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July 7, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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

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

 

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June 30, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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

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

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June 24, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt recruiting update

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The number of prospects in Pitt football’s 2015 recruiting class reached double figures (11) Tuesday, and coach Paul Chryst is more than halfway home — 7 1/2 months before signing day.
With only 11 seniors on the roster, Pitt won’t need to recruit 20 or more athletes next year. He might settle for a number in the mid- to high-teens.
That’s a sign of stability finally settling over the program in Chryst’s third season.
Chryst has 59 players on the roster from his three recruiting classes (2012-14), accounting for about 69 percent of the team. That includes 10 of the 16 from the hastily assembled ’12 class that signed only six weeks after Chryst was hired. The team has been almost exclusively picked by Chryst.
Pitt has plucked two recruits from Florida (running back Sekai Lindsay of Melbourne and defensive back Malik Henderson of Hallandale Beach) for the first time since Todd Graham got three from that state in 2011. That’s prime ACC territory.
Rivals.com rates Lindsay the eighth-best running back in the state. I’ve had fans tell me that a three-star from Florida equates to a five-star from Pennsylvania. I don’t know about that, but getting Lindsay was important for Pitt.
By the way, two of Graham’s three are still on the team — wide receiver Ronald Jones and defensive tackle LaQuentin Smith. Defensive back Roderick Ryles is gone.
Tuesday was a busy day for Pitt, getting commitments from Quaker Valley’s Dane Jackson, a gifted athlete who can play either side of the ball, but might end up in the Panthers’ defensive backfield. Jackson attends Cornell High School whose students play for neighboring Quaker Valley in a co-op arrangement.
Also, defensive tackle DeVon Hamilton, 6-3, 283 pounds, has given Pitt a verbal commitment.
The breakdown of the 11-man recruiting class includes six from Pennsylvania (five from the WPIAL), two from Ohio, two from Florida and one from Delaware. Nine of the 11 are rated three-star prospects by Rivals.com. Henderson and Jackson are the two-stars.
The position breakdown: Two defensive tackles and two wild cards (Jackson and Apollo-Ridge’s Tre Tipton) and one running back, tight end, quarterback, offensive lineman, wide receiver, defensive back and linebacker.

 

 

 

 

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June 5, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Big weekends upcoming at Pitt

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Pitt is embarking on its two most important weekends of the recruiting calendar, and a Florida cornerback got the party rolling.
Malik Henderson of Hallandale Beach, Fla., reported on his Twitter account Wednesday that he plans to enroll next year. He is the first member of the Class of 2015 from outside Pennsylvania to commit to Pitt.
Henderson is a two-star prospect, according to Rivals.com. His other best scholarship offers came from Arkansas and Indiana. He is the fourth overall senior to make a non-binding verbal commitment to Pitt, joining Kittanning tight end Nick Bowers, Canon-McMillan offensive lineman Alex Paulina and Altoona linebacker Kevin Givens.
With a decreasing number of players expected to leave the Pitt program this year — thanks to the stability created by coach Paul Chryst and his staff — and 49 added in the past two recruiting classes, expect this year’s group to be the smallest since Chryst welcomed 16 in 2012.
Meanwhile, coaches and officials are making plans to host about 300 high school players this weekend and next at Pitt’s UPMC training facility on the South Side for the Paul Chryst Football Camps. This is, generally, where many players make up their minds, but where they also get plenty of instruction from members of the Pitt staff and other coaches.
The next two weekends are so important to the long-range growth of the program that Chryst is skipping ceremonies at Wisconsin-Platteville on June 13 where his late father George will be honored for three decades of service as coach and athletic director.

