Pitt's young players must grow up quickly
With mischief on his mind, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi carried a long stick, padded at one end, onto the practice field Monday during special teams drills.
The idea was to irritate and disrupt the punt returners while they were trying catch footballs shot from the mechanical Jugs gun. Make it tough in practice, and it won't seem as difficult when the games start.
Quadree Henderson, Avonte Maddox, Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Jordan Whitehead were the targets.
"Just having fun," Henderson said.
At one point, Henderson playfully reversed roles and snatched the stick from his coach. It was merely one seemingly insignificant moment in the sixth practice of training camp but an illustration of how far Henderson has evolved after two seasons at Pitt.
Two seasons ago, Henderson never would have tried such a trick — even in jest. But this year's team must grow up quickly. Players earn the right to joke with the coach, and it's a badge not won easily.
With a small senior class — only seven are expected to assume important roles at the beginning of the season — juniors and sophomores will be relied upon to lead Pitt through a difficult early part of the season. It's a responsibility magnified by the shadow of the multiple upperclassmen suspended or dismissed at the outset of camp.
Henderson, a 5-foot-8 junior, realizes he must stand tall, whether he's returning kicks (he was an All-American in that spot last year) or lining up in the slot to catch passes (where coaches are seeking more production from him).
"This is my third year," he said. "I've seen everything. I've heard everything. I know basically the whole offense.
"When (the freshmen) first got here, I invited them all over the house to go over the playbook. We're going to need everybody this year."
Offensive left tackle Brian O'Neill, a junior in his fourth year at Pitt, has more to do this season than protect the quarterback's blind side. Along with senior left guard Alex Officer, O'Neill must show the young linemen how disciplined and accountable they must be on and off the field.
"We don't have Bis and Dorian," O'Neill said of linemen Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson, who are in the NFL. "They led the ranks the last couple years."
O'Neill welcomes the opportunity to lead, but he said it takes a bit of finesse, too.
"You don't want to yell just to yell," he said. "I try to avoid that. When something needs to be said, I don't have a problem saying it."
In some cases, leadership is thrust upon players barely out of high school
Sophomores Saleem Brightwell and Chris Clark — even an injured Tre Tipton — are helping form this team's identity. Clark, a transfer from UCLA, might be the starting tight end after sitting out last season. Tipton, who is lost for the season with a knee injury, attends all wide receiver meetings and helps coach his teammates, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said.
Then, there's Brightwell, whose personality used to lean toward that of an introvert. But as the middle linebacker who must ensure everyone lines up correctly and hears the calls, he can't afford to sit back.
"He was quiet at first," junior linebacker Seun Idowu said. "Now, he's a freakin' crazy man, going all over the place. He's getting more comfortable in that position."
O'Neill said Brightwell is following a natural progression.
"You kind of worry about yourself (at first), then it gets to the point where you kind of worry about the guy next to you," he said. "Then you worry about the whole picture."
Idowu said players have learned they're not just along for the ride.
"The strength staff has done a great job of telling us, 'Hey, we hand you the keys. This is your team as much as it is the coaches' team,' " he said.
"It's our job to pick up our teammates when they're down. We're out there coaching each other as well as the coaches are coaching us.
"It's nice to have everybody coaching each other."
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.