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Position switches paying off for Pitt's Soto, O'Neill

| Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, 9:21 p.m.

No one coaxed or begged Pitt linemen Shakir Soto and Brian O'Neill to change positions, to move from the familiar to the strange for the good of the team.

“I wish I had moved there earlier,” said Soto, a former defensive end who recorded a team-high eight tackles from the interior of the line in Pitt's victory over Georgia Tech.

O'Neill said he grew up thinking for many years he was a wide receiver or tight end. In the end, his move to offensive tackle two years ago was more than an alteration of the depth chart.

“We know what I am now,” he said, his voice filled with the pride of someone who found his football identity. “It's a kind of change in lifestyle in terms of having that mentality that every day is going to be a grind.”

Both players said they embraced the change because it is what the team wanted and needed. Coach Pat Narduzzi mentioned to O'Neill, a redshirt sophomore, that it might be his best ticket to the NFL.

Pitt, like many teams, has a history of players changing positions in the middle of their tenures and finding success.

Former coach Paul Chryst grabbed defensive end T.J. Clemmings while both were coming off the field at South Florida and suggested a move to the other side of the ball. Clemmings now starts at offensive tackle for the undefeated Minnesota Vikings.

Ex-Pitt players Ezekial Gadson and Dorin Dickerson rocketed to stardom by changing positions. Gadson moved from running back to linebacker in 1987, allowing Craig Heyward to rush for 1,791 yards. Gadson did OK, too. He became a first-team All-American.

Dickerson came to Pitt as a wide receiver, moved to linebacker and, finally in 2009, became the school's first All-American tight end since Mike Ditka.

Then, there is the story of Pitt defensive line coach Tom Sims, who was a linebacker at Western Michigan before transferring to Pitt.

“For me, it was a natural progression. I kind of ate my way out of every position,” he said with a hearty laugh. “I made it through stretch (at practice), maybe (at Pitt). Then, I was on the line.”

Sims, who played seven years in the NFL, said it is no accident position switches are so prevalent and successful in college football.

“It's a byproduct of the quality of weight training that you get,” he said. “A kid comes in 200 (pounds) and leaves 300. That's a good thing, especially if he doesn't lose any of his athleticism.”

Sims' advice to anyone switching to his group is simple. “Eat, lift and run. That's what I tell them, in that order,” he said.

Soto was a 245-pound junior defensive end when Narduzzi suggested after last season that he move to defensive tackle. By spring, he was 275. Now, he is playing the interior at 290 and helping Pitt rank 10th in the nation and second in the ACC in run defense (98.5 yards per game).

“I ate two large pizzas every day,” he said. “I'd wake up in the middle of the night and eat peanut butter sandwiches. Once I finally gained the weight, I was sick of eating.”

The tricky part of switching to a position that requires more bulk is gaining weight and not losing athleticism.

“I didn't want to gain too much,” Soto said. “I didn't want to slow myself down or get weaker. I actually gained more muscle than fat.”

Notes: Chris Blewitt, who is Pitt's all-time leader in kicking points (315) and field goals (52), is one of three Lou Groza Award stars of the week, joining Arizona State's Zane Gonzalez and Idaho's Austin Rehkow.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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