First off I have to apologize – I took 59 photos and for some reason I have only three, all blurry, in my phone. I’m pissed and so you all have to get your reading glasses on.
I had a chance to get up to the Southside today to watch Pitt’s Pro Day at the UPMC Sports Complex. What I’d like to do here is give you all a different look and slant on things than you would get from the mainstream media.
In other words – it’s funny what the players will tell you when the coaches are occupied elsewhere.
To start off the intent of Pro Day is to Pitt players (and others from smaller schools and elsewhere – more on that later). Pitt had a slew of seniors there – all of them on the roster actually. The only player who didn’t take part in anything was Nate Peterman surprisingly enough. I asked a few people what that story was but heard versions of ‘It’s his decision” each time.
Well, the other kids were there to show up and kick ass and I think, from talking with various NFL Scouts, they all acquitted themselves well.
Scouts from every NFL teams are here and they are like Navajo Code Talkers in that I can’t understand a word they are saying and I’m trying to eaves drop a group are sitting right behind me.
Four guys from the Steelers – one older and three younger. Talked with the Tampa Bay scout – looking at Peterman among others.
Lots of these scouts are in their late 20s & early 30s – stringers for just the times and visual impressions of the kids? I don’t know but I’d say there were at least eight people from the Steelers. I asked one of the scouts how often he does these things and apparently he;s a local HS coach, or something along those lines, who get called to give reports.
It must be that those Steeler guys are playing hooky from working next door because you know there isn’t a chance in Hell they will actually draft any of our boys.
I’ll get into some specifics later – some 40 yard dash times were eye-opening for sure but fist let’s set the stage.
I arrived at the clubhouse facility at 9:00 am and the upstairs dining area was the staging point for both the scouts and the media in attendance. Food and coffee etc… and I had some interesting talks with some guys (and girls – Megan) from the Pitt News and then NFL Channel. They – the NFL- were there to film the running jumping and skipping that was done. Coach Narduzzi took the Scouts into the players meeting room for some top-secret talks that we weren’t invited to.
At 9:00 the junior players were taking the Wonderlic Tests and something called the NFL Questionnaire – I walked past and peeked in. They looked nervous as hell.
So the media hung out until 10:00 when we walked en masse down to the weight room to watch the seniors get measure in almost every way possible then get tested on the free weights. Bench press only though and the room was so crowded with players, scouts, media other players (underclassmen) and family members and returning graduated players that it was almost impossible to see what was actually happening.
I did get close enough to watch Narduzzi and Tom MacVitte standing on a bench right next to the weights where the guys were lifting. MacVitte was really vocal and expressive in his support of those being tested– it was like he was doing it himself he was so into it.
Of course the lifter was surrounded by his peers and they were screaming at him also. It was fun to be around and watch because the concept of “Team” was really evident in everything being done.
James Conner was right in front of every player who lifted shouting encouragement which wasn’t unusual on the day..
I had a chance to talk with Tyrique Jarrett’s mom for a while and I asked her if her son was excited or nervous – he was excited; she was nervous. We spent a bit of time talking about going to Allderdice as that was one of my high schools also.
What was amazing about the measurement part was 1) a lot of kids weren’t as tall as the roster indicated and 2) the arm wingspan on some of those lineman were freaky big.
For instance Chad Voytik was there – he asked to be included and Pitt said ‘sure, c’mon down!’ and he measured out to be an official 5’11.1” – as opposed to his continued roster height of 6’1”. Can I say I told you so now? I kept saying he wasn’t over 6 feet tall. I had a nice talk with his father also – later for that.
Soto is 6’2” not 6’3” but his wingspan is 82”. That’s almost 7 feet to our math challenged readers. Remember DaVinci’s Man in the Circle? That does not apply to these kids.
Jaymar Parrish is up to 273 from his playing weight of 260; John Guy is the all-around biggest man on the team and is huge. He sure is all of 6’7” and measured out at the listed 310 weight. Standing next to Bisnowaty, who is no small kid himself, Guy looks like an adult with a teenager.
Some of the tattoos on display were great – I believe it is Ryan Lewis who has DREAM CATCHER in cursive across his shoulder blades. Of course the opponent’s were the one doing all the catching but that’s beside the point (more on that later too).
At one point I turned to a scout next to me and asked ‘How in the hell do these kids afford all those tattoos?” He looked at me and said “Don’t ask that question too loudly.” But I didn’t see one stripped-down player without one. I was tempted to strip down myself and show off my “Pitt POV” tattoo but Narduzzi probably wouldn’t have thought that funny as I do.
After the weight room we went over to the indoor practice facility (where the field is also split apart between the Panthers and the Steelers). That was where they had set up the running and jumping skill drills.
First off was the vertical jump and it was hard to get close enough to hear the results but Ejuan Price did OK at 34” off the ground – I turned to a group of players I was standing with and said “Damn, imagine if he wasn’t the most bow-legged guy in Pittsburgh…!” and they fell out laughing.
