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February 25, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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The latest from Pitt AD Scott Barnes via TribLive Radio

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Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes spent some time Wednesday with TribLive Radio inquisitors Ken Laird, Tim Benz and Josh Taylor, and as you might expect the talk turned to ticket sales and attendance at Heinz Field and the Pete.
Earlier this month, Barnes unveiled to reporters an ambitious plan to sell a record number of full season-ticket packages for the seven football games at Heinz Field this year.
He’s not running from that “aspirational goal,” reiterating that Pitt needs to reach a 93 percent renewal rate and sell nearly 10,000 new season tickets.
“We are well above pace in the new-ticket piece,” he said, “and about on pace with renewals.”
Attendance at Heinz Field was up more than 16 percent last year to an average of 48,150, a product of coach Pat Narduzzi’s salesmanship, his team’s ability to overachieve, his ability to hide the warts and having Notre Dame on the schedule.
When Barnes was told about a recent TLR poll that revealed that people still miss Pitt Stadium, he acknowledged that “the feelings and emotions of the past come into play.”
But he said students have been buying tickets to Heinz Field at a record pace for the 2016 seven-game schedule and, he added with a smile that was detectable through the phone, “they are staying into the fourth quarter (beyond `Sweet Caroline’).”
Barnes loves the affiliation with the Steelers at Heinz Field, and he has no plans to lose that for an on-campus facility that is not logistically sound or possible (unless you see nothing wrong with knocking down a neighborhood or a hospital).
Plus, Heinz Field for the first time will have a distinctly Pitt (script, no doubt) look on game days this season.
A more immediate concern is attendance at 12,508-seat Petersen Events Center, which reached only 8,825 and 10,425 at the past two ACC games (Wake Forest and Louisville).
“I thought it wasn’t what it needed to be, but I certainly don’t view it as drastically as some,” Barnes said, speaking before the Louisville game. “Absolute improvement is needed.”
Barnes pointed out that college basketball attendance is a national problem, and he should know — he is past chairman of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament selection committee.
“We have to meet people where they are,” he said, pointing out that social media connectability at the Pete is a problem that is being addressed.
In response to a question about returning West Virginia to the schedule — the teams haven’t met since 2012 — he added basketball’s non-conference schedule may need tweeked, not only to improve attendance but to help Pitt’s resume for the postseason.
“We have an open door,” he said of discussions on future scheduling. “Jamie (Dixon) and I are on the same page in terms of trying to make that happen. If it doesn’t happen soon, it will happen later. It’s not a product of not trying.
“A lot of folks have the idea that the first call we make, they are coming. It’s very difficult. For every 10 calls we make, we may get one on the hook.”

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February 11, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Boyd will join 331 other prospects at NFL Combine; plus thinking spring

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I joined Ken Laird, Tim Benz and Josh Taylor on Friday morning to discuss Pitt (finally!) moving its spring game to Heinz Field. The game is April 16. Listen here.

Tyler Boyd will take his first significant plunge into the NFL Draft pool when he joins 331 other prospects at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, scheduled for Feb. 23-29.
Boyd, who left Pitt after setting school reception and yardage records in only three seasons, was invited, along with 12 other players with local ties. Let’s look at what NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein, a talk show host in Houston, wrote about Boyd, who was listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds last season:
Strengths: Ultra-competitive. Known for powerful hands that clamp instantly onto ball and finish heavily contested catches. Has over-the-middle toughness. Plays with outstanding body control and has ability to gyrate and contort in mid-air in order to make acrobatic catches look easy. Brimming with confidence. Targeted 124 times or more in each of his three seasons. Able to create window through route polish. Sinks into breaks and comes out low with good turn radius when needed. Sits in space and slows routes when necessary to prevent safety from crowding him in deep middle. Has handled some kick return and punt return duties during his time at Pitt.
Weaknesses: Relatively low touchdown production (21) to target rate. Marginal long speed. Isn’t a threat to run by corners and has to win with routes and hands. Just a possession receiver much of the year. Limited YAC (yards after catch) potential due to lack of shake in open field and power to break tackles. Became a fumble factory on punt returns this year and ball security must be addressed. Lacks juice to be a full-time kick returner. Separation windows close quickly due to average getaway quickness out of breaks. Needs to use body better to protect the catch rather than just relying on strong mitts.
Sources tell us: “I think he can overcome some of his speed deficiencies with good routes and he has hand strength like (Jarvis) Landry in Miami. I would take him in the second or third (round).” — AFC East scout.
NFL comparison: Keenan Allen of the San Diego Chargers.
Bottom line: Pitt asked Boyd to be a running back and possession receiver this season, but that doesn’t define what he can be in the pros. Boyd makes up for a lack of speed with vice grips for hands and intelligence in his routes. Boyd isn’t a standalone WR1, but he can be a very productive starter in a play-action attack that allows him to play to his strengths.

