Given his Big Ten and pro-style roots, Pitt coach Paul Chryst has a distinct appreciation for what an effective tight end can bring to a college football offense.
So when he watched film of North Carolina junior Eric Ebron this week, he was impressed with what he saw.
“You love watching him on tape, and then all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Shoot, we’ve got to play him,’” Chryst said. “He’s good, and I love a good tight end.”
Ebron has been a focal point for the Tar Heels offense this season, and one of the key players the Panthers will have to shut down if they want to win Saturday. At 6-foot-4, 245-pounds, he’s big and athletic enough to cause mismatches in the passing game.
Ebron has 46 catches for 690 yards and three touchdowns this season. His best performance came in a close Thursday night loss Oct. 17 to Miami, when he grabbed eight passes for 199 yards and a touchdown.
More recently, he has served as a sort of security blanket for quarterback Marquise Williams, who took over the full-time job last week after Bryn Renner’s season-ending surgery.
It helps that Ebron and Williams have been good friends since high school, and the two connected for a 71-yard touchdown pass in that Miami game, when Williams was rotating with Renner at the quarterback spot.
Ebron, Williams and receiver T.J. Thorpe are all longtime friends.
“We’ve built a bond in committing and all coming here together for this reason right here,” Ebron said. “Now that we finally all get to be on the same field together, it’s like a dream. [Williams] knows where I am, he knows where to find me, and 99.9 percent of the time, I’ll be open.”
It was a bit harder for Williams to find Ebron in the Tar Heels’ most recent game, a 45-14 win against Virginia. Ebron had only two catches for 21 yards in the game, thanks largely to consistent double- and triple-teams from the Cavaliers defense.
“It comes with the territory,” Ebron said. “There’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve just got to deal with it and wait for that one moment where they don’t double-team or triple-team me and I get the ball.”
Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said the type of double-team Ebron has seen the most this season is from a linebacker and a safety or a nickelback and a safety teaming up to take him out.
Against Virginia, though, the focus on Ebron allowed the Tar Heels to rush for 201 team yards and opened up the field for receiver Qunishad Davis, who caught five passes for 65 yards and a touchdown.
“I thought Virginia did a really good job on focusing on Eric and making sure that they try to take Eric away from us,” Fedora said. “You can do that, I mean it’s possible to do, but it just means somebody else is going to have the opportunity to make plays.”
Ebron hopes he’ll have a chance to make at least one or two plays at Heinz Field this weekend. He is originally from New Jersey, and said he’ll have plenty of family and friends in attendance this weekend, including his high school (Smith High School, Greensboro, N.C.) coach Rodney Brewington, a longtime Steelers fan.
“I played in the Dolphins’ stadium playing against Miami, but this is Heinz Field,” Ebron said. “This is different.”
And if the Panthers are able to disrupt his game the way Virginia did last week? That’s OK with Ebron, with one caveat: The game result is also the same.
“If that’s the way we can play throughout the rest of the season, I’ll be happy,” Ebron said. “I can deal with two catches as long as we’re winning.”
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG