was the battle of something,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that. If they draft me, I’m going to ask them the same question they asked me to see if they get it right.”
Boyd said he has been in contact with several NFL teams, including the Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin. He said he plans to meet with the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers in the coming days.
Asked how he would react if he was drafted by the Bengals and became teammates with Steelers antagonists Vontaze Burfict and Pacman Jones, he gave a thoughtful answer.
“Those guys are definite warriors who would help me get better,” he said. “I know I would be hated in Pittsburgh. But, hopefully, I’ll keep the same support here.”
The draft offers no guarantees, and players projected to be picked early often spend a lot of time waiting for their name to be called.
But my pal Joe Butler of Metro Scouting Index, who has watched Boyd since he was a freshman at Clairton, believes he has what it takes.
“Tyler Boyd makes it look easy, snaps ball out of air, always looking up the field, sure fire.”

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March 31, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Idowu opens eyes on the eighth day of spring ball

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Make room in the outside linebacker competition for North Allegheny graduate Seun Idowu.
He is one of three players who came to Pitt at other positions, but have been moved to linebacker to help fill a big hole in the defense left by graduating senior Nicholas Grigsby.
At practice Thursday, Idowu caught everyone’s eye when he recognized a jet sweep by wide receiver Quadree Henderson and made the tackle.
“He was like a jet,” senior middle linebacker Matt Galambos said.
Idowu, who came to Pitt as a walkon, said he remembered the play from previous film study. Earlier in the day, he didn’t make the tackle on a similar play, but he refused to be fooled twice.
“It’s a great feeling to recognize something you saw in the film room,” he said.
Idowu said it takes time for walkons to attract attention.
“The results aren’t always immediate, but you have to keep working,” he said. “Hopefully, at the end of this spring, things will be going the right way and that scholarship is earned.”
One example of a walkon earning a scholarship is fullback George Aston, a sophomore from Stephens City, Va. He played in all 13 games last season, started four and caught eight passes (two for touchdowns).
“I look up to him as a role model,” Idowu said. “He’s a workhorse.”
Idowu, a former safety, plays the outside linebacker position coaches call star. It combines linebacker and safety skill sets.
Idowu is competing with Jalen Williams, who also moved from safety, and former wide receiver Elijah Zeise.
All three will face even more competition this summer when Anthony McKee recovers from shoulder surgery. Coaches also could opt to move seniors Mike Caprara and Bam Bradley from the other side (the money position), if they determine those two, plus Galambos, are the team’s three best linebackers.
That would give Pitt three seniors starting at linebacker (not a bad idea, considering the position is so cerebral). But that decision is a long way off, and will depend on Bradley’s and McKee’s recoveries from their shoulder surgeries and the development of Idowu, Williams and Zeise.
Just another example of how spring ball isn’t always a true indicator of what will happen when the season starts. It’s an important way for coaches to set a base for summer camp, and it keeps players close to the game. But performances and opinions are always subject to change.
It’s five months and two days until the opener against Villanova. That’s a long time.

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March 30, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Halfway home: A quick look at Pitt’s spring roster

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I appeared on TribLive Radio on Wednesday with good friends Guy Junker, Tim Benz and Josh Taylor, and part of the conversation revolved around Conner, his chances of playing this season and the news that he will throw out the first pitch Sunday at PNC Park when the Pirates open the Major League Baseball season against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Here’s the link.

