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April 7, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt players `fighting through the smoke’

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is not surprised when he sees bad plays at practice. (After all, he was at the Armed Forces Bowl.)
But he almost welcomes them during spring drills because it gives him a good indication of the type of players on his team.
“There are ups and downs,” he said Tuesday after the 10th day of practice (four to go).
“We have to teach our kids to fight through the smoke at times. It’s how you react off those ups and downs that makes a man out of you.”
It’s tough to gauge how the players are practicing when they line up 11 on 11. The media continues to be ushered out after about 30 minutes of seeing little more than warm-up calisthentics, kicking and punting and position-specific drills.
But players have indicated during multiple interviews that there is more pressure and increased demands put on them by the current coaches, compared to the previous staff.
“You sit up straight when he comes in the room,” All-American running back James Conner said of Narduzzi.
I don’t remember a Pitt player ever saying that of his coach over the past four seasons.
I asked Narduzzi if he believes the players feel more pressure this year than in the past (an unfair question).
He didn’t want to comment on how the previous staff operated, but he did admit that his basic philosophy is to challenge his players.
“Of course it is,” he said. “You better put the demands on them. The demands will be there later on in September so you better put them on now to see what they do.”
It’s clear Narduzzi won’t settle for mediocre effort or results. That’s not to imply that Paul Chryst was OK with mediocrity, but I get the feeling there will be a stiffer price to pay this year.
Narduzzi also believes that the multiple nature of offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s offense eventually will help the defense.
The offense will line up in a pro, pistol and shotgun formations and run plays at various tempos.
“We are very multiple on offense right now,” he said. “For a defensive coach, there couldn’t be a better dream.”

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April 6, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Ex-Tennessee defensive end considers Pitt as transfer destination

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Defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, a former four-star recruit who is transferring from Tennessee, said Sunday night he will choose a new school from among Pitt, Iowa State and Northern Illinois.
During his second visit to Pitt on March 28, he watched practice and visited with coaches. He has scheduled visits to Iowa State on April 10 and Northern Illinois on April 24. He said he will make a decision not long after his final visit.
“I liked everything about Pitt,” he said. “How they practice, how they get after it, some of the schemes they run on defense. It was really intense.”
Hendrix, 6-foot-5, 258 pounds, was one of the most coveted strong-side defensive end recruits in the nation at O’Fallon (Ill.) High School in 2014. He was ranked fifth at his position in the nation (first in Illinois), according to Rivals.com. He had 22 scholarship offers, including Michigan State (where Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was defensive coordinator), Illinois and seven other Big Ten schools. His connection to Pitt is through tight ends coach Tim Salem, formerly an assistant at Illinois.
Hendrix, who will sit out the 2015 season per NCAA transfer rules and have three years of eligibility remaining, played in seven games for Tennessee, recording two tackles, last season.
“I am transferring mainly for a better opportunity,” he said.
He said he didn’t like the Tennessee defensive scheme in which defensive ends line up inside the opposing tight end.
“It was like playing defensive tackle,” he said. “I like being on the edge.”
At Pitt, he would be used as an edge rusher.
O’Fallon coach Brandon Joggerst said Tennessee coaches wanted him to stay.
“At O’Fallon, he was a very hard worker who gave tremendous effort on the field,” Joggerst said. “He was a great teammate. A very humble kid with a high motor.”

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April 2, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Caprara has seen it all, and then some

