Pitt notebook: James Conner, Tyler Boyd adjust to fame and changes
April 3, 2014 11:57 PM
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
Pitt's James Conner celebrates a touchdown last season against Notre Dame at Heinz Field.
By Sam Werner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In Pitt's TV ad for 2014 season tickets, many players get face time, but two show up a lot -- running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
It's not surprising. They carried Pitt's offense as freshmen for a good chunk of the 2013 season and figure to be the cornerstone of the attack in the immediate future. Each capped a stellar rookie campaign with a record-breaking performance in Pitt's Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl win against Bowling Green.
But heading into spring practices this year, Pitt coach Paul Chryst said he wasn't concerned about them letting the hype or attention go to their heads.
"That's where I feel fortunate, knowing that I don't have to tell them that they [must] keep working," Chryst said. "No one, including them, should not appreciate and be thankful for the way they started their careers. But they're nowhere near the end; they're nowhere near as good as they can be, and that's the exciting thing."
Conner rushed for 799 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013 and set a school bowl record with 229 yards against Bowling Green. Boyd led the Panthers with 1,174 receiving yards -- breaking Larry Fitzgerald's school record for a freshman -- and seven touchdowns. Both, however, are adjusting to changes.. Each has a new position coach, and Conner has spent some time moonlighting at defensive end.
Boyd is moving on to life without Bobby Engram, Pitt's former wide receivers coach who took a job with the NFL Ravens.
"Tyler and I talked about it," Chryst said. "You can look at it two ways -- either 'Bobby left' or 'We had a chance to be with Bobby.' He's taken to [new receivers coach] Greg [Lewis], and I feel really good about that."
One wrinkle that likely starter Chad Voytik could add to the Panthers' quarterback position in the fall is an increased running threat.
He originally was recruited for former coach Todd Graham's spread offense and has the ability to move around more than either Tino Sunseri or Tom Savage did in Chryst's first two years at Pitt. In the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, Voytik had two rushes for 24 yards and a touchdown.
There is some danger there. Pitt has only two quarterbacks on the roster this spring. While the Panthers have shown a handful of designed quarterback runs in practice, the quarterbacks' red jerseys keep them off-limits from contact, and Chryst acknowledged it's important to be careful at a thin position.
"Our job is to make sure we are doing everything we can to use our players' strengths and help build up their weaknesses," he said. "At all positions where you don't have a lot of depth, you have to be smart. There is a balance in everything you do."
The Panthers will get some help this fall from scholarship quarterback Adam Bertke and walk-ons.
Practice emphasis varies
Pitt's practice Thursday focused more on individual drills than team sessions. The only 11-on-11 drills were some red-zone series at the end of practice.
Practice today will be more team-oriented, with officials present for scrimmage situations.
Early Father's Day
Pitt is expecting around 40 fathers to attend practice today as part of the team's "Fathers Day" celebration. They will attend practice and meetings with the team, followed by a meal.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.
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