Pitt football: Transfer Brown pushes to start

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Pitt was extremely thin at tailback after spring drills with only one scholarship player at that position on the roster.

Yes, there were four incoming freshmen running backs, but the coaches were nervous about that because relying on true freshmen to fill a need is dicey, at best.

The solution knocked at the Panthers door when Zach Brown, who rushed for 1,152 yards and 11 touchdowns in a three-year career at Wisconsin, announced he was transferring to Pitt. Just as important, Brown had earned his bachelor's degree from Wisconsin already and is pursuing a master's in education at Pitt, making him eligible to play immediately.

Brown, who is 5-foot-10, 220 pounds and in his fourth and final year of eligibility, redshirted last year because of tendinitis in his knee. He shared time as the starter for the Badgers in parts of the 2007, '08 and '09 seasons.

He posted his best numbers his freshman season, when he rushed 84 times for 450 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.

Brown said he had planned on playing his final season at Wisconsin, but the backfield was crowded. The Badgers feature perhaps the best running back corps in the country with James White and Montee Ball leading the way. Brown likely was the odd man out.

"I did some research and looked around and saw that Pitt only had one running back on scholarship and that they were going to run this high-octane offense, so it seemed like a great fit," said Brown, who said outside linebackers coach Randall McCray, who coached at Wisconsin from 2006-09, helped the process.

"Plus they had the master's program I was looking for. It has been a challenge learning a different style of offense in my last year, but I have some experience and that's made it easier to transition."

Brown came in, presumably, to be Graham's backup but he does not see it that way -- and neither does offensive coordinator Calvin Magee. Brown has shown enough at Wisconsin and the first few days of camp to merit consideration for the starting job, Magee said.

"It is interesting with Zach, because this is like starting over and he has to get his feet wet," Magee said. "He has a lot of experience, he has good ball skills, he understands how to be a strong runner so he can break some tackles and do some of the power stuff. And to be honest, I envision him being a guy who is competing with Ray for the job and I know we will use both of them."

Brown said he understands Graham has been at Pitt for two years and had the benefit of the spring to learn the new system, so he is behind at this point, but he wouldn't be a competitor if he didn't want to be the starter.

"My goal is to come in and be the man," Brown said. "Ray and I will push each other, and we know the freshmen are going to push us as well, but that is what will make us better [as] a team and, in the end, it will all sort itself out."

Brown, from Royal Palm Beach, Fla., said he and Graham are roommates and good friends already. He said they likely will play together in some formations, and he is learning the other backfield position called the three-back -- known in some offenses as the H-back -- so that he can get on the field more.

The two should complement each other. Graham is more shifty and likes to make people miss; Brown is very physical and likes to finish runs by putting his head down and burying tacklers.

"Ray and I help each other out," Brown said. "He's been great for me. He really has taken the time to explain things when I have had questions, and we talk a lot about a lot of things, so this has been a great move for me. And coach Magee told me he's excited about finding ways to put us out there together, so I'm excited about it."

Brown also is a good student. He is a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and hopes some day to become a personal trainer who owns a gym or become a strength coach.

Although Graham and Brown have gotten the bulk of the carries, Magee said freshmen Corey Davis (Gladewater, Texas) and Malcom Crockett (Takoma Park, Md.) have impressed him and Isaac Bennett (Tulsa, Okla.) did a lot of great things in the team's first practice in pads.

NOTES -- Pitt coach Todd Graham said that Wednesday's practice was "about 80 percent, which gets you eight wins." ... Graham stopped practice and chastised the team for swearing. He told them "it doesn't help you and doesn't speak well of your character" and then threatened to have the team run the rest of the day if he heard it again. ... The defense intercepted at least five passes yesterday, after forcing few turnovers the first day. Graham said the quarterbacks were under pressure for the first time, which was a factor in the turnovers, but it is unacceptable for the offense. "We might have some games where we throw the ball 55 times and, in order to do that, you can't turn it over," he said.

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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