Halfway through spring drills — the actual midway point arrives about 10 a.m. Thursday — Pitt is lining up as a team with question marks at wide receiver, tight end (no depth), outside linebacker and cornerback.
Quarterback looks good in terms of bodies and a seasoned starter in Nathan Peterman, and running back is strong (even without James Conner). The offensive line is OK, and will get even better when Alex Officer returns this summer from his foot injury.
Defensive end? I believe Pitt’s coaches will be disappointed if Dewayne Hendrix doesn’t have an All-ACC season. And there also are veteran hands such as Ejuan Price (All-ACC himself) and Rori Blair.
At defensive tackle, Tyrique Jarrett takes up a lot of space (6-foot-3, 335 pounds), with impressive athleticism. He’s a senior now, and coaches will expect more consistency from him this season.
Outside linebacker (the one that is a hybrid safety/linebacker position) also has a lot of bodies, most of them inexperienced. It could get one more if coaches decide senior Bam Bradley can fill it after his shoulder heals or if they talk themselves into moving Mike Caprara from the other side.
One thing about Caprara: He’ll seldom have a mental lapse. The senior constantly has his nose in his I-pad.
There’s nothing wrong with the secondary that another player such as strong safety Jordan Whitehead couldn’t fix. Will Central Catholic’s Damar Hamlin be this year’s Whitehead — that rare freshman who plays like he’s much older. I get the feeling Pitt will need Hamlin at the cornerback spot opposite Avonte Maddox.
That about covers it. Except this prediction: Chris Blewitt will become the first kicker in school history to hit from 60 yards. If I know Pat Narduzzi, he won’t be afraid to let Blewitt try. Maybe it’s just me, but Blewitt looks a little bigger this year.
And, by the way, who made up this schedule? Oklahoma State and North Carolina on the road after playing Penn State, and back-to-back games at Miami and Clemson. Pitt needs to win one of those five just to have a chance at matching last season’s 8-4 regular-season record.

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March 24, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Injuries, position shift trim Pitt’s depth chart at wide receiver

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Pitt’s wide receiver depth chart is so devoid of experienced pass catchers that the best news is this: It’s only March.
With Elijah Zeise now practicing at outside linebacker, the remaining wide receivers on the Pitt roster who caught passes last season total three.
Remaining wide receivers on the Pitt roster who caught passes last season and are currently going through a full practice: 1.
Projected starters Dontez Ford and Zach Challingsworth are slowed by injuries.
That left Quadree Henderson (two catches, 1 yard) as the most accomplished wide receiver to line up Thursday for scrimmage plays in practice.
At the bottom of the depth chart, Gentry Ivery, a lightly regarded 2015 prospect from Texas, left the program this week.
Losing Zeise and Ivery thins the crowd in wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman’s room, but is it necessarily a good thing for that side of the ball?
Zeise has the right mix of athleticism and a work ethic, and he was working his way up the depth chart. I think Zeise would have contributed on offense this season.
If he emerges on defense — and he made a few tackles in practice Thursday, including a TFL — that helps on one side of the ball.
The hard truth: Zeise is needed at linebacker, at least until Anthony McKee and Bam Bradley get healthy. If he remains there through the end of the spring, it wouldn’t make much sense to return him to wide receiver this summer.
Meanwhile, quarterback Nate Peterman is running out of reliable targets. The injuries to Ford and Challingsworth aren’t helping because they are losing valuable practice time with their quarterback. There’s a reason schools conduct spring drills. It helps build on-field relationships, especially in the passing game.
The good news is Ford and Challingsworth are expected back before summer camp. They work out on a limited basis now and Challingsworth (shoulder surgery) went through calisthenics with his teammates Thursday morning.
The wide receiver to watch, in my opinion, is Tre Tipton. One of the more confident athletes to come through the Pitt program in recent years, he already runs sharp routes and impressed last season as a freshman to the point that he appeared in four games before hurting his knee. Coaches felt comfortable moving Zeise to linebacker because they have high hopes for Tipton.

UCLA assistants Tom Bradley (there’s a name from the past) and Rip Scherer, a Pittsburgh native and former graduate assistant at Penn State, visited practice Thursday.
Bradley is entering his second season as UCLA’s defensive coordinator and Scherer is the tight ends coach.
Several people asked me why coaches from another Power 5 school would be welcome at practice. Actually, it happens all the time among teams that don’t play each other.

