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Pitt notebook: Patience pays off for wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017, 7:36 p.m.
Pitt's Rafael Araujo-Lopes leaps into the end zone against   Oklahoma State in the second quarter  Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla
Pitt's Rafael Araujo-Lopes leaps into the end zone against Oklahoma State in the second quarter Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.

Reedley College became Pitt wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes' ticket to Power 5 football after he totaled 1,229 receiving yards and averaged a touchdown every 4.4 receptions in his only season at the California junior college.

Still, it was a test — a test of patience.

Araujo-Lopes — call him Ra-Ra — is grateful for the opportunity presented to him by Reedley after a decorated but largely ignored high school career in Kissimmee, Fla.

“Oh, man, junior college,” he said Wednesday, chatting with reporters as Pitt's leader in receptions (19) and yards receiving (235). “Junior college definitely taught me a lot of stuff other than patience, but going through that process and not knowing the next step ... ”

He had no choice, but to be patient.

“Especially where I was at,” he said. “I was in a desert-like place. I was really in my own (place), kind of felt like I was cut off from the world.

“Being patient, that's the only way you can get through something like that. The moment you're not patient, especially being in a junior college, that's when you start getting into trouble. You get a girl pregnant, or you smoke weed, anything.”

To this day, he doesn't know how Pitt tight ends coach and recruiting ace Tim Salem found him. “Who knew who, I don't know,” he said.

But wide receivers who appear coachable and run precise routes — Ra-Ra checks both boxes — usually find a home.

His patience received another test in 2015 when he was redshirted during his first year at Pitt. He had expected to make an immediate impact and when that didn't happen, he started doubting himself.

“But that happens to a lot of guys. It's just culture shock,” he said. “That's the only time I had a little bit of doubt. I snapped out of that and did what I had to do as a redshirt.

“Everybody's path is different. I didn't understand that at first. I wasn't so much in control as I wanted to (be).”

Happy to be out of the desert, he said he loves savoring some of what Pitt and Pittsburgh have to offer, even though it's his first time experiencing cold weather.

His favorite Pittsburgh attraction?

“The food. I'm not even going to lie,” he said. “There's something about Pittsburgh. I can go to any little corner, the Strip District, South Side, Oakland and get a different style of food. Mediterranean, Chinese, American.”

Reliable Ra-Ra

On the field, Araujo-Lopes has turned into a player quarterbacks count on, even at 5-foot-9, 190 pounds.

“As far as executing little things in the slot, you're getting more hands-on, man matchups (from the defense),” Max Browne said. “You have to be a technician in the slot and that's exactly what he is.”

The RPO dilemma

Pitt's difficulty in recording sacks — six in five games — has been a serious problem, and now the Panthers must find a way to solve Syracuse's difficult option offense Saturday in the Carrier Dome.

Quarterback Eric Dungey runs the RPO — looks like a run, but could be a pass — that has a tendency to slow down rushing linemen.

Actually, Dungey has been sacked 12 times in five games. But that could be a by-product of dropping back 246 times (56.3 percent of the snaps), even with a quick release.

Defensive end Dewayne Hendrix is one of five Pitt players with one sack (one was credited to the team), but he has six quarterback hurries.

“A lot of times I'm getting there, but I'm missing him,” Hendrix said. “I'm a second off and he'll throw it.”

Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge remains patient, realizing he coaches a young group of linemen. He said he has as many as 11 he trusts to put on the field.

“He's not getting frustrated,” he said of Hendrix, “because he sees he's getting better in all the things that matter.

“Nothing is easy. Everything takes time. There is really only one path to being really good and that's the path that sometimes takes a little time. We'll be fine.”

Blitz frequency

Although backup Elias Reynolds is the only linebacker with a sack, Partridge estimated Pitt supplements its rush with blitzes 35-45 percent of the time. “Which is significant,” he said.

The others with a sack are cornerback Avonte Maddox, defensive end Rashad Weaver and defensive tackle Amir Watts.

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

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