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Recruited initially by Todd Graham, signed and tutored by Paul Chryst and his staff and handed more responsibility by Pat Narduzzi, junior linebacker Mike Caprara has seen a lot of change in the Pitt football program in three years.
Caprara agrees with the prevailing opinion among his teammates that Narduzzi has simplified the defense so everyone can play faster. Plus, matters are less chaotic under the new staff.
“Everybody is playing 100 times faster,” Caprara said. “Everybody in the (meeting) room sees that and understands that. There is a lot more talk and buzz.”
The Narduzzi defensive philosophy seems to be saying to the opponent: This is what we do. Let’s see if you are smart enough and tough enough to solve it.
“We are going to play what we play 80 percent of the time,” linebackers coach Rob Harley said.
Caprara said that’s a big change from how the Chryst staff operated, and he should know after playing for three coordinators (Dave Huxtable, Matt House and now Josh Conklin).
“In years past, a lot of guys were caught up in the shuffle and the mix of learning the scheme for the week,” Caprara said. “Not everybody was on the same page.”
The situation may be different in meeting rooms and practice, but Caprara said Chryst set a tone off the field that was important to the rebirth of the program.
“When I first got here, I wouldn’t say it was pretty bad, but there were a lot of things that needed worked on from a team aspect,” Caprara said.
“I think coach Chryst did a really good job of bringing that unity back together and keeping guys on track of what they needed to do in order to graduate, keeping guys out of trouble.”
He said Chryst’s final message to the team just days before accepting the job at Wisconsin impacted several Pitt players.
“His last message was keep doing what you’re doing, despite any circumstances of what the situation was with him and Wisconsin,” Caprara said. “I feel his message was, `Don’t let your foot off the gas. Why waste (the opportunity)? Why sink your head (and say), Ah, we lost coach Chryst. Let’s start from scratch again.’
“He said, `No, don’t do that.’ ”
Was it difficult to accept for a team that had called seven men head coach since 2010?
“I think a lot of the guys understood the message,” Caprara said. “Sure, it did stink at the time, but in the end we are still heading in the right direction.”
—-
Narduzzi made a statement about All-ACC wide receiver Tyler Boyd that was not surprising, but certainly significant when you give it some thought.
“He might be the best receiver I’ve seen,” Narduzzi said Thursday after the ninth practice of the spring.
Interesting when you note that Narduzzi has coached continually at six schools since 1990.
—-
He also is trying to limit the wear and tear on Boyd and running back James Conner.
“We try to make sure we don’t hit (Conner) too many times because there’s only so many hits in a tailback.”
He said he also blows the whistle quickly when Boyd makes a catch.
—-
Backup defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett has lost 17 to 20 pounds to get down to 337 and could lose more, Narduzzi said.
“I met his girlfriend and she wants him to lose 10 more or she is breaking up with him,” the coach said, smiling. “He’s got motivation.”
Then, he added: “He’s doing a great job. He really is. He can be a special player for us. If he got down to 330, he would be a machine.”
—-
Asked about starting cornerbacks Lafayette Pitts, a senior, and Avante Maddox, a sophomore, Narduzzi said: “They are both doing a great job. Maddox is doing a better job than Pitts is right now. But Pitts will get there.” He said Pitts — listed at 195 pounds — needs to lose between 5-7 pounds.
During Thursday’s practice, Narduzzi called for a 12-play series run at a fast tempo without a huddle.
“We are going to see that during the year,” he said. “Lafayette was good for a couple plays and then all of sudden he needed to come out.”
—-
Safety Patrick Amara missed practice with what Pitt officials are calling “a personal health issue.” It is not considered serious, but he may miss the six remaining drills of spring.
—-
Quarterback Chad Voytik said offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s video base includes every completion from every NFL quarterback since 2012. “We get to see the plays we’re about to run in practice being run by the best in the world,” Voytik said.

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April 1, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Mixing a bit of baseball with some interesting football news

