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February 5, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola

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It’s time for everyone to move on from the Freebeck flip

I haven’t spoken to Pitt coach Paul Chryst since quarterback Wade Freebeck flipped his commitment from the Panthers to Vanderbilt on Tuesday afternoon.
I’m sure Chyrst wasn’t happy about it. The Pitt coaching staff had invested plenty of time and airline miles in Freebeck.
Chryst and quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger were at Freebeck’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home Jan. 23. Bollinger, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and wide receivers coach Bobby Engram returned six days later.
But I also know this: Chryst quickly moved on. Rebuilding the Pitt football program is a 24/7 job, and there is no time to curse your bad luck.
Maybe Chryst pulled a short list of other quarterback prospects out of his desk drawer and wondered which one he should call first. More likely, however, he resumed making plans for spring drills next month when he will have only two veteran quarterbacks on his roster. He must figure out a way not to wear out the arms of Chad Voytik and Trey Anderson. (Adam Bertke will make three when he signs Wednesday, but he doesn’t graduate from high school until June.)
For sure, Chryst didn’t waste time cursing his bad luck. That is certainly not his style.
That said, do not underestimate the seriousness of losing Freebeck to Vanderbilt. It hurts, badly. It looks bad. It is bad.
Freebeck, 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, is a good prospect who could have competed for the starting job, possibly as soon as 2015. Losing him matters. Pitt has not had good depth at quarterback for several years (other than Chad Voytik’s second half in the bowl game), and Freebeck and Bertke looked like they might resolve that problem.
Now, Pitt needs another plan.
Here’s a possibility: Elizabeth-Forward’s Jaquan Davidson, a 6-foot-2, 173-pound three-star prospect, will sign Wednesday. He played quarterback in high school. In fact, I received this tweet Tuesday night from veteran talent scout Joe Butler of Metro Scouting Index:
“Not to worry about Freebeck, Eliz.Forward athlete Jaquan Davidson is a very capable QB/WR prospect. He may be a QB.”

One more thing
Fans need to stop taking Freebeck’s name in vain on the message boards. Some of the stuff I read Tuesday night looked like it was written on the bathroom wall of a junior high. Grow up, people.
Freebeck, an excellent student, has the right to go to the school of his choice. He said he was thinking about academics, not football, when he flipped. Nice concept. More students should do the same.
Maybe he should have waited longer than June 30, 2013, before choosing Pitt, but NCAA rules allow him to change his mind until signing day.  He and his family exercised that right. Good for them. After all, it’s his future.
The way I see it — and I bet Chryst wouldn’t disagree — Freebeck (or any recruit) should go to great lengths to assure he is making the right decision. If it means changing your mind at the last minute, OK. Do what you think is right.
If it upsets some people who are only invested in the program because they watch on TV or occasionally go to a game at Heinz Field, too bad.
Get over it. Chryst has.

January 21, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola

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Donald puts on a show Monday at Senior Bowl practice

Monday was the first day of the rest of Aaron Donald’s life.
And the former Pitt defensive tackle didn’t waste it, putting on an impressive show for NFL scouts and coaches at Senior Bowl practice in Mobile, Ala. Donald is a member of the North squad, coached by the Atlanta Falcons staff. The game will be played Saturday.
Here is a report from senior analyst Dane Brugler:
“DT Aaron Donald was an unstoppable force on Monday. Like his play all season, the Pitt defensive tackle was extremely quick in drills and was relentless from snap to whistle. His burst and anticipation off the snap and active energy to fight through and around blocks make him tough for any blocker to handle.
“Donald repeatedly victimized Baylor OG Cyril Richardson at practice, winning with leverage, hustle and fluidity that Richardson has likely never seen before on the football field. Donald’s skill-set is ideal for one-on-one drills so he should shine, but the NFL team that drafts him will get a really good football player.”
Here are some additional comments from Brugler:
– Former ACC quarterbacks Stephen Morris of Miami, Logan Thomas of Virginia Tech and Tajh Boyd of Clemson were “inconsistent on day one, which was almost expected after the up-and-down senior seasons of all three.”
“Boyd in particular struggled with accuracy and his ball placement is a strong concern. Thomas threw a few pretty passes that hit receivers between the numbers, but other fastballs hit the ground or sailed over his intended target.
The good news for this group? The only place to go from here is up.
– Also flashing good and bad tendencies was Miami OT Seantrel Henderson.
– Wide receivers Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin, Robert Herron of Wyoming and Josh Huff of Oregon looked good and have a chance to among the first 100 players drafted in May.
– North Carolina DE Kareem Martin (and his long 34 3/8” arms) did an excellent job combating hand moves from Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort and riding him past the pocket. But it was a good day overall for Mewhort, 6-6, 306, who has shown good improvement from his underclassmen days.
– Northern Illinois S Jimmie Ward is the top safety prospect in Mobile, according to Brugler. “He overcame a few poor angles early and put together a good practice, showing off his foot quickness and aggressive instincts.
– Clemson OT Brandon Thomas projects better at guard where he can operate in a smaller space. He measured in at 34 3/8” arms and will use that length to engage and bury defenders – just ask DE James Gayle of Virginia Tech. Thomas dominated Gayle a few times. But Thomas struggled in space during drills, bringing up questions on whether or not he should stay on the edges.


