Pitt's fit, and there's a good reason for that
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt hasn't altered his starting lineup and two-deep rotation much this season, in part, because the Panthers have suffered only a handful of significant injuries.
Even though a few key starters, including linebacker Adam Gunn and All-Big East tight end Nate Byham, have missed some playing time, the Panthers have endured only the every-day bumps and bruises during a grueling campaign in their pursuit of the Big East title.
But the 14th-ranked Panthers didn't reach midseason unscathed. An injured knee shelved starting safety Andrew Taglianetti for the season. And his replacement, Elijah Fields, played sparingly the past two weeks because of an ankle sprain.
Return specialist Cam Saddler worked his way back on the field last week against South Florida after a high-ankle sprain suffered three games ago. And cornerback Aaron Berry, who missed the Rutgers game Oct. 16 because of a right shoulder injury, also returned against South Florida.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris and assistant James Smith is keeping healthy two defensive stalwarts — Gunn and defensive tackle Gus Mustakas, both of whom are having stellar seasons after suffering career-threatening injuries.
Gunn, slowed some earlier this season with an ankle sprain, has overcome a severe neck injury. Mustakas has seemingly recovered completely from a damaging knee injury in 2007 that required multiple surgeries.
Gunn and Mustakas credit Morris for helping them return to form — physically and mentally.
"It's really not what Buddy has done for me this season, but it's more about what he's meant to me throughout my career," Gunn said. "I'm able to handle the collisions without worrying about my neck.
"Buddy and James have put us in tougher situations in the weight room than what we'll face in a game. When times get hard on the field, we know we can overcome because they have helped develop our mental toughness."
And that mental toughness, says Gunn, enabled the Panthers to charge from behind against Connecticut. Then, helped them stave off a stubborn Rutgers last Friday during a hard-hitting second half in which Pitt delivered the final blow with a time-consuming scoring drive in the third quarter.
"You could see in their eyes, they were getting tired," Lewis said of Rutgers. "With our great conditioning coaches, we kept pushing harder in the fourth quarter."
Morris is confident the Panthers are physically equipped to go the distance this season. That, however, wasn't the case when he walked into the Pitt training facility in the spring of 2007.
"When we first got here," Morris recalled, "I looked around and said: 'What have we gotten ourselves into?' "
Morris, now in his third stint with Pitt, didn't panic. But he was concerned the Panthers had too many overweight linemen, who were poorly conditioned and lacked sufficient strength to make it through the season without sustaining injuries.
Morris immediately changed Pitt's workout plan. More importantly, he altered the attitude in the weight room.
"I'm the one who gets excited and throws fits," said Morris, who spent four seasons (2002-2005) with the Cleveland Browns. "James is the one who calms everyone down."
There is no yawning. No sitting. No jewelry. No do-rags.
And no one is allowed to bend down during an exhaustive workout.
"There are some guys who come to conquer the workout," Morris said. "Then, there are those who come to survive the workout with minimal effort. We used to have too many survivors, but now the conquerors outnumber the survivors."
Ultimately, Morris' boot-camp environment has produced positive results — such as the Panthers' four-overtime win at Notre Dame last season that helped propel them to their first bowl game in four seasons.
"Now that the players have raised the bar, they can't drop back under it - no matter how bad they might feel or tired they might become," Morris said. "If they try to find a way to make it easy, then we'll find a way to make it harder, because (easy) is not conducive to winning championships.
"We live in the shadows of the Pittsburgh Steelers. So we have to raise the level of our expectations."
After a home game against Syracuse on Saturday, the Panthers close the season against No. 19 Notre Dame, rival West Virginia and No. 4 Cincinnati.
"We feel good about where we are, physically," Mustakas said, "and we credit our strength coaches for that. We're very confident that we can play the kind of smash-mouth football it takes to make it through the rest of our schedule."
So far, the Panthers have looked fitter than their opponents this season. Their only setback, a 38-31 defeat at North Carolina State, reflected more an inability to make plays than fatigue.
"We run a very unique program, yet it's simple," said Morris, 52. "But don't mistake simple for easy. It is a disciplined approach toward training this is the most overall fit team I've ever been around. Not fast. Not strong, but fit.
"We have fewer injuries than last season, but I've been around long enough to have seen some freaky things happen to terrifically conditioned teams. I think the team surgeons are bored because they haven't been too busy."
Morris consults with head team physician, Freddie Fu, and other team doctors — including Vonda Wright and David Stone. They are advised of what to expect, which helps his staff — including assistant trainers Tim Dunlavey and Chad Lee — prepare a rehabilitation program for each athlete.
That staff helped Mustakas' return to the field, but it goes beyond just the doctors, trainers and strength coaches.
"It was a combination of efforts that helped Gus get back," Morris said. "The bottom line is that Gus wanted to get back.
"We were looking at Saddler being out for an extended time, but he's almost ready to go again. It's not so much the treatment as it is their will. Guys like Cam, Gus and Adam have done whatever it takes and more to get back so they can help this team win a championship."