Pitt freshman Maddox learns how to play faster in a hurry

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Freshman cornerback Avonte Maddox made his presence felt just a few hours into his first official practice as a member of Pitt’s football team.

Quarterback Trey Anderson dropped back to pass and thought he could squeeze a ball through a window to a receiver on the outside. Maddox quickly closed the window, intercepted the pass and took it all the way back for a touchdown.

That was the beginning of Maddox’s training-camp experience, but it hardly has been the high point. Since then, he has made his way up the depth chart to the point where, when starter Lafayette Pitts went down with a minor injury Saturday, Maddox was called up to the first team to take his spot.

“He’s a competitor,” defensive backs coach Troy Douglas said this week. “Probably out-and-out, he might be our best [man-to-man] guy. But you’ve got to do more than play man. It’s just the little things that we’ve got to keep coaching.

“He’s got a chance. He’ll be fine.”

Even for the speedy Maddox — he said his most recent 40-yard dash time was 4.38 seconds — adjusting to the speed of the college game has been his biggest challenge. Tuesday, he showed off his quickness when he chased down freshman running back Qadree Ollison from behind to prevent a touchdown in 11-on-11 drills.

“I knew it was going to be fast, but it’s way faster, so I just came out here and had to pick up with the speed,” Maddox said. “I’m getting used to it now.”

To make things even tougher, Maddox’s most frequent assignment working with the first team in the past few practices has been covering sophomore receiver Tyler Boyd, one of the best playmakers the ACC has to offer.

“It’s pretty fun, actually,” Maddox said. “It’s a challenge and it’s competitive. I actually like covering him because it’s making me better as a player.”

Given his performance so far, Maddox is a fairly safe bet to play as a freshman. Pitt coach Paul Chryst, in assessing that possibility, said the coaches first look at whether or not a freshman can help the team at his given position that year, even in a backup capacity.

If the staff feels the player can, they’ll find a role for him on special teams.

Chryst compared Maddox’s situation to safety Terrish Webb’s performance last season.

Webb started with limited defensive responsibilities, seeing more and more as the year went on, but was a starter on special teams from the beginning.

Similarly, Maddox’s first contributions to the Panthers likely will come on kick coverage or, potentially, as a returner.

“Like last year, [Webb] had more safety snaps later in the season, but he got some special-teams snaps early,” Chryst said.

“I think that got him into the game. When it was time for him to play the safety reps, he was pretty good. I think it’s the same base philosophy with all of your freshmen.”

Maddox returned kicks in high school, but said he hasn’t done much kick coverage, another area where his speed could be an asset.

If that’s what the coaches ask him to do, though, he’s up for it.

In fact, Maddox made it clear he’s not backing down from any challenges.

Whether that’s special teams or going up against receivers such as Boyd or Manasseh Garner, who has five inches and 55 pounds on him.

“You’ve got to play physical with them,” he said. “They’re going to put their hands on you, so you need to be able to put your hands back on them. The advantage I’ve got over them is the speed because they’re so big.

“I’m never going to back down.

“If they call me out, I’m going to go out there. I’m going to play them. I’m not going to show any fear at all.”

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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