I can’t disagree with anything Zierlein wrote, but I might add that Boyd quickly picked up the nuances of the wide receiver position very quickly (he was not solely that at Clairton), and he worked with three different quarterbacks at Pitt (Tom Savage, Chad Voytik and Nathan Peterman).
What I found interesting about that latter factoid is that Boyd recorded his longest catch with Savage (69), most yardage and touchdowns with Voytik (1,261 and eight) and most receptions with Peterman (91).
Also, Boyd led the team in receptions in all three seasons, and the No. 2 pass catchers (Devin Street, J.P. Holtz and Dontez Ford) averaged 52 receptions behind him.
After Street left for the NFL in the 2014 draft, Pitt never found a consistently effective complement for Boyd. In the NFL, Boyd will have another talented wide receiver lining up with him; it will be interesting to see what he does when he’s no longer the sole target of the secondary.
The second or third round appears to be what most analysts are predicting for Boyd on draft weekend (April 28-30).
Boyd has been working out in California almost since the end of Pitt’s season. He wants it, and knows what it takes. His willingness to work hard and his adherence to the concept of team (in my eyes his two most admirable qualities at Pitt) will help him construct a good NFL career.

A couple other observations about the combine list:
Eastern Kentucky outside linebacker Noah Spence, a graduate of Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, is rated the No. 2 edge pass rusher available in the draft by respected analyst Mike Mayock.
While in high school, Spence seriously considered signing with Pitt and might have done so if Dave Wannstedt hadn’t been fired. But his college career was full of potholes.
He went to Ohio State and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2013, but he failed two drug tests and was treated for addiction, according to Zierlein. Spence, 6-2, 254, also was arrested last year and charged with alcohol intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct, but the incident was expunged from his record after he performed community service.
On the field, he knows how to rush the passer. He had 22 1/2 tackles for a loss and 13 1/2 sacks while earning FCS All-American honors last year.

NFL.com also listed a few notable players who weren’t invited to the combine:
— Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who set a record with 88 rushing touchdowns, but will switch to running back and/or kick returner in the NFL.
— Wisconsin’s Mike Caputo, a West Allegheny graduate, who is a two-time, second-team All-Big Ten safety.

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February 2, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Wednesday in the Pitt war room (at least close enough to hear voices)

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So far, Tuesday has been slow on the Pitt recruiting front, other than the quote from Gateway (Fla.) High School coach Marlin Roberts.
When I asked Roberts about Gateway cornerback Henry Miller, who is committed to Pitt but considering Miami, Roberts said he expected him to sign with Pitt:
“If not, it’s going to be an awkward ceremony. I’ve already ordered blue and gold balloons and a blue and gold cake,” he said.
Wednesday should be a climatic day, with Pitt threatening to poke into the top 25 in Rivals.com’s recruiting rankings for the first time in 10 years. I will join several other media members on the fringe of Pitt’s fax machine (steps from the war room), starting at 7 a.m. Wednesday. Thanks for the invitation, coach Narduzzi.
A big part of my Tuesday was spent on TribLive Radio with Tim Benz, Ken Laird and Josh Taylor. Lots of words from all of us. Most of it actually relevant and interesting.

