Before Pitt’s first spring practice Sunday, a somewhat unlikely pair of players high-fived and embraced.
“Let ’em know, man,” wide receiver Ronald Jones said to defensive lineman Khaynin (K.K.) Mosley-Smith. “We’re back.”
The pair, both redshirt juniors, spent all of 2013 on a season-long suspensions.
Mosley-Smith’s was the result of an April arrest, and Jones’ was due to a violation of team rules.
Both practiced with the Panthers, but could not play or travel to road games.
Jones said the toughest part for him was the hours leading up to Pitt’s 2013 opener against Florida State, when he had to watch his teammates get dressed for the much-anticipated showdown while he was stuck on the sidelines.
Both players had to adopt new attitudes for the 2013 season. Instead of gearing up for Saturdays, they had to take every practice as if it was their game day. Jones said it was an attitude instilled in him by former wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, and Mosley-Smith received constant encouragement from his star position-mate Aaron Donald.
“[Aaron was always] telling me how bright my future is, keep doing what I’ve been doing,” Mosley-Smith said.
“It was very hard, but I just knew I had to, being on scout team, help the team out as much as I could. I gave them the best look possible and I felt like I did a good job with that, but I never took a step back.”
Coaches were effusive in their praise of Jones and Mosley-Smith throughout the process, saying both took on the right attitude to try to earn their way back on the team.
“When something’s taken away, I think there’s a new appreciation,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “I think both are kind of attacking the offseason and the spring that way.
“So far, I’ve been really pleased with them both.”
That determined work ethic is a major reason both are in position to fight for starting jobs as the Panthers start spring practices. Jones has his eye on the slot receiver position, and Mosley-Smith is the odds-on favorite to win the nose tackle job occupied last year by Tyrone Ezell.
The year on the sidelines even helped Mosley-Smith pick up a few tricks from Donald, who will likely be a first-round pick in the NFL draft in May. Chryst noted that Mosley-Smith also has dropped a few pounds.
Jones, too, said there was an on-field benefit to sitting out a season.
“I gained a lot of speed, got bigger, stronger,” Jones said. “Learned the game a little more too. So now I’m ready to go.”
There’s still more than five months to go before Pitt runs out of the tunnel in its 2014 opener against Delaware, and neither Jones nor Mosley-Smith are locks to be in the starting lineup against the Blue Hens.
That doesn’t mean Jones hasn’t let the thought of that day enter his mind, though.
“Excitement,” he said. “That’s all I’ve got to say. It’s going to be exciting.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.