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On a chilly, windy night at Cost Field on the upper level of Pitt’s campus, the Backyard Brawl returned — baseball-style.
West Virginia defeated Pitt, 4-1, stretching the Panthers’ losing streak to four. The big blow was a three-run home run in the fourth inning by West Virginia catcher Ray Guerrini, who also picked off a runner at third base to end a bases-loaded threat by Pitt.
Guerrini’s home run was a towering blast over the 16-foot fence in left field, 375 feet from home plate. Pitt pitcher Sam Mersing took a no-hitter into the fourth for the third time in his past four outings.
Pitt coach Joe Jordano, who has won 502 games in 17 seasons at Pitt, is hoping for better play from his 11-16 Panthers and warmer weather, too. Pitt plays 14 of its next 19 games at Cost.
West Virginia (16-10 and owner of a seven-game winning streak) will open its new ballpark (Monongalia County Ballpark) April 10 against Butler.
Considering the weather, though, we’re talking football. What else?
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi revealed details of the Blue-Gold spring game, which will be played April 18 at Highmark Stadium.Narduzzi will put a different twist on the game, which will be real game (not a glorified practice as fans had come to expect over the years).
The big change is the naming of the honorary coaches — former Pitt All-Americans Larry Fitzgerald and Aaron Donald.
That will be a rush for the players and the fans, but Narduzzi will divide the squad into two teams, chosen in a draft format.
First, coaches will draft the seniors onto two teams. Then, the seniors will pick the remainder of the rosters.
Narduzzi will allow the media to watch the proceedings, and it could be very interesting.
Do you choose either of Pitt’s two stars — running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd – with the first pick? Or, do you grab the veteran quarterback Chad Voytik?
Keep in mind that Pitt has only two inexperienced quarterbacks behind Voytik –redshirt freshman Adam Bertke and walkon Nate Bossory.
Plus, if you take Voytik with the first pick (the way I would go) than you are guaranteed either Conner or Boyd with your second selection.
I have to admit I defended former coach Paul Chryst’s decision to cancel the spring game last year. It had been played at high school stadiums in 2012 and 2013, and a nearly empty Heinz Field looked dark and grim during the 2011 game. It seemed like a waste of time.
But a bit of creative thinking by Pitt officials and Narduzzi moved the game to Highmark (wasn’t it an option last year, too?) and brought NFL stars Fitzgerald and Donald on board. Narduzzi’s intra-squad draft will stir further interest.
The entire day looks to be a good recruiting tool Pitt chose not to use last year.

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March 29, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Position switch benefits Shady Side graduate Briggs

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi made the promise on the day three months ago when he first met with his players:
No matter how soiled a player’s resume had become under the previous staff, Narduzzi said he would wipe it clean.
“Some guys who maybe hadn’t played a lot of football in the past, we might get a lot of good football out of them,” Narduzzi said.
Such may be the case for Shady Side Academy graduate Dennis Briggs.
The new coaching staff has found a new home for Briggs, who was lost in a crowded depth chart at running back.
Briggs, a redshirt freshman, has moved to defensive back where he has caught Narduzzi’s eye as a nickel, flashing what the coach called “the wow factor.”
“We had our eyeballs on him all through the Fourth Quarter (winter) program,” he said. “What has been most impressive is his knowledge. He has picked it up, almost like a natural defensive back.”
What must be understood is that position switches and depth chart adjustments in the seventh of 15 spring drills are meaningful, but by no means permanent. Narduzzi said situations can change as quickly as he can turn on the video machine.
But there is no denying that Briggs played a key role Saturday when the defense won the scrimmage over the offense to earn the right to wear the coveted blue jerseys next week.
Briggs displayed solid work in the secondary and recorded a sack, one of five by the defense.
Linebackers coach Rob Harley, who added a new player to his group when senior Jameel Poteat also moved from running back, isn’t surprised to see Narduzzi creating competition at several defensive positions.
“It’s a different atmosphere when you have a defensive head coach,” Harley said. “He has created an atmosphere for pure competition. Some guys, it kind of stunned them a little bit early, and they are rising to the occasion.
“This is the Wild West. You go get what you want.”
Overall, Narduzzi was pleased with his defense in the scrimmage, the second of the spring.
“I thought the defense did a better job of stopping the run,” he said. “If you can stop the run on defense, you have a chance.”
In another interesting position switch, Woodland Hills graduate Mike Caprara moved from middle to weak-side (money) linebacker where he is running with the first team ahead of Bam Bradley.
Harley said Caprara will compete for playing time at both positions with Bradley and Matt Galambos.
Narduzzi’s staff isn’t the first to notice Caprara’s hustle and football intelligence. When former coach Paul Chryst was unhappy with linebacker Todd Thomas two years ago, he moved Caprara ahead of him on the first-team defense.
Thomas won back the job, but the lesson is a clear one for Pitt’s linebackers: Keep an eye out for Caprara. He probably is gaining on you.