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February 2, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Take at look at Pitt coaches’ unfettered glee after nabbing Hamlin

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi posted this six-second video on Twitter on Monday night, a reaction by his entire staff to Central Catholic defensive back Damar Hamlin announcing on KDKA-TV that he will sign with Pitt.
Hamlin said he didn’t phone Narduzzi until after his announcement, so this is real, live, raw emotion. Upon viewing it, my first thought was: How would they react if they someday win the ACC? Also, why only six seconds. I wanted to see more.
Anyway, the coaches’ pride and joy are appropriate and well-deserved. These guys traveled all over the country, jumping from airplane to rental car to airplane all in the same day, talking to parents and coaches while hunting down prospects they believe will make Pitt a better team.
And they won’t be done after Wednesday. They plan to play host to 33 junior recruits this weekend.
With the approach of Wednesday’s signing day, Pitt’s 2016 class is shaping up as one of its best in many years (at least in the post-Wannstedt years). There are five four-star prospects, according to Rivals.com, and four of them play defense — a major area of need at Pitt.
Narduzzi looks like he will walk away with an impressive collection of Pennsylvania players — seven of the top 21 in the state, according to Rivals, led by No. 4 Hamlin and No. 7 Kaezon Pugh of Aliquippa. All seven played for WPIAL or City League schools.
The class is top-heavy with defensive players (14 of 22, with many people believing Lakeland, Fla., defensive tackle Keyshon Camp will pick Pitt on Wednesday and make it 15). Narduzzi saw a void and addressed it.
In my opinion, the class will rise and fall on the development of quarterback Thomas MacVittie, who may have to be the starter as soon as 2017. His signature on a letter of intent is critical, especially after Pitt lost quarterback prospects Tre’Von Chapman, Wade Freebeck and Alex Hornibrook off their 2013-15 commitment lists. (Chapman, actually, enrolled before he was dismissed in the wake of a domestic incident in 2013.)
There are players from eight states on Pitt’s ’16 list, with five below the Mason-Dixon Line (North Carolina, Florida and Virginia.) Of course, linebacker Chase Pine of Williamsburg, Va., defensive back Henry Miller of Kissimmee, Fla., and Camp are flirting with other schools. So stay tuned.
Neither Pitt nor Penn State are dominating the state, however. Yes, Penn State lost No. 14 Aaron Mathews to Pitt on Monday, but coach James Franklin still has commitments from three of the top six, including No. 1 Miles Sanders of Woodland Hills.
And, by the way, let me jump up on my soapbox for a minute:
Those people questioning Sanders’ mother assumed preference of Penn State need to mind their own business.
I can’t say I know for sure that she wants her son to go to Penn State (recruiting news is so much presumption, guesses and lies), but I know this:
In almost all cases, mother knows best.

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January 26, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Conner’s treatments going well, tumors continue to shrink

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Good news arrived Tuesday when Erie photo-journalist Mike Gallagher, close friend with Pitt running back James Conner and his family, telephoned.
Conner, who is undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkins lymphoma, has finished four of the 12 treatments and the tumors continue to shrink, Gallagher said. In fact, he said Conner’s face no longer has a swollen look now that the tumor that was blocking blood flow to the heart has been reduced.
Conner has reacted well to most of the treatments — No. 4 last week was the roughest — and he has been a regular in the Pitt weight room, lifting and running on the treadmill.
Conner gets a treatment every two weeks, and has them scheduled through May.
He has vowed to beat the disease and Dr. Stanley Marks, one of the leading cancer doctors in the world, suggested that Conner could play this season.
One game Conner has circled on the Pitt schedule, just released Tuesday, is the Sept. 24 ACC opener at North Carolina. Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky is a high school rival from Mentor, Ohio.

