Select few freshmen contribute for Pitt football
Many freshmen aren't ready for the physical and mental strain of big-time college football, and they wisely accept a redshirt.
For coaches, the lure of having a player for four more years — after he gets a chance to practice, watch and learn during his first season — can be too tempting to ignore.
With the season down to its final one or two games, Pitt coach Paul Chryst and his staff have succeeded in redshirting 12 of the 16 freshmen who signed letters of intent last February. Defensive back Jahmahl Pardner might be the 13th. He suffered a knee injury in the third game after earning playing time as the nickel back, and he is expected to regain his redshirt through an NCAA postseason ruling.
Sometimes, coaches have no choice and freshmen deserve to play now. In the cases of running back Rushel Shell, defensive tackle Darryl Render and tight end J.P. Holtz, all three proved to be among the best players at their positions.
Shell is second on the team in rushing yards (509), but he has stepped aside recently for senior Ray Graham and carried only 17 times in the past three games. That's OK with him, and it's all part of the learning process, he said.
“This year taught me a lot of things,” Shell said. “You know what gets (coaches) mad and what doesn't. You can't teach effort. You have to go hard every play.”
Aside from the lessons learned from his playbook and on the field, he also has learned accountability.
“It's all up to us, not up to (the coaches), whether we want to use our talent or just throw it away,” he said.
Holtz will make his ninth start Saturday when Pitt puts its bowl hopes on the line at South Florida. He has only nine catches, but two are touchdowns. He leads the team with a 16.9-yard average.
“My first start against Virginia Tech, I was really nervous and didn't know what to do,” he said. “But now it's just another game.”
What's most impressive about Holtz is that he was predominantly a running back at Shaler High School, and he has been learning to play tight end this season. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, who also coaches the tight ends, likes the progress Holtz has made.
“He has been working his tail off,” Rudolph said. “Just being in a three-point stance, the whole thing was kind of new.”
“I really didn't know how to block (before) coming into Pitt,” Holtz said. “If it wasn't for (Rudolph), I would be a horrible blocker.”
While learning the detailed fundamentals of blocking, Holtz (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) has brought a physical presence to the field that sets him apart. Twice this season, games have been delayed as the opponent's trainers tended to defensive backs who got in Holtz's way.
“That's what you appreciated about him from day one,” Rudolph said. “He wasn't going to shy away from the contact or the physical nature. That's something he had great confidence in, and you don't always get that. So, we have something special.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7997.