Pitt football hopes to get boost from NCAA graduate transfers | TribLIVE.com
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Jerry DiPaola

Pat Narduzzi has stepped into the portal, not with trepidation, but with a need and a plan.

Peering inside the portal — specifically, the NCAA transfer portal — he knew he needed help at linebacker, offensive line and tight end for this season. When he ventured inside and came out the other side, he was holding players he hopes will improve depth at each spot.

Enter Kylan Johnson, a former Florida linebacker; Nolan Ulizio, who played tackle at Michigan; and former Rutgers tight end Nakia Griffin-Stewart.

No promises, but Narduzzi said Monday, “Those guys are going to help you immediately, I believe.”

They make six players on Pitt’s roster who started their careers at other Power 5 schools. They include quarterback Jeff George Jr. (Illinois), tight end Will Gragg (Arkansas) and wide receiver Taysir Mack (Indiana), all of whom were with the Panthers last year.

The NCAA rule that allows student-athletes to graduate from one school and play immediately at another has been a help to coaches in all sports. The NCAA reported 3,100 postgraduates (3% of the total) competed for other schools last year.

That number more than doubled from 2013-2018, with 2.6% of current players listed as grad transfers. In football, it’s less than 1%, but that number has nearly tripled in the past five years.

“Hopefully, we’re on the receiving end and not on the departure end,” Narduzzi said.

That’s the case this year, with Pitt only losing holder — albeit first-string holder — Jake Scarton to Oregon State, apparently with no hard feelings. His brother, Sam, is a walk-on kicker for the Panthers.

Ulizio said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, whose team is ranked No. 7 in the preseason coaches poll, tried to coax him into staying. But Ulizio, who started five games in his Michigan career, said he wanted “a fresh start.”

“It was pretty tough (leaving Michigan). I’m not going to lie,” said Ulizio, 6-foot-5, 320 pounds. “When I had my exit meeting with coach Harbaugh, he wanted me to stay and compete for a starting job there (most likely with 6-7, 323-pound junior Andrew Stueber). “But I felt for me going forward it was best to pursue other options.

“Being at a place like Michigan, they like to rotate a lot of younger guys in. I was there for four years and they had a good read on me, so I wanted a new opportunity.”

With Pitt losing four senior offensive linemen, another door opened. The second time worked out for Ulizio and Narduzzi, who tried unsuccessfully to recruit him from Lakota West High School in West Chester, Ohio, in 2015.

“I told him, ‘I’m here now,’ ” Ulizio said.

“This has been better than I expected. I thought it was going to be a little strange at first, hard to get used to. But it’s honestly very easy.”

Johnson, who’s lining up at money linebacker where he may replace Elijah Zeise, said he didn’t tell anyone at Florida he planned to transfer. Instead, he went straight to coach Dan Mullen.

“I had already made up mind. I didn’t feel I needed to tell anybody,” he said. “(Mullen) said it was my choice. Whatever I wanted to do.”

Asked if he would have had a chance to play regularly at Florida this season, Johnson said, “Yes. And who knows? I think I could.

“I was done. I wanted to relocate.”

He said he chose Pitt over Texas and UNLV because of the people.

“The players are very humble. The coaches love doing their job,” he said. “That’s something I want to be around.”

Plus, there was opportunity after Pitt lost three senior linebackers from last year’s team.

“When I took my visit,” Johnson said, “I noticed the defense was really good. They just needed some help in certain areas, like at linebacker.”

Griffin-Stewart, who made 13 catches in 25 games (five starts) at Rutgers, said he’s catching on quickly to tight ends coach Tim Salem’s coaching style.

“He doesn’t stop. The best thing about coach Salem is he’s the same person every day,” he said. “You don’t want a coach who’s energetic one day and might come down the next day.

“He’s the same from 6:15 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. right before we leave here. I like that about him.”

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