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Pitt football team looking for leaders this spring

| Wednesday, March 15, 2017, 8:27 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt running back Qudree Ollison gain yardage against Penn State Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 at Heinz Field.

Holes erupted throughout the Pitt roster when last year's seniors — plus junior running back James Conner — left for other pursuits.

The goal of spring practice, which starts Thursday, continues through 15 sessions and culminates April 15, is to keep those holes from becoming craters.

“(We have) new weapons, toys,” said coach Pat Narduzzi, who enters his third season at Pitt with two new assistants on his staff. “A lot of question marks about who we are and what we're going to be, who's going to fill the spots of (six) great players you saw at NFL Combine.”

The trick is to replace the strongest roster Pitt has assembled since 2004 — when six players were drafted — and make it better.

“We hope our kids are bigger, faster, stronger,” Narduzzi said.

But that's only the beginning.

Lost from Narduzzi's second consecutive eight-victory team — Pitt hasn't won any more than that since 2009 — are 13 starters, seven on defense.

But before Narduzzi and new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson start drawing up schemes and game plans, the coaching staff must find an element maybe even more important than playing ability — leadership.

Last year's team had it, with 19 seniors. This year, the number is 14, with only 11 on scholarship.

“The leadership we had last year was pretty strong,” Narduzzi said. “That will probably be the biggest role you have to fill. It's something we are developing.”

Narduzzi saw some of that precious commodity during the 6 a.m. winter workouts over the past two months. And it was revealed in a key area — the defensive line — where new position coach Charlie Partridge must replace starting tackles Shakir Soto and Tyrique Jarrett and All-ACC end Ejuan Price.

Step to the head of the class, Jeremiah Taleni.

Taleni, who matriculated to Pitt from Kaneohe, Hawaii, in 2013 and has made only four starts at tackle, has shown tangible signs of becoming a leader, Narduzzi said.

“He has come so far, it's unbelievable. I'm watching him in the winter workouts coach up the young guys. You look at him (and say), ‘What happened to you?' He made some major strides.”

Behind Taleni, major change in production and leadership must occur at linebacker with Mike Caprara (soon to become a graduate assistant), Matt Galambos and Bam Bradley graduating.

Senior Quintin Wirginis, who had four sacks as a reserve last year, will man the middle as Galambos' replacement. To his left and right will be Seun Idowu, who made 12 starts last year, Saleem Brightwell and Elijah Zeise in some combination.

Brightwell's 70-yard interception return against eventual national champion Clemson might have been the defensive highlight of the season. Zeise, a former wide receiver, has bulked up to 245 pounds, Narduzzi said, and moved to the more physical outside linebacker spot after missing most of last season with an ankle injury.

On offense, the chief spring goals will be getting senior transfer quarterback Max Browne comfortable with his new teammates, finding depth at the position and identifying Conner's replacement at running back.

Browne is the assumed starter, but his leadership role will have to grow with time.

“It's so hard to come in as a transfer, because I did it, and be a guy that someone says, ‘Hey, he's the leader,' ” said Narduzzi, who played at Youngstown State and Rhode Island.

Narduzzi likes the example Browne is setting.

“He's been great in the weight room, and he works,” he said. “He's not one of those guys that thinks he's already done it and earned it and deserves to be the guy. That's what's special about him.”

Narduzzi hopes returning quarterbacks Ben DiNucci and Thomas MacVittie, who were freshmen last season, will provide depth this season.

“We had one guy (Nathan Peterman), hoping he'd stay healthy,” Narduzzi said. “He didn't in that bowl game and we saw what happened (Pitt lost to Northwestern, 31-24, after DiNucci threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter).”

Replacing Conner, who inspired the team with his comeback from cancer while rushing for 1,092 yards, won't be easy. But Narduzzi said junior Qadree Ollison has a good start.

“You watch him in winter workouts, he's 100 percent different from what he was a year ago,” the coach said.

“He was feeling good after being (ACC) rookie of the year (in 2015). (He) goes into spring (of 2016), he was just OK. But he's a different dude out there right now. He knows the door's open. He looks like he's ready to grab it.”

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

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