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Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead grateful for return to football field

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Pitt's Jordan Whitehead works out during the first day of spring practice Thursday, March 16, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Jordan Whitehead works out during the first day of spring practice Thursday, March 16, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

There's no evidence to suggest Pitt would be anything other than what it is — 1-3 entering its nonconference game Saturday against Rice — if Jordan Whitehead had played the first three games.

“I came back Saturday,” he said. “We still didn't win.”

Still, he provided elements of toughness, awareness and play-making ability in the loss to Georgia Tech, his first outing this season after a three-game suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules. He was third on the team in tackles (tied with Damar Hamlin, with seven), first among defensive backs in solo stops (seven), recovered a fumble and continued showing others the way, secondary coach Renaldo Hill said.

“Taking my anger out; that was my first game back,” Whitehead said. “I was trying to go hard every play.”

By all accounts, Whitehead may lead the team in gratitude and appreciation after he has been given a great gift — the opportunity to resume his career.

“I owe it to the team, I owe it to everybody just to play hard,” he said. “I missed those games, so I have to step up and lead this team.”

Whitehead stayed engaged with the team during his suspension, but he didn't practice every day in training camp and Saturdays were especially difficult when the season began.

“You don't really know how much you love it until it's gone,” he said. “I kind of felt like it was gone.”

Hill said Whitehead has been a model pupil during and after the suspension.

“That's your love and your passion,” Hill said. “Not having it, that would definitely put you in line.”

A good case could be made for Whitehead's standing as the best player on the team. He's a sure tackler who is continually around the ball, and he's a threat on offense.

His 30-yard run against Georgia Tech set up Pitt's only touchdown from scrimmage. In 23 career carries, he has averaged more than 11 yards.

But defense is where he has built his reputation as one of the ACC's best safeties and defense is where he will make his living in the NFL. He will be eligible to leave school early for the 2018 Draft, but that's too far in the future to matter now. The rest of this season will test his NFL readiness.

Meanwhile, he's Pitt's best chance to reverse the misfortunes from the past three games.

“We needed a spark, and he definitely provided that,” Hill said. “He played hard, played tough. As coaches, we're pleased.”

Whitehead played strong safety upon his return, even though Narduzzi tried him at free safety in the spring to help Pitt's pass coverage. But his ability to step into the box and stop the run has been missed, dating to his broken arm late last season. Pitt's previous five opponents totaled 835 yards rushing in his absence.

Hill indicated Whitehead can play free and strong safety — even cornerback — depending on the opponent.

“He may be a matchup guy,” Hill said “That's the luxury that a guy like Jordan can bring.”

If he plays strong safety, Whitehead may line up next to Hamlin at free safety. Hamlin was hurt through much of training camp, but he appears healthy and played well at Georgia Tech, even though Bricen Garner was the starter.

Senior cornerback Avonte Maddox described Whitehead and Hamlin as “two great athletes, able to move left, right, forward, backward. They have the ability to make plays back there.”

Whitehead said he is motivated by the empty feeling he had when football wasn't available him.

“Now, every day I come in here I don't take anything for granted. I go and attack every day hard. Everything I have to do I try to do it right, perfect.”

Note: Senior punter Ryan Winslow was named a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, annually presented to college football's top scholar-athlete. Winslow has a bachelor's degree in finance, achieving a 3.5 GPA, and is pursuing his MBA. He leads the ACC and is fourth nationally in punt average (47.3 yards).

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

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