Some quick scrimmage hits:Redshirt freshmen Adam Bertke and Qadree Ollison led their positions – quarterback and running back – during the scrimmage. … Bertke completed 15 of 29 passes for 218 yards, with one interception and three touchdowns, according to Pitt statistics. … Ollison ran 14 times for 97 yards. … No. 1 quarterback Chad Voytik was 12 of 26 for 164. … The offense had no rushing touchdowns. … Narduzzi said there will be another scrimmage Thursday, the last practice before the Easter break. … Practice went more than 30 minutes past the scheduled ending time. “We were having fun,” Narduzzi said, “and they didn’t have to go to class.”

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March 27, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt gets a QB commitment on the sixth day of spring drills

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The sixth practice of the spring Thursday was a landmark of sorts for the Pitt football team.
It was during the sixth practice of the spring in 2013 that running back Rushel Shell mumbled something about being “tired” and sat down on the trainer’s table, almost literally never to be heard from at Pitt again. The next thing anyone knew, Shell had decided to quit the team.
To his credit, Shell has resurrected his career at West Virginia, and he could be one of the Big 12’s top running backs this season.
Pitt has come a long way since then. James Conner now carries the mantel of Pitt feature back with pride and accountability, and is one of the team leaders.
Imagine that. Pitt was able to replace Shell, a highly prized recruit when he came out of high school, with the ACC Player of the Year. You just never know.

Also Thursday, Pitt received a commitment from junior quarterback Thomas MacVittie of Archbishop Moeller (Ohio) High School in Cincinnati. That makes three from the Class of 2016 for coach Pat Narduzzi.
In 2011, former Pitt coach Todd Graham didn’t get his first verbal until June — Sto-Rox cornerback Marzett Geter, who never enrolled at Pitt. Paul Chryst had one March verbal in his two exclusive recruiting classes — Seton-La Salle tight end Scott Orndoff in 2012.
It’s a long way to February, 2016, but Narduzzi is setting a nice pace.

— There was plenty of high school flavor on the sideline Thursday, especially with the presence of four-star cornerback Damar Hamlin of Central Catholic. Hamlin, who has been a regular at practice over the past two weeks, walked onto the field with two Pitt staffers and had a brief conversation with Narduzzi. At one point, Narduzzi put his arm around Hamlin before turning his attention back to his current players.
Some Pitt people are all but salivating at the possibility of pairing cornerbacks Jordan Whitehead and Hamlin in the same secondary, starting in 2016 or 2017. But there’s a long way to go in Hamlin’s recruitment, especially with Urban Meyer lurking.
One interesting note about Hamlin: He lives in McKees Rocks and grew up in the same neighborhood as Pitt wide receiver Dontez Ford.

— Among the visiting WPIAL coaches were Jim Render of Upper St. Clair, Rich Bowen of Hempfield and North Allegheny assistant Mike Buchert.

— Bowen was accompanied by his athletic director Greg Meisner, a former Pitt and NFL defensive lineman.
When I mentioned to Meisner that it would have been nice if Pitt had an indoor practice facility when he played in the late 1970s, Meisner said, “If we did, Jackie Sherrill would have never taken us inside.”
Former Pitt coach Walt Harris addressed the team before practice, expressing admiration for their 5:30 a.m. workout sessions this winter. Harris used to give his players a break in the winter — workouts didn’t start until 6 a.m.

— Former Pitt offensive line coach Tony Wise, who has attended several Pitt practices over the years, also was in attendance.

— Narduzzi said redshirt freshman tight end Brian O’Neill has a minor hand injury, but is expected to return to practice sometime this spring. “We’ll be smart with him. It’s not a time to get anybody hurt worse.”

— Junior free safety Reggie Mitchell said junior Jevonte Pitts, a little-used backup in his first three years at Pitt, is working with the first team at strong safety. “He is one of the hardest hitters on the defense,” Mitchell said.