Speaking of UCLA, former Bruins tight end Chris Clark has made a good impression since transferring to Pitt. It looks like he will help, but probably not until 2017.
He experienced a bout of mononucleosis last year at UCLA, slowing his development even though he played in the opener. He is petitioning the NCAA to be eligible this season, but all the paperwork hasn’t been submitted. Sadly for Clark, his petition is expected to fail because he did take 11 snaps last season.
But there will be a holes at tight end next season when seniors Scott Orndoff and Jaymar Parrish are gone. Clark would be in line to start.
Parrish, by the way, suffered an injury recently and will miss the rest of spring, coach Pat Narduzzi said. Narduzzi refused to reveal the nature or extent of Parrish’s injury.
“That’s a personal thing, I think,” Narduzzi said.
Narduzzi is not unlike most coaches (probably closer to all coaches) when it comes to releasing injury information. They hate doing it.
One thing I learned from the NFL — and Todd Graham backed this up to me one day five years ago — is that opposing teams will target a player’s body part if they think it’s weak or injured.
If player X has a shoulder injury, for example, and he plays, anyway, and is involved in blitz protection, do you think the defense might try to test that shoulder with repeated blitzes? Of course, it will. Then, all of a sudden, you might have another injured player — your quarterback.
But there are flaws in that theory:
— Keeping information secret these days, even from the other team, is difficult. Players talk amongst themselves, their friends and family members, and are constantly on social media. So, in many cases, it gets out, anyway, even without telling reporters. (So, Pat, you might as well tell us and eliminate the middle man.)
— Also, Pitt doesn’t play a game until September, so maybe spring injuries should fit in a different category.
Coaches don’t like to dish out too much information about anything. The bar is usually low in that regard, especially when it involves body parts, so Narduzzi going light with the details is no surprise.

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March 22, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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The search for a backup quarterback

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Pitt has plenty of arms throwing footballs at spring practice, but finding the appropriate one to back up starting quarterback Nate Peterman is an ongoing quest.
Coach Pat Narduzzi doesn’t seem concerned about the battle among Adam Bertke, Ben DiNucci, Manny Stoker and Ryan Adzima.
“There are a lot of people around the country trying to find out who that No. 1 (quarterback) is,” Narduzzi said. “At least, we’re talking about who that No. 2 guy is.”
This summer, freshman Thomas MacVittie and Central Florida transfer Bo Schneider will join the fray. Schneider must sit out the season, however.
Narduzzi hasn’t said, but I assume he doesn’t want to burn a season of eligibility for MacVittie and make him the backup in the event of a short-term injury to Peterman.

The Ivy League and the Big 12 have moved to limit hitting in practice, but Narduzzi said there will be no change at Pitt.
“We are always trying to be smart,” he said. “I don’t know what the trend is, but we’re not changing. We are trying to play tough football. Remember, we’re in Pittsburgh, right?”
The NCAA allows 12 padded practices in the spring, and current plans are to take advantage of all of them.

Jordan Whitehead will be the starting strong safety and an occasional weapon on offense. But don’t expect him to necessarily rest on special teams.
Narduzzi hasn’t settled on his kick and punt returners, but Whitehead is significantly in the conversation.
“Some people have the philosophy of resting their starters on special teams,” Narduzzi said. “That’s a major phase, a third of the game. We’re going to play our best guys like we did with Tyler Boyd back there as a punt returner a year ago.”
Don’t forget: Pitt may not have recorded its only bowl victory in the past five years if Boyd wasn’t available to return punts in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in 2013.

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March 15, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi unsure about road trips in the spring

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When Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi met reporters Tuesday after the first day of spring drills, I couldn’t resist asking him the question that has circulated throughout college football this year:
What does he think of college football teams going on the road for spring practice as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh did with his team?
Narduzzi didn’t totally reject the idea for Pitt in the future. But it doesn’t sound like he’s begging athletic director Scott Barnes for permission.
“Let’s see if we can go to Hawaii,” he said, obviously kidding.
Then, he added:
“It’s a great idea if it works and you’re allowed to do it. If we’re allowed to do it, we may look at it.”
On the other hand:
“One of the big things throughout the country is time demands put on student-athletes,” he said. “It puts more demand in the off-season. Some people say, `Baseball does it.’ But it’s their season.”
Then, without mentioning Michigan by name, he added:
“They got away with it. If it’s allowed, I think a lot of people will have spring break together. Everybody is going to bend the rules as much as they can.”

