Pitt defensive end Ejuan Price thought he would be fine just watching his team play last season.
He wasn't exactly looking forward to missing the year as he rehabilitated from a pectoral injury, but he had known for a few weeks before the season opener and tried to mentally prepare himself.
But when Pitt took the field against Youngstown State, no such luck.
"The first game came around and I was hurting," Price said. "I was super depressed. I've been playing since I was 5 years old and that's my first time missing a season. I didn't even know how to feel. I felt like I was in limbo, just out there."
Price, a Woodland Hills High School graduate, returned to the practice field this spring and has worked his way into the regular defensive rotation in training camp. He's no longer in football limbo, but his role on the field has changed slightly.
Price came to Pitt as a linebacker but slowly has transitioned to defensive end. He played a little of both in the spring and early in training camp, sometimes playing with his hand on the turf and sometimes standing up.
As the practices progressed, though, Price became more and more of a pure defensive end and by the end of training camp, he was the first player off the bench at the position behind starters David Durham and Bryan Murphy.
"He's bought in to what we're trying to do," defensive ends coach John Palermo said. "He started out as a second-and-long, third-down guy at defensive end and has worked himself up to where I have no problem playing him on first down because I'm getting to the point to where I trust him."
Price showed promise as a true freshman linebacker in 2011, playing in all 13 games. He totaled 27 tackles (including 6.5 for a loss) and four sacks. Ultimately, though, the new coaching staff saw a more versatile role for him.
Price said there was a learning curve to his new position but that now he feels even more comfortable at defensive end than he did at linebacker.
"I didn't like putting my hand on the ground just because I wasn't used to it, but now that I'm acclimated to it, I feel good," he said.
"I actually like [defensive] end better because there's less thinking involved, there's more 'go.' "
The past few practices have seen Price move primarily to a traditional defensive end role, but he and Palermo said there are packages in Pitt's defense that would have Price standing up and sometimes dropping back in coverage. But Price knows his main job is getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
"The coaches have different roles for me," he said. "They have a package where they have me stand up and rush, but at the end of the day, pressure is pressure, whether you put your hand on the ground or you are standing up. It is basically the same technique."
Palermo said raw talent has never been an issue with Price, who was rated a three- and four-star recruit out of Woodland Hills and originally signed with Ohio State before picking Pitt. At this point, his biggest challenge is shaking off the mental rust of more than a year without live-action football.
"He's still got a lot to learn, and when I say that, it's not so much fundamentally -- he's pretty good -- but he's got to learn the defenses," Palermo said. "He's got to make sure if they do this, then our adjustment is that. Those are the things that he's got to learn. When he's got those down, there's no telling how good a football player he'll be."
After a year away, Price is just looking forward to whatever the coaching staff or opposing offenses throw at him.
"I'm definitely ready to go," he said. "I tell [my teammates] every day, I'm just happy to be relevant again."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published August 24, 2013 4:00 AM