I had the pleasure Wednesday morning to break down Pitt’s schedule on TribLive Radio with my good friend and talk show host Ken Laird.
The schedule is one of Pitt’s most difficult in many years, with eight bowl teams, four that won 10 games and three that finished last season in the Top 20.
Most of the toughest games are grouped together, with Pitt playing Penn State, Oklahoma State, North Carolina and Marshall back-to-back-to-back-to-back in weeks 2-5. Then, in November, Pitt plays at Miami and national runner-up Clemson on consecutive Saturdays.
It’s way too early to predict how many games Pitt will win, without knowing:
— How much Conner will be able to play.
— If Narduzzi will be able to adequately replace wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
— If the defense will make enough positive strides after allowing 1,321 yards over the last three games.
But, as Ken and I point out during the show, if Pitt can start with a modest 3-2 record (not unreasonable), it has a chance to be 6-2 heading into the final third of the season.

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January 9, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi returns to ESPN on Monday night for national championship talk

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His staff complete, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi can relax and travel to the ESPN HQ in Bristol, Conn., on Monday to sit down with his fellow head coaches and do what he loves almost as much as dinner with his family: Watch and talk football.
For the second year in a row, Narduzzi is part of ESPN’s Film Room segment that will be shown on ESPN2 during the national championship game between Alabama and Clemson.
He will be joined by ESPN analysts Brian Griese and Chris Spielman and coaches Larry Fedora of North Carolina, Jim McElwain of Florida, Will Muschamp of South Carolina and Willie Taggart of South Florida.
“There’s nothing better than talking football,” he said. “That’s what we do. Half of me says, `What am I doing?’ and other half says, `It will be fun.’ ”
The coaches will offer analysis and opinion as the game progresses. A year ago, when Ohio State was playing Oregon, Narduzzi was on the panel when the conversation turned to the possibility of one of Ohio State three quarterbacks transferring and what school might be interested.
Narduzzi was joking when he sheepishly raised his hand, but he nonetheless was in the market for a quarterback — even though no one knew it at the time. A month later, Nathan Peterman transferred from Tennessee to Pitt.

The hiring of offensive coordinator Matt Canada means Tim Salem will return to his duties as Pitt’s tight ends coach after calling plays in the Military Bowl.
Salem was a candidate for the OC job, and Narduzzi said the two of them spoke often in the past month. He also expanded his search in other directions.
“I did my homework throughout the process,” Narduzzi said. “I talked to a couple very qualified people from around the country.”
Narduzzi seemed focused on Canada.
“When (former coordinator Jim) Chaney left, I said we are going to get a guy as good or better,” he said. “Mission accomplished there.”

For more talk about Pitt’s new OC and other topics, listen here to “The Kevin Gorman Show” on TribLive Radio. Trib high school writer Chris Harlan and myself contribute.

Safety Jevonte Pitts, who will graduate before next season, will not return to the team and will become the sixth underclassman to leave since the end of the season.

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January 7, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt, PSU, WVU go 1-2 in bowl season, but Trib writer comes up with a winner of his own

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Tribune-Review college football writers Jerry DiPaola, Bob Cohn and Bill West get together on TribLive Radio on Wednesday to dissect their teams’ (Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia) bowl experiences.
The Mountaineers were the only winners, although West had something of his own to celebrate. Listen here:

http://sportstalk.triblive.com/download/106CFB16.MP3+share

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December 30, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Military Bowl loss to Navy sends Pitt into the off-season

