We are getting close to the beginning of Pitt’s fall camp as players report to Pitt on Aug 7th and on Aug 8th the fun begins. That is only 11 days from now so I thought I’d take a day or two per week from now until Sept 2nd to peel back the curtain on some of the lesser known players who we’ll see out on the field this season. We’ll call these articles “Camp Profiles”.
I’ll concentrate on Panthers in the two-deep who we recognize, and may even know a little about, but who are not in the glare of the spotlight. I firmly believe that star players are fun to watch but the less heralded young men actually win the ball games.
James Conner might make a nice 20 yard run to give us the winning points late in the 4th quarter but it is the others who grind it out every play to get us within striking distance of the win. Those players are the guys who usually don’t get much playing time until their junior or senior years but then really start to contribute.
So I’m crossing these more well-known players off this profiling list: Conner, Peterman, Bisnowaty, Ollison, Johnson and Orndoff on offense and Price, Soto, Hendrix (we’ve discussed his background already on here), Bradley, Whitehead, and Galambos on defense.
Most of those have been on the roster for some time and we are familiar with them. Others maybe not so long but have had a lot of media coverage already.
So – let’s begin with our ‘Who’s that?‘ tour with Money Linebacker Mike Caprara.
This guy is an interesting player with a full back story. Caprara was somewhat of a local WPIAL legend as he ended his HS playing career at Woodland Hills High School as their leading tackler (350) after starting every game from mid-freshman year on.
First off 350 tackles is a lot – but look who else played their ball at Woodland Hills that he bettered in that area:
- Tirrell Greene (Class of 1990)
- Jason Taylor (Class of 1992) (Home schooled from grades 10–12) NFL Defensive End for Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins, and New York Jets. Attended and played for the University of Akron.
- Steve Breaston (Class of 2002), NFL Wide Receiver for Kansas City Chiefs, and Arizona Cardinals. Attended and played for the University of Michigan.
- Shawntae Spencer (Class of 2000), NFL Cornerback for Oakland Raiders, and San Francisco 49ers. Attended and played for the University of Pittsburgh.
- Lousaka Polite (Class of 1999): NFL Fullback for Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears, and Dallas Cowboys. Attended and played for the University of Pittsburgh.
- Ryan Mundy (Class of 2003), NFL Safety for New York Giants, and Pittsburgh Steelers. Attended and played for the University of Michigan and West Virginia University.
- Terrence Johnson (Class of 2004), NFL Cornerback for Atlanta Falcons, Indianapolis Colts, and New England Patriots. Attended and played at California University of Pennsylvania.
- Rontez Miles (Class of 2007), NFL Safety for New York Jets. Attended and played at California University of Pennsylvania.
- Wes Lyons (Class of 2005): NFL player with Pittsburgh Steelers. Attended and played at the West Virginia University.
- Darrin Walls (Class of 2006), NFL Cornerback for New York Jets, and Atlanta Falcons. Attended and played at University of Notre Dame.
- Monte Simmons (Class of 2007), NFL linebacker, Kent State Golden Flash
- Rob Gronkowski (Class of 2007), NFL Tight End for New England Patriots. Attended and played for the University of Arizona.
Pretty heady competition for an all-time defensive record right there especially considering seven of those players were on defense. The cool thing about that achievement is that he did it as a 6’0″ 207 lb kid and that is undersized for a middle linebacker.
Call him “Tenacious Mike” I suppose because what we have seen out of him from his HS highlights through his career at Pitt so far is a young man who doesn’t listen to others tell him what he can and can’t do. Now he stands a real 6’0″ and is up to 225 lbs and even by college standards that is still on the small size.
But he’s smart, coachable (more on that later) and is, I think, faster than he looks. He’s not a speed demon like some other at that position but when he sets his sights on the QB or the ball carrier he gets there in a hurry and makes plays.