— Pitt will scrimmage Saturday.

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March 25, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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NA’s Walker, several others stop by Pitt practice

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It was a bit strange to see offensive tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith walk up to North Allegheny coach Art Walker at Pitt spring practice Tuesday with an big, outstretched hand and a smile.
Walker was Jones-Smith’s coach in the 2013 Big 33 game, and their relationship remains strong two years later.
Jones-Smith is one of four Pitt starters who played in that game, including wide receiver Tyler Boyd, linebacker Matt Galambos and punter Ryan Winslow. Backup offensive lineman Aaron Reese and former Pitt cornerback Titus Howard also played in the game.
No James Conner, however. Somebody wasn’t paying attention to the havoc Conner was raising on both sides of the ball at Erie McDowell.
Former Pitt graduate assistant Hank Poteat, now at Kent State, also visited practice and was greeted warmly by several players.
Coach Pat Narduzzi’s sideline is filled with several prospects, parents and coaches at every practice. The guy knows a lot of people.

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March 21, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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From behind closed doors: Pitt’s first scrimmage of the spring

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Any day I can say hello to Woodland Hills coach George Novak is a good one, and that was one of the highlights (for me) from Pitt’s first scrimmage of the spring.
Media was escorted out of the indoor facility before the action got started, but not before Novak reminded me that five of his former players are lining up for Pitt:
Senior cornerback Lafayette Pitts, senior defensive end Ejuan Price, senior defensive tackle K.K. Mosley-Smith, junior linebacker Mike Caprara and junior safety Jevonte Pitts.
On the field, there seemed to be a lot of action (I was told). Here is what I found out through some diligent reporting that consisted mainly of sticking a tape recorder into a lot of faces:
— The offense won, 77-71, based on coach Pat Narduzzi’s scoring system. First-team offense vs. first-team defense. The deciding play was a pass from quarterback Chad Voytik to sophomore wide receiver Jester Weah.
— Voytik said he was pleased with the tempo and the overall results of the scrimmage.
“We scored, we moved the ball, got first downs. When we were in backed-up situations, we moved away from our own end zone,” he said.
Among other receivers making big catches (according to Voytik) were Dontez Ford (tiptoed the back of the end zone) and Chris Wuestner (a fade pass from Voytik).
Ford continued his hold on a starting job at wide receiver. “Ever since the Duke game (last year), he has progressed,” Voytik said.
— When Narduzzi was asked about the reigning ACC player of the year, he described a reverse. Running back James Conner does a lot of things, but he doesn’t run reverses.
It was actually a play run by Tyler Boyd. When Narduzzi realized his error, he said, “We have two ACC players of the year.”
Actually, both Boyd and Conner made big plays.
Of Boyd’s reverse, Narduzzi said: “I thought it was going to be a TFL. Three guys were there and he gained yards. Very good football player.”
Conner scored on a 65-yard run on the scrimmage’s first play.
“Blocked well, not defended very well,” Narduzzi said. “I blame that on us as coaches. Overcoached.”
Middle linebacker Matt Galambos agreed that it might be difficult to stop the conference’s best player, but he said, “That’s no excuse. After that, we sunk into it.”
— Galambos also explained that the overall concept of the defense is easier to comprehend this season.
“We are going to run what we run (no matter what the offense does),” he said. “We are going to be almost the same every time. This is us. This is our defense. You have to stop us. We are going to dictate the game. We will be comfortable with everything we see.”
— Galambos had vowed to stay off Twitter during Lent, but he lost willpower when the Philadelphia Eagles — his favorite team — traded former Pitt running back LeSean McCoy. He criticized the deal to his social media followers, but he has since come to peace with it, he said.
— Mosley-Smith, the last remaining Pitt player who was recruited by Dave Wannstedt, is starting to look back wistfully on his collegiate career.
“It’s been a long road (he was in the 2010 recruiting class), but a great one,” he said. “I enjoyed every bit of my time here. I wouldn’t change it. This is my home.”
— Pitt got its first 2016 recruit when cornerback Tony Butler of St. Edward (Ohio) told coaches he plans to enroll. Butler, 6-2, 195 and a 3-star (Rivals), could play on either side of the ball.

