For Tyler Boyd, last season ended like so many others have in his football career: With him and his teammates lifting a trophy.
After four consecutive WPIAL and PIAA titles at Clairton High School, capping off his first college season with a Little Caesars Pizza Bowl trophy might seem like a step down. But to Boyd, a championship is a championship.
"You always feel good when you lift a trophy and win any kind of championship," he said. "You can't be upset about what kind of bowl game it is. If it's a small one, it doesn't matter. As long as you're winning, you're getting recognized. I just love the fact that I've always won championships. I just want to continue that."
Boyd, of course, was a major reason the Panthers lifted that trophy. He had just capped off probably the most successful season for a receiver in Pitt history with eight catches for 173 yards in the bowl -- and a punt return touchdown for good measure.
He broke Larry Fitzgerald's freshman program records with 1,174 receiving yards and five 100-yard receiving games on the season.
It might have been easy for Boyd to coast after such a stellar rookie campaign, but coach Paul Chryst said one of the most impressive things about Boyd was the work ethic he put in this offseason leading up to spring practices, which will wrap up this week.
"When you're inconsistent it either screws up the timing or location is off, whether it was quarterback or the receiver," Chryst said. "He saw that and he knows what it's like to be open and not get the ball, or that the ball was there and he should have been doing this.
"I think he's obviously talented but maybe the best thing about him is that he wants to keep growing and be as good as he can be. He's got a pretty high ceiling, I think."
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While things came easy to Boyd on the field last year, the transition to college off the field was not as smooth.
He admitted this week that freshman year was "kind of rough," specifically honing in on the finer points of balancing the football and academic workload. Like most freshmen, he was thrown right into the fire with football starting the same time as school. Unlike most freshmen, he was counted on to be a key contributor on a team playing its first year in the ACC.
"Everything wasn't necessarily super hard, but it was different," Boyd said. "It wasn't like we did in high school. You don't really necessarily get that extra chance to turn in work. You get a certain amount of days to turn in the work, so you've got to take time out of what you're doing to do what you've got to do."
Of course, as it is with all college students, the tough part wasn't becoming "smarter," but rather learning how to study and complete the assigned workload.
Boyd said his toughest course was an English writing class that required a paper to be turned in at every session. At first, it was too tempting to just put the work off and get it done later. Eventually, though, Boyd realized he had to attack these papers the same way he did opposing cornerbacks: head-on.
"When I get the paper I just have to knock it out before I don't want to do it at all," he said. "It's not easier, but it's not as hard as it was."
Things eased up a bit once football season ended, and Boyd will head into his sophomore year confident that he knows what he has to do to balance the on-field and off-field work of being a star football player. He also credited his teammates and coaching staff for helping him get through the tougher times.
"[It helped] just knowing that people here have my back and won't let me drop or do anything that I would regret doing," Boyd said. "I leave everything to everybody that's helping me."
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A key member of Boyd's support system won't be on the Pitt sidelines this season.
A few weeks after the bowl win, receivers coach Bobby Engram told Boyd he would be leaving the program to take a job on the Baltimore Ravens coaching staff.
Engram played an integral role in recruiting Boyd to Pitt, so it was impossible for the young receiver not to take the loss a bit hard.
"He was just being real like he was from day one when he recruited me," Boyd said. "I couldn't do anything but respect the fact that he told me first what he wanted to do and why he wanted to do it. I appreciate him doing that."
The Panthers hired Greg Lewis, another recently retired NFL receiver, to replace Engram, and Boyd said the two have similar coaching styles, which has made the transition easier.
Lewis has been coaching Boyd at a new position this spring, with Boyd working primarily as the slot receiver. The hope is that having him there will allow him to better exploit potential mismatches.
"I learned the outside position already," Boyd said. "So just filling me into the slot in spring ball, working me up through this whole spring camp, it's making my game much better because if I can win on the inside and outside, then it's going to be really hard to stop me."
While replicating his numbers from last year would certainly make for a successful season, that wouldn't necessarily be enough for Boyd. That Little Caesars Pizza Bowl Trophy was nice, but Boyd wants to lift ACC championship trophies, BCS bowl trophies, maybe even a crystal football.
"I'm not happy until we win and achieve bigger things than just single individual stats," he said. "It's like it was at Clairton; I achieved big things, but we still made it far to the championship and all that stuff. I'm trying to increase my stats and win while doing it. I won't be satisfied with just me doing something. I'm trying to impact the team as a whole. I want us to do things that Pitt hasn't done in several years. My focus is just to bring Pitt back on top."
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.
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