Football: Position switches help fill holes on Panthers roster

By Nate Barnes / Sports Editor

When it came to addressing some of the questions surrounding this year’s Panthers football team, head coach Paul Chryst found a number of answers during training camp. 

Tom Savage won the starting quarterback job, and Tyler Boyd worked his way up the depth chart and will start opposite redshirt senior Devin Street at wide receiver for the Sept. 2 game against Florida State. 

While Chryst searched for answers, both new and old faces vaulted their way into contention for playing time in the offensive and defensive backfields. 

James Conner

Conner originally received a scholarship to Pitt after a standout performance as a defensive end at a recruiting camp held by the Panthers a few years ago, but he will now start at running back against FSU. 

Conner began playing the position in his senior year of high school at McDowell High, and he ran 155 times for 1,680 yards and 21 touchdowns as he led his squad to the quarterfinals of the PIAA Class AAAA playoffs. 

Even still, Conner is still learning as he continues to “earn the right to more reps,” in the words of Chryst. 

“He’s learning,” Chryst said. “Mistakes aren’t necessarily bad, because you can learn from them.”

That learning experience included three weeks of practice against a defense that figures to be one of the toughest in the ACC this season. In the meantime, Conner is focused on the little things as he lines up across the likes of Aaron Donald and others in practices. 

“I know our defensive line so well, so the big runs aren’t really happening right now,” Conner said. “I know they’ll happen during game time, but right now I’m just paying attention to details and working to build my confidence up.”

Jaymar Parrish

While Conner starts at halfback, his fullback may not be redshirt junior Mark Giubilato but freshman Jaymar Parrish, instead. Parrish, out of Gateway High School, was the No. 25-ranked prospect in Pennsylvania and continued to earn more reps with the prohibitive first team as camp progressed. 

Parrish came out of Gateway as a tight end and linebacker and led his team in tackles while he averaged 19.2 yards per catch. Parrish’s hybrid skill set now places him in contention to not only play fullback but to offer versatility out of the backfield as an H-back. 

For now though, Parrish is doing “mostly fullback things” as he works to make himself a presence on the field. Multiple practices saw the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder wreaking havoc against physically overmatched cornerbacks and safeties in 11-on-11 rushing drills. 

And with roles at the fullback and H-back positions, Parrish has taken the learning curve in stride. 

“The coaches try to keep it simple for us,” Parrish said. “They keep it in a context where we can understand the plays and get the feel of everything.”

Bam Bradley

Pitt’s defense has little room for newcomers, as it returns 10 of 12 starters from a unit that finished in the nation’s top 20 in yards allowed per game in 2012. But so far, Bam Bradley has made a case for himself to start at one of the linebacker positions. 

“We hope he’s starting to realize his potential,” Chryst said. “I thought he was doing some good stuff early in training camp, and now he’s got to get back in the swing of things.”

Bradley, a redshirt freshman, came out of Trotwood-Madison High School in Dayton, Ohio, as a defensive back who racked up 60 tackles with five interceptions as he led his team to a 15-0 season that culminated with a state title. 

Now, two years later, Bradley is playing linebacker and ran with the first team later in training camp. But that’s not to say the path had no obstacles as he transitioned from safety to linebacker. 

“It was harder than I thought it was going to be,” Bradley said. “I’m used to having everything in front of me playing safety, but now I have to turn around and look behind me, so it’s a bit of a change-up.” 

Bradley took full advantage of the opportunity offered to him when Todd Thomas temporarily left the Pitt football team during training camp.. But he isn’t yet satisfied, despite increased reps with players who most certainly will line up against the Seminoles on their first offensive series of 2013. 

“Even though I’m out there, I feel like my spot isn’t solidified,” Bradley said. “I don’t want to get caught up in being with the first team because those older guys, they’re seasoned veterans and even their spots aren’t locked up.”

Anthony Gonzalez

Three years and three positions after Gonzalez came to Pitt as Pennsylvania’s No. 7-overall player in the Class of 2010, it seems Gonzalez has found a home as one of Chryst’s starting outside linebackers. It’s a home in which Gonzalez feels he belongs. 

“I feel real good here and am playing really well,” Gonzalez said. “The coaches have told me I’ve been playing well, and obviously there’s room for improvement, so every day I just have to keep getting better.”

Gonzalez played in nine games in 2012, made a start at the strongside linebacker slot in the BBVA Compass Bowl and recorded five tackles against Ole Miss. Gonzalez started the season as a safety — the position he played at Liberty High School — but he moved to linebacker when injuries wreaked havoc on the Panther linebacking corps. 

“We’re happy with him,” Chryst said. “He’s got a pretty good football sense and football IQ. Combining that with getting comfortable at a spot, hopefully he keeps growing there.”

Now, it looks like Gonzalez may enter the season at the top of the depth chart at the Sam linebacker slot guided by a simple, yet effective, focus. 

“Whenever you have to make a play, make it,” Gonzalez said. “Put yourself in a position to make plays, and also put other people in a position to make plays.”