I think Ryan Lewis might have had the best jump – I didn’t get the number but the others players were whooping it up so it must have been pretty well done.
I had a nice conversation with Aaron Donald as we watched the jumps. We talked about his time in the NFL and the fact that he spends as much time in the Pittsburgh area as he can. I asked him if his 2nd year was as exciting as his first and he said – “no one has ever asked me that before”, then said “it’s much more like a job now – a fun job though”.
BTW – he keeps all his trophies in his office in the home he bought. (More about trophies later also).
I walked around with those guys for a while and we watched the 40 yard dashes together; George Aston, Malik Henderson, Kellen McAlone and a pro scout, and compared our times we got on our cell phones. We were all in the same hundredths of a second or two range. Honestly I had a great time shooting the bull with those kids all morning.
There was some real surprises there in the 40s guys – one of the faster times of the day was…. wait for it… Chris Blewitt with a 4.45. The quickest we recorded way Ryan Lewis with a 4.23 on his 1st attempt and then dropped to a 4.5 on his 2nd.
Here are some others:
Bradley – 4.54
Ford – 4.43
Galambos – 4.6 then 4.7… yes, didn’t seem like that during the season.
Mitchell – 4.72 (slower than the kids thought he’d do)
Price – 4.4
Stocker – 4.42 then bettered it with a 4.37
Orndoff – 4.6 then 4.65
Guy – 5.2
Jarrett – 5.27
Webb – missed him.
Voytik – 4.67 then 4.61
Kevin Hart – 4.35 (from William and Mary); father is with Steelers
After that they went into the “Pro Shuttle” which is 5 yards one way, 10 yards the other way then 10 yards back to finish. I didn’t time anyone in that but Dorian Johnson pulled up with a cramp or pulled muscle on his 2nd try.
That was it for the player’s drills for the scouts – there was some 60 yard shuttle stuff still going on but I started walking around and talking to different players and family members…which was interesting to say the least. Here is some of the stuff I can impart.
Mike Gallagher, James Conner’s surrogate father, and I talked for a long bit. I asked what James was like as a young kid and he said he was short and fat… then one day he went in to wake him up for school and James’ feet were hanging off the end of the bed. I told him I could understand that as I grew 10” in height between 6th and 7th grade.
We discussed James’ last four years and all the ups and downs. One thing that James appreciates is that without his knee injury they wouldn’t have caught his cancer for a long time. Conner just figured that he was tired and out of shape, but his face swelled up between visits to the doctor for his knee and that was because the tumor was resting directly on the superior vena cava of the heart – the artery that returns the blood to be pumped.
So now James has a tattoo right next to his knee surgery scar that speaks to it saving his life.
As we were there someone brought Mike another trophy James won for another “Courage Award”, this one from the Orange Bowl-FWAA people. I told him that after Conner gets his first NFL contract and comes home for the first time Mike should make him go and polish all of the trophies as a lesson in humility. He though that might be a good idea.
An interesting fact – Conner played HS football against Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina’s great QB, years ago when Trubisky played for Mentor HS in Ohio – and Conner sacked him twice!
Conner has signed with Ben Roethlisberger’s agent Ryan Tollner and Mike told me that Tollner was the only agent who kept in touch with the Conner folks after the cancer diagnosis. All the others that were hanging around trying like crazy to get Conner’s business their way completely ignored him after that… but Tollner said ‘…even if the NFL doesn’t work out… I’d like James to come work with me.”
I had a nice talk with Scott Orndoff’s dad again, if you remember I wrote about how we threw back a few beers the evening before the bowl game up in NYC. He introduced me to Chad Voytik’s father Gary who was there also. It looks like it has been mentioned that Scott might get a shot at a defensive position if TE doesn’t work out at the next level. He’s a big, strong, and fast, player so who knows?
I told Voytik’s father about the time I met his son coming out of a tavern on Walnut Street a few years ago – the others in the group were pretty tight but Chad was quite the sober gentleman – with a beautiful girl on his arm. That girl is now Chad’s fiancée’.
We talked about Chad’s chances in the pros – he wants to try for QB but slot receiver or possibly a DB/Safety opportunity may happen – if not in the NFL then maybe some other type of football for a while. Great guy his father and I told him if the Pros don’t work out for Chad to consider the Coast Guard Officer Candidate school…
Actually – almost every player I have talked to over the years I’d like to see in a Coast Guard uniform. They are all sharp and dedicated to what they do.
I had a short discussion with an assistant in the program about disciplinary problems – ot the lack thereof. He said that what you see is what you get meaning that there have been just a few ‘corrective’ (read mostly academic slips) and nothing that would be news worthy in any way,
Again – kudos again for Pat Narduzzi with that; his track record is excellent going into his 3rd year at Pitt. One of the players I talked with (Wirginis – more on him later also) was asked how Narduzzi was with the players and he said “he’s strict but fair” and then I asked what his sense of humor was like and Quentin said “Great!’
I asked also if Narduzzi was on top of the player’s academics and was told that the HC had his staff involved with the kid’s every day with that.
