A day in the life of the first-place Pitt Panthers
Practice had ended for the day, but Pitt’s training facility had the hustle and bustle of a tiny village, with dozens of coaches, players and staff members walking, talking and eating lunch.
Lots of words were exchanged among teammates, but none of them were “ACC,” “Coastal” or “championship.”
Just another Tuesday in a 12-game season. So they would have you believe.
Here is a sampling of how the first-place Panthers — a victory from their first conference division title in football — spent their first day in preparation for Saturday’s game at Wake Forest:
• During his 10 1/2-minute chat with reporters, center Jimmy Morrissey, the ACC offensive lineman of the week, insisted right guard Mike Herndon was more deserving of the honor. Herndon won it last week, making it two in a row for Pitt’s linemen after the offense collected a school-record 654 yards against Virginia Tech. That makes 1,603 yards of forward progress during a three-game winning streak.
When it was suggested to Morrissey the ACC should rotate the award among all five linemen, the usually humble sophomore didn’t protest.
“I feel like it could be. It definitely should be,” he said. “I mean we have two games where we had almost got 500 rushing yards. So, might as well.”
• Finished with his interview, Morrissey was off to the linemen’s chop session where, over lunch, dinner or late-night snacks, they are joined by quarterback Kenny Pickett and hold discussions about random topics at the cafeteria’s round tables.
“We chop it up a lot. We have good conversations,” Morrissey said.
• Earlier, junior wide receiver Aaron Mathews was trying to avoid senior George Aston, who looks like a power lifter, but is merely one of the finest blockers in the ACC. When Aston congratulated Mathews for a nice job of downfield blocking against Virginia Tech, he slapped him on the back so hard it hurt.
“George is crazy when it comes to blocking,” Mathews said. “When you get a compliment from George, you just know you’re doing well.”
Mathews was especially proud of how he cleared a path for Maurice Ffrench’s 12-yard touchdown run, at first controlling and then tossing Hokies cornerback Caleb Farley. Qadree Ollison did the same to Farley on his 97-yard touchdown run.
“He was actually talking a lot of trash, too,” Mathews said. “It felt good to do that. George and I were hyped about it.”
Tight end Carson Van Lynn put it best, “If he’s just down there pitty-pattering with him and not really going hard, that doesn’t happen.”
• Coach Pat Narduzzi would be happy to know very Pitt player who met with the media Tuesday said they aren’t thinking about winning the ACC Coastal. They claim to be concerned only with Wake Forest, and they will check out the standings after the game. They know the truth, but players claimed they don’t talk about it unless an outsider brings it up.
Cornerback Dane Jackson said he didn’t know Pitt could win the Coastal even after a loss to Wake Forest, if Virginia loses to Georgia Tech.
“I, actually, wasn’t aware of that,” he said. “I’m not a guy who tries to put all those type of things together. Just focus on the team and where we’re trying to be.”
• Junior safety Damar Hamlin related how senior safety Dennis Briggs, a four-year regular, Pitt graduate, noted public speaker and married man, can almost miraculously make his teammates’ aches and pains go away.
“He’s definitely a good motivator,” Hamlin said. “Tuesday practice, you’re coming off a tough game. Your body might be achy. That first huddle up right before we get practice going, it’s always Dennis (talking to the team). It triggers something in you that puts (the pain) away for the rest of the practice.”
• Finally, Morrissey noted how campus life has changed with the team’s good fortune.
“It seems like the students are a lot happier,” he said. “I’ve had more random kids who come up to me who I don’t know and say good job.”
He said it works both ways.
“A lot of my friends will come to me when we’ve lost and asked me what happened and try to give me some criticism,” he said. “I appreciate it, though. It means they’re dedicated. They care about the team.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.