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Pitt's Caprara makes most of chance

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Pitt redshirt freshman linebacker Mike Caprara prepares to take part in spring football drills in March 2013 on the South Side. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

When Pitt middle linebackers Shane Gordon and Dan Mason look over their shoulders, they may see redshirt freshman Mike Caprara gaining on them. Sometimes Caprara pops up when you least expect him.

Take Woodland Hills summer conditioning in 2008 when coach George Novak noticed several players excitedly huddled around a teammate.

“He was getting them all fired up,” Novak said.

Novak assumed a senior was making all the noise. But when he looked closer, it was Caprara, an undersized linebacker only weeks removed from junior high.

“There is this little eighth-grader in the middle leading them,” Novak said.

And that's the way it was for the next four seasons at Woodland Hills. Caprara, a four-year starter, helped show the way to 31 victories, two appearances in the WPIAL Class AAAA title game and one championship. As a sophomore, he recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff and intercepted a pass late in a 10-0 title-game victory against Gateway at Heinz Field.

By the end of his junior year, he had set the Woodland Hills record for tackles (not bad at place that had eight graduates in the NFL two years ago). He left high school last year with 350 tackles — and a scholarship to Pitt.

“He was just a natural leader,” Novak said.

When spring drills began this week at Pitt, Caprara showed up — somewhat surprisingly — in the middle of the first-team defense, with Gordon nursing a neck injury and Mason held out by coach Paul Chryst for off-the-field issues.

Gordon will get the job back when his injury heals, but Caprara felt at home Tuesday and Thursday, calling out alignments and, as he said, “doing pretty much everything.”

“It's nothing different to me than what I did in high school,” he said. “It's just a lot faster.”

At 6-foot, 221 pounds, Caprara may not look the part, but don't try telling him that.

He could have played a bigger role sooner at any of the Mid-American or Patriot League schools that tried to recruit him, but he chose Pitt.

“I felt in my heart I had what it takes to be at this level,” he said. “It's my toughness and my knowledge of the game. I take each play and each coverage more and more personally.”

Caprara said he reviews his playbook every night.

“If not, I can't sleep,” he said.

Caprara is known for his toughness, a trait that he said comes with “the Caprara blood.” His five great-uncles played at Penn State, Michigan State, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame.

That's what first attracted Pitt linebackers coach Chris Haering. They met twice in the WPIAL playoffs when Haering coached at Mt. Lebanon, and soon after Chryst hired Haering at Pitt, Caprara's name surfaced.

He accepted a redshirt last season, the inactivity contrary to his personality. Reflecting on the season, he realized it was for the best.

“I didn't have to worry about game plans each week,” he said. “I could focus on the system.”

Eventually, he hopes to learn his lessons well enough to make a difference.

As he said, “I'd rather be the hammer than the nail.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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