When asked to pick out a highlight from his freshman season, Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz didn't hesitate.
Easy answer, right? The obvious choice is Holtz's 9-yard touchdown catch at Notre Dame that put the Panthers ahead, 17-6, against the then-No. 4 Irish.
"Definitely the knockout hit on the Syracuse player," Holtz responded.
Holtz is referring to earlier in the season when he powered into a head-on collision with Orange safety Shamarko Thomas and knocked him out cold.
So there's no question that Holtz isn't afraid of a little contact.
From the second he stepped on campus last fall, it was obvious Holtz would play as a freshman. He had the size, skills and athleticism at a position where the Panthers weren't incredibly deep. Toss in some nagging injuries to projected starter Hubie Graham, and Holtz ended up playing in all 13 games, starting 10.
He finished the year with 13 catches for 173 yards and three touchdowns, but admitted it was still tough to acclimate himself to the playbook that quickly.
"Being a freshman, it's hard to know all the plays and come in there and play," he said. "This year, I have a better grasp on all the plays and the pass plays. I'm going to go from there."
Holtz pointed to his blocking as the most improved part of his game. That answer should please offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Joe Rudolph, who stressed that it was most important to get fundamentals down before the Panthers could "have fun" and experiment with some different formation packages.
"Now [Holtz] is tying all the rest of it together," Rudolph said. "It's being consistent, it's expanding your knowledge of the game, it's being able to handle a little bit more. He's doing a really good job of it. He's working his tail off and his expectations on himself can't be anything different. He's got to earn every last opportunity that he has."
Another aspect of Holtz's job this spring is helping acclimate early enrollee freshman tight end Scott Orndoff, a Seton-LaSalle graduate. Like Holtz, a fellow WPIAL alumnus who played at Shaler, Orndoff has a chance to see the field this year, likely in some two-tight end formations.
"I know exactly how he feels," Holtz said. "His head's scattered right now. It's a lot of work. I just try to work with him the best I can and take him under my wing like Hubie did to me last year."
That's just part of the increased leadership role Holtz hopes to take this spring and next season. As one of just four returning starters on offense, he knows it is his responsibility to step up in the huddle when the situation calls for it.
"I'm not a freshman anymore," he said. "I've got to take a lot more leadership of the offense and be a better contributor on the field."
He's not backing down from the challenge. In practice Tuesday, Holtz took a pass from quarterback Tom Savage and put his head down and turned up field. Linebacker Todd Thomas tried to tackle him but could only force Holtz out of bounds.
After the play, Holtz yelled to Thomas, "You can't bring me down!" and some playful shoving ensued before both players jogged back to their huddles.
Holtz's responsibilities might increase this year, but the mentality is still the same.mobilehome - pittsports
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter: @SWernerPG.