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Pitt’s off-season began Monday night in the wake of another disappointing loss in a bowl game.
Pitt is 1-4 in bowls since hiring Todd Graham in 2011, and the four losses are among the worst in recent school history:
The first two following the ’11 and ’12 seasons were lost by teams that weren’t especially interested in postseason practices or games, were defeated by 22 and 21 points by SMU and Ole Miss, respectively, and finished with a losing record (6-7).
The other two were embarrassing and discouraging, respectively. Pitt lost 31-6 and 34-13 fourth-quarter leads to Houston last year. This season, the Panthers couldn’t stop (actually, they couldn’t even slow down) Navy’s triple option, losing, 44-28, in the Military Bowl. It was the most points Pitt allowed in a bowl game in 86 years, even though everyone seemed confident prior to the game.
Funny thing about those four losses — only one was delivered by a Power 5 school.
The 8-5 record is better than anything Graham or Paul Chryst directed, so that’s progress (never mind that Pitt was 6-1 and 8-3 this season before the grand fall).
All will be forgiven if Pat Narduzzi, who has already attracted a good 19-man recruiting class, can put the finishing touch on it by getting a commitment from Central Catholic defensive back Damar Hamlin.
If Hamlin signs with Pitt, it won’t matter to most fans if Woodland Hills running back Miles Sanders goes to Penn State. Sanders has been committed to the Nittany Lions for nearly 18 months. Will one more month change his mind?
While you’re waiting for all that, plus Tyler Boyd’s decision and the name of the next offensive coordinator, check out our College Football Locker Room show from Wednesday on TribLive Radio. I flew solo, with Bob Cohn in Jacksonville for the Taxslayer Bowl and Bill West and his wife welcoming their first born into the world.
Hard to believe, but there are some things more important than college football.

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December 27, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Military Bowl notes, quotes and anecdotes

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Here’s what I’ve learned the past few days while Pitt prepared to meet Navy on Monday in the Military Bowl.
— Navy players aren’t especially happy about having to play a bowl game on their home field — Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. — while their American Athletic Conference brethren went to places such Miami Beach, Fla., Boca Raton, Fla., and Hawaii.
— I now can spell Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s name without looking it up.
— The Pitt’s coach’s name is actually pronounced Nar-Dut-Chee (at least, among his Italian relatives and friends).
Other than that, I haven’t learned enough to back off my original prediction that Pitt can beat the No. 21 Midshipmen. I believe Tyler Boyd — participating in an unofficial NFL audition — will have a big game against Navy’s secondary that allowed Army’s Edgar Allan Poe (yes, that’s his name) five receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown.
Pitt 24, Navy 21 (the opposite of Navy’s victory against the Panthers in 2013).

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Pitt will display a big, blue Conner Strong banner outside the stadium Monday and is inviting people to sign it in support of running back James Conner, who is battling Hodgkins lymphoma. The banner will be next to Gate 6 (550 Taylor Avenue) of the parking lot on the Gold side of the field from 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.
The banner also will be held up as Pitt runs onto the field before the game, and officials are asking people to chant “Conner Strong.”

No matter who gets the permanent job as Pitt’s offensive coordinator, the interim guy says he’ll be back next season. “Unless my wife has me moving somewhere else,” Tim Salem said.
The Military Bowl also is an audition for Salem, the former tight ends coach who is a candidate for the permanent job when Narduzzi starts his search in earnest next month.
Asked if he plans any changes for the game, Salem said, “Bring your seat belt.”
“You get bored and stale from playing a football season,” he said, “but you give (the players) something new.”
Within reason, of course. “We’re not idiots that we can go out and run the Wishbone and match Navy,” he said.
The idea is to win, whether that involves “razzle-dazzle plays … or 10 quarterback sneaks in a row,” he said.
Narduzzi said he will keep a closer eye on the offense “just because it’s new. Be a little more focused on the game clock. The game’s too critical.”

Pitt and Navy have met 39 times, with the Panthers holding a 22-14-3 edge. The teams met in all but three seasons from 1961-1989, perhaps none more memorable than Oct. 26, 1963.
Navy won, 24-12, behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach . Pitt was led by two-way All-America lineman Ernie Borghetti, whose son E.J. is now the school’s executive associate athletic director/media relations and one of the most loyal Pitt men you’ll ever meet.
Pitt finished 9-1 that season, but it was not invited to a bowl because the Orange Bowl was fearful the Panthers would lose to Penn State two weeks later. Pitt/PSU was postponed by the JFK assassination.
Pitt won, 22-21, but it was too late. Navy (9-2) went on to play for the national championship in the Cotton Bowl, but lost to Texas, 28-6.
One more note from 1963 that may be interesting only to me: CBS introduced instant replay to the nation in the Army-Navy game Dec. 7, a contest Kennedy, a Navy man, was scheduled to attend.
When Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh scored on a 1-yard plunge late in the game, CBS replayed it and viewers were confused. They ended up flooding the CBS switchboard, thinking they had seen Army score twice, according to Michael Connelly’s book “The President’s Team: The 1963 Army-Navy Game and the Assassination of JFK.”
Legendary play-by-play man Lindsey Nelson assured everyone it was only a replay, and an invention we cannot live without today was born.

