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Pitt notebook: Some freshmen may need to contribute immediately

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, 7:00 p.m.
PItt running back James Conner runs during practice Saturday, August 10, 2013, in the South Side.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
PItt running back James Conner runs during practice Saturday, August 10, 2013, in the South Side.

Two truths are emerging from Pitt training camp, which concludes Friday with only the second day off for players since Aug. 6:

• Thanks to injury, transfer and the simple passage of time, Pitt needs experienced playmakers on offense.

• Coach Paul Chryst may be forced to turn to freshmen to find some answers.

Ideally, Chryst would hope to redshirt at least 20 of his 27-man freshman class, but he likely will need to play several of them in significant roles.

Tyler Boyd, a freshman from Clairton, is producing big plays in practice and has moved ahead of older players at wide receiver. His two diving end-zone receptions Friday in the scrimmage — one was disallowed because he was ruled across the end line — are proof. Plus, he regularly lines up opposite senior Devin Street with the first team.

An argument can be made that junior running back Isaac Bennett, who has missed most of camp with a knee injury, is the player Pitt can least afford to lose. Yet, freshmen James Conner and Rachid Ibrahim have stepped up in their first days out of high school to help the ground game.

Conner, an Erie McDowell graduate, looks the part. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he has shown power and speed. Ibrahim, from Avalon High School in Rockville, Md., may be the most elusive back in the stable. At 6-1, 185, he has proven he can take repeated pounding. Without Bennett, there are only four backs sharing carries, including sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior and former walk-on Desmond Brown.

Other freshmen

Tight end Scott Orndoff, offensive tackle Dorian Johnson, linebacker Matt Galambos and defensive end Shakir Soto also have shown they are capable of providing backup help.

Coaches are handling a tricky situation with Johnson, one of Pitt's most talented linemen. He is behind junior tackle T.J. Clemmings, who is having a good camp; as a result, Chryst is tempted to redshirt Johnson and save a year of eligibility.

An injury that forces a starting lineman to miss any length of time, however, could change Chryst's thinking.

A third tight end

Orndoff, an impressive athlete at 6-5, 255, is clearly one of the top three tight ends behind J.P. Holtz and Manasseh Garner. He almost certainly will play because Pitt needs three good players at a position Chryst likes to emphasize in the run and pass game.

“So, that puts the pressure on us to make sure we're doing our job and getting to where we have to go,” said Orndoff, a Seton-La Salle graduate. “Mainly because if we don't do our job, the whole play can get (messed) up.”

Holtz, who started as a freshman and caught three touchdown passes last season, knows it's not easy to contribute as a first-year player.

“I know exactly what they are going through,” he said.

“It is hard for them to go out and play right now because they are still learning. Once they learn everything, they can be themselves.”

Freshmen defenders

With eight returning starters, there is less desperation to find help for the defense, but Soto and Galambos appear capable.

When asked who would be in line to replace ends Bryan Murphy and David Durham, line coach John Palermo mentioned Soto, sophomore Ejuan Price and junior LaQuentin Smith.

Linebackers have been shuffled repeatedly, partially because of junior Todd Thomas' self-imposed absence. Galambos has taken advantage of his opportunities and has played with the first goal-line unit.

More Clairton guys

There was less fanfare for Boyd's Clairton classmates Titus Howard and Terrish Webb. But Howard received plenty of work at cornerback Friday when another Clairton graduate, redshirt freshman Trenton Coles, was dealing with a minor injury. Webb has played with the second unit behind senior free safety Jason Hendricks.

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

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