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March 19, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt starts slow on first day with pads, but ends with `emotion’

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Pitt put the pads on for the first time this spring, but the third of 15 scheduled practice sessions started slow.
“We didn’t come out with any emotion,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said late Thursday afternoon. “We had to crank them up.
“The game of football is a game of emotion. You can’t come without that. We didn’t come out with any emotion, but we finished with a lot of it.”
Narduzzi and his coaching staff have generally been happy with the first days of spring practice.
“We have good kids. They don’t give us any lip.”
They are slowly getting to know the coaching staff, which is dramatically different in style and intensity from the past three years of Paul Chryst.
“I don’t know if they knew what to expect (from the new coaching staff),” Narduzzi said. “I think they are saying, `What’s next? Where are we getting hit from next?’ ”
Coaches might ratchet up the intensity Saturday morning when the team scrimmages for the first time.
Here a few highlights, gleaned from speaking to coaches and players after practice (most of which is closed to the media):
— Junior Dontez Ford, who has come to Pitt via Sto-Rox and Syracuse, has been the first to claim ownership of the key wide receiver position opposite Tyler Boyd.
“He is guy we are kind of counting on right now,” wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman said. “He is starting off pretty well right now.”
— Narduzzi made a point of telling reporters about a “great” catch Ford made when both the safety and cornerback converged on him.
“I thought it was going to be a pick,” Narduzzi said. “He went up over the top and took it away. Those two (Boyd and Ford) really stand out for me right now.”
Ford said safety Reggie Mitchell made a nice break on the ball. “I happened to snatch it right before he got to it,” Ford said.
— Narduzzi said Alex Officer has shown an aptitude for all three offensive line positions, but right now he is manning center – at least until Artie Rowell completes his recovery from a knee injury.
Adam Bisnowaty “always does a nice job,” the coach said. What he likes best about Bisnowaty is this: “He’s always asking questions.”
— Offensive line coach John Peterson, who likes right guard Alex Bookser’s toughness, said he has had some good conversations with former Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, now at Wisconsin. Rudolph’s insight into the Pitt roster was helpful to Peterson. “Coach Rudolph is a good friend of mine,” he said.
— Linebacker coach Rob Harley has been impressed how all four middle linebackers – from returning starter Matt Galambos to Mike Caprara to Quintin Wirginis to James Folston – have been able to get the defense lined up properly. That’s one of the key roles for the Mike linebacker.
— No one has won a starting job yet, but linebackers Bam Bradley and Nicholas Grigsby are opening eyes on the outside. “Those two are going to be critical to what we are trying to do,” Harley said.

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March 18, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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A couple notes from Pitt’s spring drills

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After two practices of a scheduled 15-session spring, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi has a lot of work to do and decisions to make. Some won’t be finalized until August, and maybe not even then.
But Dontez Ford and Zach Challingsworth are stepping up as the wide receivers lining up opposite Tyler Boyd with the first team. Don’t read too much into it, but it’s worth noting.
“Those are the two guys I have to rely on to free me up out of double coverage,” Boyd said.
At least in the spring.
On defense, coordinator Josh Conklin likes what he has seen from safety Reggie Mitchell and cornerbacks Avonte Maddox, Malik Henderson and Phillipie Motley.
Mitchell, a junior, can play both positions. Henderson is an early-enrollee freshman and Motley was redshirted last year during his freshman season.
Conklin said he was impressed with how three-year starting cornerback Lafayette Pitts, a senior, stayed after practice Tuesday to work with some wide receivers on his footwork at the line of scrimmage.
“Those are the things you want to see from that kid,” Conklin said. “He has a lot of experience. We are challenging him every day to come out and be consistent. The corners can’t hide. What we ask them to do, every rep they have to be on.”
What’s interesting to note is that Jordan Whitehead arrives from Central Valley this summer, and will add to the competition at cornerback. Maybe there actually will be some depth in the secondary.

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