It may seem that one of Pitt's best offensive weapons is also one of its most under-utilized, but that is only the case if a player's value is measured by how many times he touches the football or scores a touchdown.
Junior tight end Nate Byham doesn't feel the need to answer questions about why he is not nearly as involved in the pass-catching part of his position as his talent would seem to dictate or as fans believe he should be.
Byham said he loves to get opportunities to catch passes. But it isn't fair, he said, to judge his performance in a game simply by how much he touches the ball, because it overlooks the other areas, particularly blocking, in which he helps the team.
"I am happy to make big catches and I am comfortable with the ball in my hands, but [against West Virginia] happened to be my day," Byham said.
• Game: No. 23 Pitt (8-3) at Connecticut (7-4).
• When: Noon, Saturday.
• TV: ESPN.
"Whatever I need to do that week, I am happy with. There are some games this year where people said, 'You need to get the ball more; how do you feel about not getting the ball?' And my response is, 'Well, I had five pancakes [blocks], we won the game and [LeSean McCoy] had more than 100 yards rushing, so I did my job.'
"That's my role and I am content with it."
Byham, who has 17 receptions for 222 yards (13.1 yards per catch) this season, was again answering questions about his role this week because he is coming off his best game of the year -- at least statistically. He caught four passes for a career-high 69 yards Friday in the Panthers' 19-15 win against West Virginia.
But as Byham said, there have been other games in which he has contributed far more as a blocker. Given the Panthers' reliance on the run game, developing that phase of his game will only help him down the road as an NFL prospect.
"I want to be a well-rounded tight end," Byham said. "I don't want to be a tight end with seven catches a game and two touchdowns but can't block a lick, because that's not going to help me evolve to the next level and that's not helping our team as much as it could be."
According to Byham's position coach, Brian Angelichio, the number of receptions he had against West Virginia was not by design. He said Byham is always a big part of the game plan, but the nature of the tight end position is such that how many passes come its way have more to do with the defense than the offense.
"Those things we've had in the game plan all along," Angelichio said. "It just so happened that in that game, the coverage dictated that the ball went to Nate based on how they were playing us. And he stepped up and made plays we expect him to make.
"You are always looking for a tight end to be a dual threat in the run game and in the pass game, and Nate gives us that. What he does puts pressure on the defense because when they start to load the box, the tight end becomes the easiest throw to make."
Byham said his blocking skills will likely come into play Saturday when the Panthers (8-3, 4-2 Big East) take on Connecticut (7-4, 4-2).
The Huskies have the best defense in the Big East -- they give up a league-best 286.3 yards per game and have the second-best scoring defense (18.5 points per game). Byham knows that the Panthers will have to grind out yards, because they don't come easy.
"They are very stout on defense," Byham said. "They are very good at stopping the run, so I will have a great matchup with their defensive ends and their linebackers. It should be a fun challenge, one that I am looking forward to taking on."
A victory against the Huskies would give Pitt its first nine-win season since 1982, and a 9-3 regular season -- especially considering the talent returning for next season -- would send a clear message that the Panthers are once again on the rise.
Paul Zeise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720. First Published December 3, 2008 5:00 AM