Former Shaler and Pine-Richland football players help Pitt earn bowl bid
For the past few seasons, the Pitt football program has had its share of drama to deal with. Three coaches during that span may have made it hard to recruit all the players the team may have wanted or needed, but the Panthers did do a good job of getting their paws on some talented players from right here in the northern suburbs.
A few years back, Pine-Richland punter Matt Yoklic made his services available to the Panthers. Most recently, Shaler tight end J.P. Holtz, who had many suitors, chose to stay with the Panthers after considering other schools.
Yoklic is a redshirt junior who has one season of eligibility left, and Holtz is a true freshman.
Yoklic handles the punting duties and holds for the kickers, and his steady hand has helped the Panthers convert on all of the point-after attempts and nail 17 of 24 field goals. While Yoklic helps the Panthers win the field position battle, Holtz helps the offense in several ways. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Holtz sheds tacklers like they are nonexistent. He's caught 12 passes for 170 yards and three touchdowns, perhaps his most memorable being a 9-yard scoring catch against Notre Dame, ranked No. 3 at the time but currently the top team in the country.
“That touchdown definitely will be a good memory down the road,” Holtz said. “It was an honor to play against them, but I still wish we could have won that game.”
Holtz was known as a physical utility player while at Shaler. He played running back, tight end and linebacker for the Titans, but now in college, he gets to focus his attention on one position, something he said has aided his success.
“It is a lot better if you can focus on one thing,” he said. “You have no worries except that job. You learn a lot in the meetings — that is where it all happens, then you work it out on the practice field.”
Holtz said the rigors of keeping up his school work and digesting all the football keeps him busy. His results on the field speak for themselves, but the freshman said classes are going well, too.
“You have to stay on top of school,” he said. “So far I am doing well. I want to keep that up.”
Despite committing to Pitt a little later than some freshmen, Holtz was not going to be outworked. He hit the weight room hard. He said the extra work made him bigger and stronger, and although he said his is a little faster, he wants to improve his speed.
“It took me a couple games to get used to the speed of the college game and the size of the guys,” Holtz said. “Now, it's just another game.”
Yoklic, on the other hand, already had his feet wet. He endured the coaching changes, and although this season has been up and down, the Panthers had the opportunity to earn a bowl bid during the final week of the season.
The Panthers have been on a lose-two-games, win-two-games path all season, and that trend held up as they won, 27-3, over South Florida to earn a trip to a bowl game for the fifth season in a row.
Pitt will play in the BBVA Compass Bowl for the third consecutive year, this time facing Ole Miss on Jan. 5 at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.
Yoklic may not be opening up rushing lanes or hauling in touchdowns like Holtz, but his abilities to hold for kicks and control field position with his punts have been just as important.
“I have great snappers, which makes my job easier,” Yoklic said. “I know those things get overlooked at times, but it's stuff that has got to be done.”
Under coach Paul Chryst, Yoklic's role has expanded, as he now handles the pooch-punting duties (previously done by the quarterback) and has done a good overall job.
“The coaches preach field position a lot,” Yoklic said. “I always try to pin them down inside the 10.”
Yoklic noted the up-and-down nature of the season.
“We beat teams in the top 20, gave Notre Dame a run for their money and had control (of our bowl destiny) on Saturday,” he said. “We want to go to our bowl and win.”
Yoklic still has a year of eligibility left, and he said he will play. He will graduate this spring with a communications degree and said either a masters or a second degree is on tap for next year.
“I think coach Chryst has us going in the right direction,” Yoklic said. “He is getting guys to stay here. The local guys are doing a good job, and that is key.
Yoklic said with the football program going in the right direction, coupled with a good education, Pitt is a great place to learn and play.
“The coaches here care about us, not just as players, but people,” Yoklic said. “It's a stay-positive- no- matter-what attitude.”
Holtz said he is a home town guy and shared the thoughts of his teammate.
“You are in the spotlight because people know you, so you can't screw that up,” he said. “Everyone here is a fan.”
Holtz said he was a little surprised at the amount of playing time he saw so early, but said he did his best to make sure the Panthers were successful.
He said the bowl will be great, and he played his hardest last week for more than just himself.
“I wanted to get the seniors one more game,” he said.
Jerry Clark is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-779-6979 or firstname.lastname@example.org.