Pitt's Jester Weah leader of inexperienced receiving corps
Jester Weah came to Pitt from Madison, Wisc., more than four years ago, a product of former coach Paul Chryst's connections to his home state.
A novice as a football player, Weah didn't take the sport seriously until his sophomore year at Madison Memorial. At first, there was doubt as to what most set him apart:
• His 71 career receptions in two high school seasons (pretty good for a novice).
• Or his six dunks in a basketball game.
Maybe it was, in reality, things less tangible, such as his ability and willingness to learn.
"He figured (football) out real fast," former Madison coach Mike Galindo said. "He is a natural learner."
Pitt had little competition for Weah's signature on a letter of intent. Colorado State, Wyoming and North Dakota were among the suitors.
Turned out, he became a member of one of Pitt's richest recruiting classes in recent years — eight of the 27 players ended up in NFL camps, including Tyler Boyd, a second-round draft choice. Four others — offensive linemen Jaryd Jones-Smith and Alex Officer, punter Ryan Winslow and Weah — will be important cogs for the 2017 Panthers.
Weah didn't catch a pass in his first two seasons at Pitt. Last year, he averaged 2.7 per game. The NCAA website lists 198 players with at least 3.3.
Weah made most of his 36 receptions count. His 24.2 yards-per-catch average led the ACC and was second in the nation. He scored 10 touchdowns, at least one in six of the final seven games.
But, as Galindo noted, there is so much more to Weah. In his final collegiate season, he is a leader on a team with a small senior class. Whether that becomes problematic will depend on Weah and others.
"He's maybe progressed more off the field than he has on the field," coach Pat Narduzzi said. "We've been going through some leadership stuff at night in some of our team meetings, and he has done an unbelievable job.
"The other night, he mentioned to the team that, 'I've come a long way off the field.' When we first got here, he was probably one of the grumpiest, moodiest guys to coach. It's like, 'What happened to this guy?' But now, he's totally, totally different as far as his attitude off the field."
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Ruben Flowers III doesn't need his coach to tell him how valuable Weah is in the locker room.
"In the summer, I was always in Jester's back pocket. Everywhere he goes, I was always asking him questions," Flowers said. "Sometimes, I don't go to coach (Kevin) Sherman first. I go to Jester because he has so much knowledge and so much to give."
Weah's presence is especially important this season, with Pitt looking to replace so many key components from last season's record-breaking offense. With his strength and size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), Weah surely will draw double teams unless other pass catchers step up to counteract that strategy.
With almost no experienced depth at wide receiver coming into training camp, Pitt suffered three tough blows almost before the first ball was rolled onto the field.
• Sophomore Tre Tipton (Apollo-Ridge) was lost to a season-ending knee injury suffered in a summertime biking accident.
• Sophomore Aaron Mathews missed two weeks of camp while tending to what Narduzzi called "personal obligations."
• Freshman Dontavius Butler-Jenkins made an impact early in camp with what offensive coordinator Shawn Watson called "football instincts that you just don't teach." He has missed the past two-plus weeks with an injury.
All-American kick returner Quadree Henderson is dangerous whenever he touches the football, but he needs more than the 26 receptions he recorded last season.
"I think he's getting better just route-running and seeing things," wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman said. "He's getting better at playing in the slot because I think that's a new position for him, playing on the inside lane. Is he perfect? No. Is he getting better every day? Yes."
Junior Rafael Araujo-Lopes has been "maybe the most consistent" of all the wide receivers in camp, according to Narduzzi. Sophomore Maurice Ffrench has home-run hitting potential, but his next collegiate catch will be his first.
That leaves Mathews and Flowers. Mathews returned to practice last week and was taking useful reps with the first team, and Sherman seems especially encouraged by Flowers.
"I am really, really excited about what he's capable of doing," he said. "Once again, it's just consistency. It's making that play when we need to make a play. We have to have chunk yards. We have to have big plays. We have to have explosive plays. He's very capable of doing those things."
All have potential. Most lack experience. That's how everyone described Weah four years ago.
"I would've never thought if you asked me a few years ago that I would be in the position that I am in today," he said. "A lot of hard work and dedication have paid off."
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.