That point was reiterated when I spoke to on of the professors who is in the player’s academic studies program (“They are all my students in a way“) and as we talked she grabbed a player who was walking by and said “Where were you yesterday?” in a stern voice.
Ejuan Price’s mom and grandmother were there and we talked a bit also – they are crazy proud of Ejuan and I told them I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he was in the NFL next year. He may be too small but he gets real results out on the field as we have seen for the last two years..
At one point Quentin Wirginis and I spent some time talking about his family business. His family owns the Gateway Clipper Fleet and I knew his father years back when I wrote the safety policies for the DUKWs (those truck-like boats that drive on land then into the water as a ship) and he was at the public hearing I conducted.
He assured me that his father is not pressuring him into the family business – but that he worked on the fleet when he was younger.
I asked him if Conklin was going to turn him and the other LBs loose for more blitzes this season. He said that depended on how well the passing defense was going – if well then yes, If not then he’d probably drop back in coverage more. There was a bit of wishful thinking in there but – “We are working hard on it…”
I don’t think there is any doubt he’s the starting middle linebacker for 2017. He did say it was pretty tough playing behind a four-year starter in Matt Galambos but he’s really ready to go this his SR year.
Played in all 13 games, serving as the top reserve at middle linebacker and as a key player in specialized packages…also saw special teams duty…compiled 28 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, four sacks, a fumble recovery and one PBU…had a career-high six stops against Duke, including 1.5 TFLs and a five-yard sack…had four tackles and a 10-yard sack against Penn State…had three tackles and an 11-yard sack against North Carolina…
Four sacks in spot duty ain’t shabby – look for that to go up a lot.
I asked about the away games and if the players ever had a chance to see some of where they were playing.
That doesn’t happen. Its airplane. hotel, out to the stadium for a walk-through, back to the hotel then watch movies and whatever until curfew. No liberty granted to do any sightseeing by themselves.
I told him the story of the 1976 team in New Orleans when Johnny Majors said ‘Guys – you’re all adults so you all have a later curfew…” for the whole bowl week and the way the players partied their asses off right up to the night before the Sugar Bowl.
“A lot of coaches didn’t understand why (when Majors became a head coach) I gave them free-reign early on trips, but what I did was when we were at a site for six days or so I would let the players have a late curfew the first couple of nights, or maybe no curfew, and tell them, ‘Look, if you mess up I am going to put you on a bus with a one-way ticket.’ They had a chance to let their hair down and have a good time, and we controlled some of the areas they went to. After a couple of days they’d be ready to get down to business. We let them sleep late and enjoy some night life, then the closer we got to the game we’d cut back and they’d be ready to play. New Orleans is a special place and you have to be able to see what’s going on and not just practice football every day.”
That was what Majors did when his Pitt Panthers were paired against the Georgia Bulldogs in 1977 Sugar Bowl. Major had Heisman recipient Tony Dorsett and a team that was ranked No. 1. They had so much free rein, that a joke in the press box, when Pittsburgh held a 21-0 lead, was, “Well, I guess they’re drinking Bloody Marys down there now.”
Quentin looked pretty wistful when he heard that. We also talked about how big the lineman were and he told me that when he goes home for family gatherings all his relatives say ‘You’re so big now”’ and he says back “I’m like one of the smaller guys there”.
I spoke with George Aston – actually when he was walking by I said ‘Hey man, you need to buff up a bit” and he smiled and said “I’m trying.” Aston has shoulder length hair now and when he walks it looks like someone put a shirt and a pair of pants on the Fort Pitt blockhouse.
When I asked if his role would change with a new OC he said that for this season he’ll be in more of an H-Back role as opposed to a true fullback. We talked about his receptions last season (22 for 169 yards and five (!) TDs) and we’ll see as much or ‘probably more’.
These kids are great and fun to be with when you have a chance to talk to them in conversations like human beings, adult-to-adult, and not in stunted formal interview way.
I talked with Ryan Lewis a bit also – he’s graduated with an Administration of Justice degree. Wirginis is on track to graduate in the fall – two semesters early and that’s great.
I also had a nice talk with E. J. Borghetti about the new Athletic Director (she hit the ground running and everyone likes the hire – really!) and EJ’s own career at Pitt. He’s one of the happiest men I know when it comes to doing something he loves and is good at. And he loves Pitt with a true passion that goes beyond the legacy aspect of his father’s time as a Pitt All-American.
BTW – E. J.’s telling me people like the hire isn’t blown smoke. If they didn’t like it he’d tell me that also – I may not pass it on via the POV, but he’d tell me.
All in all I had a very interesting and good time. Not so much for the “Pro Day” itself, although that was new and interesting to me, but because I had a chance to interact with so many people – players, families, scouts and coaches –and get a flavor of what is going on the Southside.
I was going to drive straight home afterward, but the team is practicing at 9:00 in the morning tomorrow and I’ll get a chance to watch max Browne throw the ball around so I’ll stay overnight and do another article regarding that practice tomorrow afternoon.