A couple of quick notes: Pitt wide receiver Zach Challingsworth, who had become a receiving alternative to Boyd late in the season, hurt his shoulder against Miami last month and won’t play against Navy. Challingsworth, a sophomore from South Fayette, had recent surgery. … Pitt hasn’t defeated a ranked opponent since knocking off No. 24/25 Notre Dame in 2013.

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December 16, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Cornerback from Florida could be Pitt’s 17th verbal

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When I called Gateway (Fla.) High School coach Marlin Roberts on Wednesday, I asked him what three-star prospect Henry Miller brought to his team this season.
“He brings so much,” Roberts said. “I don’t know where to start.”
Miller has narrowed his college choices to Pitt and N.C. State and will announce his choice 7 p.m. Friday via Twitter, Roberts said.
Miller played quarterback and cornerback for Gateway, a school in Kissimmee, Fla., that plays in the state’s largest classification (8A). He passed for 935 yards and 12 touchdowns, ran for 974 and 16 and only threw two interceptions while leading Gateway (7-4) to its first playoff appearance in school history.
He also intercepted three passes, even though Roberts counted opposing teams throwing his way only 10 times all season. At 6-foot-3, 193 pounds, he projects as a cornerback, which (if he actually plays that position in college) will make some secondary coach very happy. Roberts said Miller has been timed in 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash and is a sprinter on the track team. He played basketball, but gave it up this season to concentrate on his recruitment.
Roberts said N.C. State has been on Miller “pretty hard.” In fact, one of its coaches called Roberts immediately before I did Wednesday morning. Meanwhile, Pitt tight ends coach Tim Salem “comes down here all the time,” Roberts said.
Miller also has drawn offers from Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Oregon State, Rutgers, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Strangely, none of the Florida schools have offered. Florida had interest, “but they weren’t on him as much as Pitt,” Roberts said.
Here are a few facts about Pitt’s Class of 2016:
— Pitt has 17 verbal commitments, including five (all out-of-state) in the past month. The breakdown is WPIAL and City League (five), Ohio (four), New Jersey/New York (four, including two who had previously committed to Rutgers), Virginia (two), Florida (one) and North Carolina (one).
— Rivals.com ranks Pitt’s class 47th in the nation, ninth in the ACC. So, coach Pat Narduzzi clearly has a lot more work to do, this year and beyond.
— One gem no one has talked much about is tight end Chris Clark, a former 5-star from New Jersey, who is transferring from UCLA.
— Only two Pitt verbals — Lima, Ohio, wide receiver Ruben Flowers and Aliquippa linebacker Kaezon Pugh – are rated four-stars by Rivals.
— Pugh and Central Catholic stars Bricen Garner and Rashad Wheeler are playing in state championship games Saturday.
— Three recruits are enrolling in January and will be eligible to participate in spring drills: Clark, running back Chawntez Moss and defensive end Patrick Jones.
Because he is transferring, Clark may have to sit out until 2017. Moss will compete for playing time with ACC Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison, freshman Darrin Hall and junior James Conner, who is battling Hodgkins lymphoma and hopes to play next season. A hole opened up at running back when sophomore Chris James said he plans to transfer.
Jones steps in behind veterans Shakir Soto, Rori Blair and two promising transfer ends who didn’t play this season: Dewayne Hendrix and Allen Edwards. Plus, oft-injured senior Ejuan Price, a first-team All-ACC performer this season, might petition the NCAA for a sixth season.
For more on recruiting and Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia bowl preparations, click here on the College Football Locker Room show on TribLive Radio, with Penn State writer Bob Cohn, West Virginia writer Bill West and myself.

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