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March 12, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Siragusa named broadcaster of the year

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I’m pretty sure I missed a good time Friday night in Atlantic City, N.J., where former Pitt and NFL star and FOX Sports on-field analyst Tony Siragusa was named winner of the 13th annual Tropicana Broadcast Award. The presentation was made at the Maxwell Football Club’s 79th annual National Awards Gala in the Tropicana Casino & Resort.
It’s difficult to choose the most interesting achievement among many in Siragusa’s 48 years.
After all, he was a state wrestling champion in Kenilworth, N.J., winning 97 of 98 matches, before he went to college and played on the last Pitt team of the 20th century to win as many as eight games (1989). One of his teammates was current Pitt defensive line coach Tom Sims.
How about those 12 years in the NFL as a defensive lineman with the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens? He played on the Colts team that lost to the Steelers in the 1995 AFC Championship game.
Siragusa finally made it to a Super Bowl (XXXV in 2001), helping the Ravens beat the New York Giants, 34-7. But not before he was fined $10,000 for an illegal hit on Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon in that season’s AFC title game. Siragusa later told Howard Stern that it’s wrong to try to hurt opposing players.
These days, Siragusa stars on the DIY Network series “Man Caves,” where he helps create rooms built specifically for guys. But that’s nothing compared to the theatrics of Siragusa playing Tony Soprano’s driver and bodyguard Frankie Cortese in the hit HBO series “The Sopranos.”
He also has owned five restaurants in New Jersey, and he wrote a book in 2012 — “GOOSE: The Outrageous Life and Times of a Football Guy.”
But maybe his most important accomplishment is this: The Tony Siragusa Foundation has raised more than $1 million for underprivileged children.
“During my playing days, it never crossed my mind that I would be receiving an award for excellence in broadcasting,” he said. “To know that my hard work as a sideline analyst for FOX has been recognized by the Maxwell Football Club is truly an honor. And here I thought all these years it was my devilishly handsome face that allowed me to do what I do as an analyst on Sundays.”

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March 9, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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What if coaches could turn back the clock to their playing careers?

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Imagine this scene, right out of the Bizarro World of college football.
Chased by linebacker Pat Narduzzi, quarterback Paul Chryst (having won the job in a competition with James Franklin) drops back to pass. He scans the throwing lanes for wide receiver Dana Holgorsen. Satisfied that Holgorsen is open, Chryst unleashes the football.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, here comes safety Todd Graham to knock Chryst’s pass to the ground.
I don’t think ESPN.com college football writer Adam Rittenberg had the preceding scene in mind when he ranked 129 college coaches in terms of their abilities as players. But it’s fun to fantasize.
Wisconsin’s Chryst, the former Pitt coach, was ranked 60th by Rittenberg on the strength of the three letters he earned as a backup quarterback, tight end, linebacker and safety for the Badgers from 1986-1988.
Next was Graham (No. 74), another former Pitt coach. Graham, the coach at Arizona State, was a hard-hitting NAIA All-American who actually went to camp with the Arizona Cardinals.
Narduzzi (No. 76) started as a freshman at Youngstown State, leading the Ohio Valley Conference in tackles. He transferred to Rhode Island when his coach and father Bill Narduzzi was fired, and started from 1987-1989.
On Narduzzi’s heels at No. 77 is Penn State’s Franklin, a Division II star. He was a two-year starter who set 23 team records at East Stroudsburg and was nominated for Division II player of the year as a senior.
Finally, Holgorsen gets a little love from Rittenberg at 101. Holgorsen played at NAIA Iowa Wesleyan, catching 145 passes for 1,711 yards.
Rittenberg’s list includes eight other coaches with local ties:
— Former Steelers wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery (No. 21), the coach at East Carolina, was a wide receiver at Duke and a two-time team MVP.
— Former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez (No. 36), now at Arizona, was a Mountaineers walk-on who ended up earning a scholarship and three letters.
— Marshall coach Doc Holliday (No. 40), a former West Virginia linebacker.
Sean Kugler was the Steelers’ offensive line coach before he got the head job at UTEP. He played at UTEP (No. 42) and signed a free agent contract with the Steelers in 1989.
— Former Steelers quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple (No. 81) was the starting quarterback at Brown in 1977 and 1978. He now coaches Massachusetts.
— Former Pitt special teams coach Charlie Partridge of Florida Atlantic (No. 85), an All-American defensive lineman at Drake.
— Former Pitt wide receivers coach Mike Norvell of Memphis (No. 86). He caught more passes (213) at Division II Central Arkansas than anyone else.
— Moon native Bob Davie of New Mexico (No. 102), a former Youngstown State tight end.
The leader of the pack, of course, is Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, an All-American quarterback for the Wolverines, first-round draft choice and a 15-season pro.

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