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Panthers pulling weight for new strength coach

| Thursday, April 17, 2014, 10:15 p.m.

Somewhere in a long forgotten corner of the University of Wisconsin weight room are the testaments to Ross Kolodziej's hard work.

Plaques that signify his weightlifting, agility and 40-yard dash prowess — he set a lifting record for Wisconsin defensive players in the squat (675 pounds), for example — are stored out of sight, but they also convey his vision for Pitt football: “To be the most physical team in the ACC and to be the strongest on the line,” he said.

Kolodziej was hired this year to replace Todd Rice as Pitt's strength and conditioning coach. His job directing players in the weight room and on the field is one of many that must be completed successfully for Pitt to pick itself up and become a force in the conference.

“We work, we grind, we turn up the heat,” he said, mindful that Pitt's South Side practice facility was built where a J&L steel mill once stood. “You have to burn out those impurities.”

Kolodziej, 35, said the players' enthusiasm for their work began to emerge while Pitt was preparing for its bowl game and later basking in the victory against Bowling Green.

“That was a huge turning point for our guys in this room,” he said. “You felt really excited because the light went on for them. They understood why you do what you do.

“Now, they want more information. ‘How to take my game to the next level. How do I add 5 pounds to my (lift)?”

Kolodziej, a former Wisconsin defensive lineman who spent seven seasons with four NFL teams, has a degree in sociology, plus certification in USA weightlifting, level 1. While his playing career was ending in the United Football League, he spent two offseasons as a strength and conditioning intern with the Badgers. A year after coach Paul Chryst came to Pitt, he hired Kolodziej as Rice's assistant and promoted him this year.

Kolodziej cited a few examples of what has been happening in the weight room in recent months: • “(Linebacker) Todd Thomas is a guy who really bought in and busted his butt.”

• “(Wide receiver) Tyler Boyd has come in and grinded. He senses the opportunity of what he can do here.”

• “(Running back) James Conner, pound for pound, had some of the biggest gains through the winter.” • Offensive lineman Artie Rowell and linebacker Ejuan Price lift the most weight in the bench-press.

He also mentioned Pitt All-American Aaron Donald as an example of what hard work can produce. Donald, projected to be a first-round choice in next month's NFL Draft, has been an almost constant presence this spring in the weight room, at practice and in video sessions with players.

“He's a guy who is coming in here at 7 a.m., training like he is still getting ready for the Combine,” Kolodziej said. “He is the most relevant example of a guy who literally transformed himself by his mental approach.”

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