 

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April 29, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Poteat comes full circle, will join Pitt as walk-on running back

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When running back Jameel Poteat visited Pitt with his Cincinnati teammates in 2011, something felt weird.
“It felt like I was at home and I’m (playing) on the other side,” he said.
Weirdness will be replaced by a familiar feel this year after Poteat said he will transfer to Pitt. He will sit out the 2014  season  as a walk-on and be eligible to play in 2015, currently his final year of eligibility.
Poteat, who attended Stony Brook last year but played in only six games due to a high ankle sprain, said he will apply for a medical redshirt in an attempt to gain a second year of eligibility at Pitt.
“The worst thing (the NCAA) can say is no,” he said.
In any case, Poteat, 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, is back where his collegiate career almost started.
He committed to Pitt in 2010 while he was a standout at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg where he rushed for 4,832 yards and was the No. 6 overall prospect in Pennsylvania, according to Rivals.com.
When Dave Wannstedt was fired, his replacement, Michael Haywood, called.
“He kind of scared me,” Poteat said. He said, `I’m coming to your house and you’re coming to Pitt.’ ”
But Haywood was fired two weeks later after a domestic incident and Poteat settled for Cincinnati.
“I wish I would have stayed (with Pitt) three years ago,” he said. “But everything happens for a reason.”
Poteat said his ankle bothered him at times during his two seasons at Cincinnati where he had 57 carries for 227 yards and two touchdowns. When he decided to transfer from Cincinnati, he chose Stony Brook when he couldn’t reconnect with Pitt.
But he followed the Panthers’ fortunes, always keeping this thought in the back of his mind:
“I felt like that was the offense I need to be in,” he said. “I need to go back. I really thank the coaches for bringing me in.”
Poteat has two other interesting ties to Pitt.
– He said coach Paul Chryst offered him a scholarship to Wisconsin when he was the Badgers’ offensive coordinator, but Poteat thought it was too far from home.
– His cousin, Hank Poteat, played defensive back for Pitt and the Steelers and is a Pitt graduate assistant working with the secondary.
“He’s going to be hard on me,” Jameel said, laughing.

 

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April 18, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Savage earns invitation to NFL Draft

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Nine months ago, when Tom Savage had yet to earn coach Paul Chryst’s public blessing as Pitt’s starting quarterback, few people would have imagined this:
Savage has received the NFL’s invitation to attend the first day of the draft May 8 in Radio City Music Hall in New York, according to his agent Neil Schwartz.
But through hard work the past two years, diligence in his pre-draft workouts and an arm that is considered by many experts as the strongest available, Savage has a chance to sit among the nation’s elite draft prospects.
He hasn’t decided to accept the offer, but the fact that he has been offered an invitation  is validation that he won’t need to wait all weekend to hear his name. NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt, who knows more about draft prospects than anyone after a 30-year career as the Dallas Cowboys’ director of player personnel, rates Savage the 40th overall prospect. That puts Savage in the upper quarter of the second round. ESPN’s  Todd McShay recently suggested that the Houston Texans would take Savage with the first pick in the second round.
Here is what Brandt wrote on NFL.com:
“Savage (6-foot-3 7/8, 228 pounds) is a good leader and throws a lot like Troy Aikman. He has a very strong arm and will put it where the receiver can catch it. If he played four years at one school he might be drafted in the top half of the first round.”
The Aikman reference is nothing new. Brandt first made the comparison in October not long after Savage threw for 424 yards (the most at Pitt in 20  years) and six touchdowns (tying an ACC record) at Duke, the eventual ACC Coastal Division champion.
And it wasn’t just Savage showing of his strong arm by throwing to speedster receivers Tyler Boyd and Devin Street, who combined for 14 receptions, 320 yards and five touchdowns that day. I recently watched a replay of the big third-down toss to Kevin Weatherspoon, lofted precisely over the receiver’s shoulder, coming down in his hands just before he went out of bounds. That was a game-saver because Duke was in the midst of a 20-point fourth quarter.
Savage consistently dodged the spotlight last season (he learned from Chryst, after all), and may not accept the Radio City invitation. There have been several examples of players invited to New York sitting there for hours, undrafted, under the hot lights of the TV cameras.
Despite what Brandt and McShay think, the draft is tough to predict and consists of  many surprising variables that emerge as the proceedings unfold. I would not be shocked to see Savage go in the second round — or the fourth. But I’ll bet anything he goes before Tom Brady did in 2000 (No. 199).
Whatever he decides — and I can see both sides of the argument — Savage is well on his way to the NFL. It’s one of the best stories to come out of Pitt football in many years.