January 19, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola

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Pitt coaches make good impression on Canon-McMillan junior

Pitt coach Paul Chryst still has a lot of work to do and victories to claim before his tenure at Pitt can be called a successful one.
But he did something right while recruiting Alex Paulina, a junior offensive lineman at Canon-McMillan High School. At least that’s what Paulina’s dad David said.
“These guys (Pitt’s coaches) really are some of the best men I have met in college football,” said David Paulina after his son committed to Pitt on Saturday. “How they handle themselves, what their demeanor is. Their whole, entire approach is just kind of bar none.”
I’ve never been fortunate enough to watch Chryst interact with recruits and their parents (I’m sure that would be some sort of NCAA violation). But I’ve been around Chryst long enough to know that he treats people with respect, but makes no promises he can’t keep. If a coach does those things, people will at least listen to what he has to say.
Paulina has offers from Virginia Tech and West Virginia, his father said. Plus, he said they have met coaches at Ohio State, including defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of coaches,” David Paulina said. “This was almost getting crazy.”
Paulina, who is set to graduate 17 months from now, has plenty to prove. He has been a starter at Canon-McMillan since his freshman year and was named to the All-Quad South team that season. But he missed six games last year with a concussion and neck injury.
Pitt took a chance on him, but at 6-foot-4, 280 pounds, Paulina has plenty of potential, according to his Canon-McMillan coach Ron Coder, a former Penn State star who played 10 years in the NFL.
“He’s a great kid,” Coder said. “Hopefully, his senior year he will play real well and dominate.”
Meanwhile, David Paulina answered the question all Pitt fans are asking: Will Paulina actually sign with Pitt 12 months from now. After all, that’s a long time for other schools to whisper in his ear, and Dave said his son has received “an ungodly amount of mail.”
“I know Alex doesn’t want to commit anywhere but there,” David said. “He wanted to commit early so he could enjoy his senior year.”


January 15, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola

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With three weeks to go before signing day, drama leaves Pitt recruiting

National letter of intent day is three weeks from right now (Wednesday), and much of the drama has disappeared at Pitt — some of it not for the better.
Three WPIAL stars held news conferences in their communities to say they were going to West Virginia (Dravon Henry), Michigan State (Montae Nicholson) and Virginia Tech (Shai McKenzie). Pitt could have used Henry and Nicholson in the defensive secondary, perhaps as soon as 2014, but running backs Chris James and Qadree Ollison, plus the return of young, promising backs James Conner and Rachid Ibrahim, make the loss of McKenzie (while a big one) easier for Pitt coaches to swallow.
Speaking of defense, it appears Pitt will get at least one — most likely two — verbal commitments when linebacker Jamal Davis and defensive end Hez Trahan visit this weekend. Trahan said he has informed his chief recruiter, Pitt offensive line coach Jim Hueber, that he will commit before he goes home. Both players come from solid high school programs (Davis goes to Canton McKinley and Trahan to Roman Catholic in Philadelphia).
Trahan, 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, said he wants to stay close to family, but the stability in Pitt’s coaching staff also was a big reason that he chose the Panthers.
“It’s a stable staff, not constantly moving out,” he said. “Coach Hueber recruited me, and he is going to be there next year.”
Roman Catholic coach Joe McCourt said Trahan can play inside or outside on the defensive line.
“I think (Pitt) will start him (outside), but once they get him on the training table and he starts eating, he could go inside, too,” McCourt said. “He’ll live in the weight room. He is a very coachable kid.”
McCourt has sent several players to Division I schools, including defensive end Scott Paxson, who played for Penn State and the Steelers.
“Scott was more polished coming in (to college), but Hez has more upside,” McCourt said.
Trahan, a three-year starter at Class AAAA Roman Catholic, also had offers from James Madison and Massachusetts.
If Pitt gets commitments from Trahan and Davis, that will make 24 in coach Paul Chryst’s second exclusive recruiting class. He added 27 last year. That makes 50 players (2013 quarterback Tra Chapman is the only one who is no longer in school) brought to campus by Chryst, or 58 percent of the roster. The Chryst stamp is becoming more and more indelible.
The only issue is that Pitt left Detroit’s Ford Field after the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl three weeks ago with 83 scholarship players. Subtract 17 seniors, add 24 incoming freshmen and that makes 90, five over the NCAA-mandated limit.
Attrition, which may already be at work, must trim five players from the roster before the freshmen enroll this summer.

