Football: Holley adapting nicely in first year

By Randy Lieberman

It’s a long way from Easton, Pa. — across the Pennsylvania Turnpike, past Harrisburg, Johnstown and Monroeville — all the way to Pittsburgh.

The roughly 252 miles from Pitt football defensive back Jarred Holley’s alma mater, Easton Area High School, is a haul and a half by car.

But according to Holley, it didn’t compare to the mental adjustment he needed from high school football to college.

“When you go to college, it’s the mental aspect that’s the thing,” he said. “In high school, you have one or two coverages and everything you’ve grown up with. Now you need to know everything you’re doing, where you need to be, and it also helps out a lot to know where everybody else is supposed to be.”

It’s an adjustment that can be hard for newer college players.

“You have to understand the defense, and you take a young guy like Jarred, and it takes him a while to get used to the game,” secondary coach Jeff Hafley said.

Yet no one seems to notice how difficult his transition has been.

Look up and down Pitt’s starting defense: five seniors, three juniors, two sophomores and the lone redshirt freshman starting at free safety. As far as the depth chart goes, Holley sticks out.

But as far as his play, Holley has stepped seamlessly into a starting role with the Panthers in their secondary.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Hafley said. “Elijah [Fields] went down in the Louisville game and [Holley] took over as if he’d been playing all along. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that he’s a redshirt freshman.”

Through Pitt’s first eight games, Holley had 24 tackles and has broken up two passes. He had a career-high six tackles against Connecticut in the first start of his career.

Holley might seem like a natural safety, but his true position, the one he’s played since high school, is cornerback.

“I played safety maybe once in seventh grade, and that was basically play deep and fly to the ball,” Holley said, “But safety is totally new for me. I’ve enjoyed it — I’ve learned stuff each week.”

It’s just that type of attitude that caught Pitt coaches’ eyes in the first place, not to mention seeing his opponents over-matched by his play.

“When you turn on a film and [are] looking at a recruit at a pretty high level of high school football, he absolutely dominated,” Hafley said. “Then we met his family and we saw what a great kid he is. He’s the type of kid you want to coach.”

Holley said he is a team player dating back to his days at Easton.

“I always told my coaches I would do anything for the team — If it’s going to help the team win, I’ll do it,” he said.

That’s why when Pitt coaches approached Holley about taking snaps at safety during the summer workouts, he didn’t complain. All he did was try it out and play his best.

“I never thought it would turn into this,” Holley said.

In spite of the surprise, Hafley said Holley maintains a “cool poker face” while playing.

Holley calls it having a short-term memory.

It was critical in what Hafley called Holley’s best game — a 24-17 Pitt victory over Rutgers — where Holley finished with five tackles.

In the first quarter against the Scarlet Knights, Holley broke up Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage’s pass intended for Tim Brown on third-and-16 from the 50 yard line.

But later in the game, Brown caught a 19-yard touchdown pass by faking Holley to the outside on a seven route.

Coaches have to remind themselves he’s just a freshman.

“Every game, he’s gotten better — more assertive and more aggressive,” Hafley said. “We’ll say to him sometimes, ‘Jarred, that was a mistake, but that’s the first time you’ve seen that.’ There are a lot of those moments.”

“You have to learn to bounce back. Even if you mess up, you know you can do better the next play,” Holley said.

Holley has come a long way, geographically and mentally, to start at Pitt. He’s a redshirt freshman, but his coaches said he plays beyond his years.

“If he keeps working the way he’s working, this kid is going to be special,” Hafley said.