 

 

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April 10, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Kasperowicz speaks out on Pitt, the stadium and today’s high school athletes

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With no Pitt practice to attend Wednesday, I spent a couple hours before lunch at the Senator John Heinz History Center where the WPIAL announced its eighth class of inductees.
It was there that I ran into one of the inductees — former North Hills quarterback and current Pine-Richland football coach Eric Kasperowicz.
-spoken, experienced and unafraid to express his opinions, he is a good candidate to answer a few questions:
1. What makes high school student-athletes tick?
2. And what do the Pitt graduates in his circle think of the direction in which the football program is headed?
Kasperowicz, who coached high school football for the past 15 years (12 as an assistant to Jack McCurry at North Hills), believes the athletes today have “a sense of entitlement” that wasn’t nearly as evident 20 years ago.
“These kids have this sense that they deserve (starting jobs) without putting the work in,” he said. “When we played, we knew it was hard work. You work hard and do it with the team in mind, you are going to play for me.
“I was raised by some great coaches. The best kids are going to play. I don’t care if  you are 14 or 18.”
To the second question, he said “it’s a mixed bag.”
“We are happy where (the Pitt football program) is going, but the biggest complaint is the stadium … not being on campus and not having that college feel.”
I understand the stadium point of view that seems to be pervasive among many Pitt graduates, but my question is this:
Which Oakland neighborhood and/or hospital gets torn down to make way for a football stadium?
Kasperowicz has a unique relationship with Pitt coach Paul Chryst, whose son Danny will be a senior lineman at Pine-Richland next season. He said Chryst, who usually has other weekend commitments in the fall, attended nearly half the games last season.
“Great kid, great family,” Kasperowicz said of his young lineman. “You can tell he’s a coach’s kid.”
Kasperowicz watched Pitt practice Tuesday after joining Chryst in one of his quarterback meetings, sitting silently at the back of the room ”like a fly on the wall.”
“He treats them with respect; he doesn’t talk down to them,” said Kasperowicz, who plans similar visits to Ohio State and West Virginia this off-season.

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April 9, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt takes off the pads for the 11th practice of the spring

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The theme of Pitt’s spring football practice has become injuries, what they mean to the team and how best to avoid them.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst ordered his team to take off their pads Tuesday – NCAA rules mandate three such sessions, with the third at the coach’s discretion. Tuesday was the third.
Good call, coach. The team needed the break.
“I thought we did a good job of being physical up to this point,” he said.
Chryst might have gone helmets-only — even without the injuries Friday to running backs James Conner (knee) and Isaac Bennett (shoulder) and fullback Adam Lazenga (leg) that will keep them out the remainder of the spring.
But he did indicate he is wary of getting too many key players hurt when the first game is nearly five months in the future.
Asked about the possibility of putting red jerseys on some players, other than the quarterbacks, to remind teammates to be careful, he said the thought has crossed his mind.
“You think about that all the time,” he said. “(Tuesday), the guys were doing a pretty good of staying off bodies. The bottom line is you have to learn how to practice and there are some things that happen. No one likes to see it, but those are hard to control.
“You just have to keep educating and say a prayer that every guy leaves the field like they came on.”
Here is a list of the injured players:
Offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty. — “We have been careful with him,” Chryst said. (And that strategy likely will continue.)
Center Gabe Roberts and linebacker Zach Poker – “They won’t do much more than individual (work),” the coach said.
Defensive ends Devin Cook and Ejuan Price and Bennett – Limited.
Conner, Lazenga, linebacker Reggie Green, defensive tackle LaQuentin Smith and walk-on defensive end Trent Neavin – Out for the final four practices.
Chryst said every player on the list, with the exception of Neavin, will be ready to practice in August.
Quick thoughts about a few of the injured:
– Although the depth at tackle is improving, the team needs Bisnowaty to solidify the line with an experienced body.
– The successful recoveries of Cook and Price, assuming the best, will do wonders for a position lacking in depth.

