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Pitt football growing under Chryst

| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 10:20 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt offensive lineman Matt Rotheram plays against Rutgers in November at Heinz Field.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst made many assessments about the program when he was hired almost three years ago.

Many he never mentioned outside of staff meetings, but one was obvious enough that there was no hiding from it.

“We felt like we needed to get bigger, so you had to recruit bigger,” he said.

The reconstruction of the Pitt football program has taken many shapes, including attitudes and athleticism. There are those who have watched practice every day since Chryst arrived and believe the pad-popping gets louder every year.

One of the most important alterations is the basic look of the team.

When training camp opens next Sunday, Pitt's offensive linemen will stand, on average, taller than 6-foot-5 and weigh 311.4 pounds. That's not unlike how it was in 2011 when former coach Todd Graham's line stood at 6-5 and 313 pounds. But it's a half-inch taller and more than 16 pounds heavier than in Dave Wannstedt's final season in 2010.

The four players this season who are 330 pounds or more are either starting (right guard Matt Rotheram) or showing promise as redshirt freshmen (Jaryd Jones-Smith, Carson Baker and Alex Officer). In fact, Jones-Smith (6-7, 335) played almost every first-team snap this spring at left tackle because Adam Bisnowaty was dealing with a bad back.

There were no players who weighed more than 330 pounds in 2010. In 2011, there were three, including Rotheram, who was 15 pounds heavier at 350. The other two were low-impact players Zenel Demhasaj and Arthur Doakes.

Asked whether recruiting big players is part of his coaching philosophy, Chryst admitted, “A little bit.”

But he was quick to add he is not trying to mold Pitt into an impossible shape.

“You are not trying to create the reputation of the Big Ten in the '70s,” he said. “Remember, you go play in the Rose Bowl, and there were the big slugs vs. (Pac-10 players with speed).

“You definitely see more and more spread (offenses). You have to be great in space.”

He conceded, however, “If you got equals, then you go with bigger. But we certainly don't start our (recruiting) board with size.”

Although he has become part of the local community in and out of football, Chryst still embraces the shadow that followed him from Wisconsin. In 2011 — his last season as Badgers offensive coordinator — he had 10 offensive linemen who stood 6-6 or taller, seven who weighed at least 330 pounds and three who were drafted by the NFL in the first two rounds.

But Chryst said Wisconsin didn't invent the concept of mammoth linemen.

“People talk about (Pitt's) offensive line, ‘Are you trying to build it like you had at Wisconsin?' ” he said. “Yeah, but we tried to build Wisconsin like the one that was at Pitt in the '80s (with All-Americans Jimbo Covert, Bill Fralic and Mark Stepnoski who went to the NFL at 277, 280 and 269 pounds, respectively).”

“We are trying to build that line (at Pitt).”

Chryst's message: If a player is good enough, he doesn't have to weight one-sixth of a ton.

Pitt is growing in areas outside the trenches, too, especially at wide receiver, where every player added in the past two years is at least 6-2. That includes promising 6-3 freshman Adonis Jennings, who has a chance to earn significant playing time in training camp. The starter opposite Tyler Boyd (6-2, 190) will be former tight end Manasseh Garner (6-2, 220).

Sophomore running back James Conner is 6-2, 250 pounds and looks like a middle linebacker or defensive end, the latter which he will play occasionally. Even the youngest quarterback, freshman Adam Bertke, is 6-6.

In the defensive backfield, two incoming freshman safeties, Patrick Amara and Jalen Williams, are 6-2. At cornerback, 6-3 Trenton Coles will compete for the starting job with 6-1 Titus Howard.

That's probably a good idea after listening to Boston College coach Steve Addazio's thoughts on the size of his wide receivers.

“We are going to put three who are 6-4, 225-240 pounds out there,” said Addazio, whose Eagles host Pitt in both teams' ACC opener Sept. 5. “If we can't be the fastest, maybe we can get those mismatches on the corners by being big-bodied and going up and being physical.”

Yet Addazio's basic philosophy on how to build a roster has nothing to do with height and weight.

“If you are tough and you are physical and you play with passion,” he said, “you can play with anybody.”

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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