January 8, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola

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New Pitt strength coach promises to turn up the heat on football players

Pitt’s football team opens its offseason training program Thursday with new strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej promising to put players “in the furnace this offseason.”
Kolodziej, who played seven seasons in the NFL and four at Wisconsin, was hired Wednesday after spending the 2013 season as an assistant to former Pitt strength coach Todd Rice, who resigned.
Rice was at Pitt for two seasons (2012-13), but his tenure was marked by too many back injuries and hushed complaints from former players about the team’s strength program.
Kolodziej sounds eager to implement change. And the players seem to like him. Perhaps as an indicator of how the new strength coach has been accepted in the weight room, former Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald immediately retweeted my tweet of Kolodziej’s hiring.
“Our goal is to reassert the Pitt program among the very best in college football,” said Kolodziej, a seventh-round draft choice of the New York Giants in 2001. “We have a sense of urgency to build upon the momentum from our bowl victory. That starts in the weight room this winter.
“It is our responsibility to maximize our players’ abilities and opportunities at Pitt. They may think they know what work is, but we’re going to put them in the furnace this offseason. The great thing is our kids have told me they want to work and be pushed. It’s that kind of desire that produces results on and off the field.”
Kolodziej, who also was a shot putter in college, started 45 games for Wisconsin from 1997-2000 when the Badgers won consecutive Big Ten titles (1998 and 1999). He holds Wisconsin weight room records for a defensive player in the squat and clean. He also holds defensive lineman records in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and pro-agility drill.
After leaving the Giants, he also played for the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals. He was a full-time strength and conditioning intern and a defensive graduate assistant at Wisconsin when Pitt coach Paul Chyrst was the Badgers’ offensive coordinator. Kolodziej owns a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Wisconsin and also has a certification in USA weightlifting, level 1.

January 5, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola

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Pitt loses Kamara to Virginia

Pitt has lost another top recruit who liked what he saw from coach Paul Chryst’s program — just not enough to commit to it.
That seems to be a theme after WPIAL stars Montae Nicholson and Shai McKenzie seriously considered the Panthers before saying they will go to Michigan State and Virginia Tech, respectively.
Jamil Kamara, ranked by as the 19th-best wide receiver in the nation, said Saturday he will attend Virginia after including Pitt and Wisconsin among his final three choices. Kamara played at Bishop Sullivan (Va.) High School and also has offers from Clemson, Florida, Miami, Michigan State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
Landing Kamara would have been important to Pitt’s rebuilding project — he also has some potential on defense — but he is from Virginia Beach and liked the idea of being closer to home than what Pitt offered him.
Virginia coach Mike London is doing a good job with this class, despite having the worst record in the ACC (2-10, 0-8) this season. Virginia is ranked 20th nationally in recruiting (fourth in the ACC), according to By the way, seven ACC schools are ranked in the top 40, led by Florida State (No. 4). Pitt, which has three four-stars among its 21 commitments, is not on the list.
Pitt has a good shot at another four-star wide receiver, Adonis Jennings of Timber Creek  (N.J.) High School. Jennings, who also is considering Iowa and Arkansas, is playing in the Semper Fidelis All-American game Sunday night in Carson, Calif., and people close to him have said he may make an announcement at that time.
But he plans to visit Pitt on  Jan. 17. Meanwhile, (an Arkansas site) reports that Jennings will visit the Razorbacks on Jan. 24.
What if he commits to Pitt before the 24th? What if he commits to Arkansas before the 17th? He also has an uncle who went to Iowa.
Is it any wonder why following recruiting is so maddening?
The one aspect of the Pitt situation that is not in question — wide receivers coach Bobby Engram is key to the process. In only two years at Pitt, he has built strong bonds with several high school players and coaches, inside and outside Pennsylvania.
Some recruits go elsewhere, anyway, but Engram gets the Panthers in the front door.


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
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 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.

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