 

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April 5, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Injuries to Conner, Bennett deplete depth at running back

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Sitting on the trainer’s table after injuring his left knee Friday at Pitt’s 10th practice of the spring,  James Conner looked up, smiled and gave me a definitive thumbs-up.
While walking past a group of reporters after a practice in which he injured his left shoulder, Isaac Bennett assured me, “I’m good.”
At the time, those responses didn’t necessarily mean good news for the Panthers because you get similarly pleasant responses from Conner and Bennett anytime you bump into them at the Pitt practice facility. The two running backs are two of the friendliest athletes I’ve encountered in 39 months on the Pitt football beat. Calling them good guys only begins to describe their personalities.
Later, word leaked through Pitt’s Twitter feed and other reliable sources that Conner had a sprained knee (not torn) and Bennett had a sprained shoulder. Neither will practice in the final five sessions of the spring.
What that means is this: rising sophomore running back Rachid Ibrahim will get most of the work at running back through April 15 (the last day of spring practice), and coach Paul Chryst needs to move someone else into a backup role. Redshirt junior wide receiver Ronald Jones took some snaps at running back after Bennett got hurt Friday.
Before Friday, Pitt looked to have depth at running back, but now incoming freshmen Chris James, Qadree Ollison and Dennis Briggs can’t get on campus fast enough.
Pitt also reported that Conner and Bennett would be recovered in time for the off-season conditioning program that begins next month.
The trick for coach Paul Chryst will be this: Both players may insist on returning before they are ready. That’s  just the way they are. Chryst needs to be aware of any misplaced courage among his wounded players. Now is not the time to be a hero.
It’s a long summer and if Conner and Bennett need more time to heal, they should take as much of it as necessary.

 

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April 4, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Notes from Day 9 of Pitt spring drills

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Pitt coach Paul Chryst put his team through the ninth day of spring practice Thursday, with six more to follow. It was mostly positional drills, with not much team action (the really good stuff). The 10th practice Friday will feature more physical play and plenty of 11-on-11 drills, with officials throwing flags. That always ratchets up the intensity.
Some highlights from Thursday:
Best collision of the day: Defensive end Shakir Soto, who looks like he might impact the line positively this season, on running back James Conner. Soto initiated it, which is a switch from most of the best hits this spring, which have been launched by Conner. But neither player seemed fazed, probably because Conner is only about 5 pounds lighter than Soto, who is listed at 255.
Best catch of the day: Tyler Boyd made a diving end-zone catch of a throw by quarterback Trey Anderson in which Boyd contorted his body nearly into a horizontal position.
Unfair fight: Big defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett, 6-3, 340, grabbing running back Rachid Ibrahim, 6-1, 185, and tossing him to the turf.
Best position battle: Clairton buddies Titus Howard and Trenton Coles at the cornerback position that was vacated when K’Waun Williams exhausted his eligibility. I took an unofficial poll of media and other regular practice watchers, looking for a leader. Howard got a 3-1 edge (small sample size, I know), but Coles remains an intriguing player — maybe the best pure athlete on the defense. Secondary coach Troy Douglas wasn’t part of my poll,  of course, but I loved how he described Coles the other day: “He has a lot of talent.” Douglas emphasized the word `lot.’ Actually, the secondary as a whole looks to be more athletic than at any time in the past four springs.
Race you’ll never see, but might be interesting to watch: Coles vs. wide receiver Jester Weah in a 100-yard dash. Both were state high school track champions in their respective states (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).
Player that teammates and coaches can’t stop talking about: Redshirt freshman wide receiver Zach Challingsworth of South Fayette. He catches everything and is fearless when running through the secondary at 6-2, 185.
Must-hear radio: Chris Peak had an interesting roster breakdown, plus insightful interviews with analyst Pat Bostick and incoming offensive line recruit Mike Grimm, on TribLiveRadio on Thursday. Listen here.

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