You can see by the Rivals recruiting site snapshot above that he wasn’t highly thought of by many college scouts as rated a 2*. Chryst and staff saw something in him worth taking a chance. But truth be told the Chryst staff was pretty desperate to get bodies on scholarship right then as Todd Graham had left Pitt a month earlier and his 2012 recruiting class was falling apart. Seven out of the 16 recruits verballed after Graham had left with Caprara being the first of those.
I’m not a football coach but I think if I had a shot at a leading tackler at a football factory HS I’d take the chance also. But let’s look at who Chryst had on the roster back in 2012 that Caprara was going to have to compete with to get future playing time.
rsJR Dan Mason was already seriously injured in 2010 and wasn’t going to get much PT after that. rsSO Todd Thomas was coming off an injury also and became a solid starter, SO Ejuan Price was at one LB end and was moved to DE later on. FRs Bradley and Rippy came in with Caprara; Rippy bagged out and rsFR Nick Grigsby was going to be another part-time starter that season.
So in a real sense there was some room for him to move up the depth chart if he kept plugging away at it and that’s what happened.
He did what most of these late-blooming kids do, at first he played well on special teams, then rotated onto the field in cases where the starters could be rested. Then in his third year he began to get more firm opportunities to show what he could do given more playing time.
Here are his stats line from 2014 and 2015 – compare the two and you’ll see that progression that happens when a player is more trusted by his coaching staff to contribute:
At this point I don’t see anyone in the LB corp who is going to overtake his starting position in this fall camp. We have some talent alongside him I think – youngsters such as rsSO Elijah Zeise who has moved over from WR, where he had five catches last year, and he’s impressed and is going to try to get playing time, just as Oluwaseun(‘Sean’ to us folks) Idowu has been talked about. I gather the staff sees good potential in both those players.
From our last recruiting class of 2015 we landed both rsFR Saleem Brightwell and rsFR Anthony McKee who were pursued by major Power Five schools but I don’t think we’ll see them much. I get the impression that as much as Narduzzi, and in turn DC Josh Conklin, like speed they also value smarts and experience… which Caprara has right now. Although Brightwell was listed in the pre-camp two-deep that just came out.
Caprara’s progression is one we see played out at every school and every season. Some of these kids who stick with it become solid starters as Caprara has done and some get the chance to contribute to the team in other ways.
I do think that college football fans tend to think that if a recruit comes into the program and hasn’t landed a starting job by his SO year he’s a bust. I’ve read that about Pitt players many times on the internet. But the reality is that after a head coach has been established at his school for three or four years most of the starters will be upperclassmen.
We won’t see that much yet at Pitt with Narduzzi being only in his second year with us. Right now he’s playing some of his own early on in addition to players he inherited (like Caprara).
I expect big things out of that Money LB spot this year. Caprara and Galambos are in their second seasons with Conklin and his schemes. They are in their second year of being coached by LB coach Rob Harley and he’s already made a difference in the way both kids play.
BTW – I love what the Media Dept says about Harley here as it really captures the jump in production by the LBs from 2014 to 2015 under his coaching:
Rob Harley enters his second year as Pitt’s linebackers coach. Harley’s debut season witnessed career production from the Panthers’ starting linebackers, indicating big things for the unit in 2016.
Departed senior Nicholas Grigsby was an All-ACC performer in 2015 after posting personal bests in tackles, TFLs and sacks. Returning linebackers Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara are viable all-star candidates this year after enjoying their best seasons as Panthers.
As Pitt’s starting middle linebacker, Galambos had a career-high 88 tackles, 10 TFLs, five sacks and two interceptions. He forced two fumbles that were returned for touchdowns.
Caprara, who entered last year with five career tackles, seized the starting Money linebacker job and proved to be a disruptive force with 49 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, five sacks–including one for a safety–and an interception.
So – keep an eye peeled during camp for Caprara to assume even more of a leadership role on and off the field this year. And keep an eye out for any of the other LBs who may just play so well they make a liar out of me in regards to Caprara keeping that starting job… which won’t happen. At least I hope not.
Here’s a look at Caprara at Woodland Hills: