For now, Pitt's Elijah Zeise makes switch from receiver to linebacker
March 23, 2016 12:00 AM
Elijah Zeise, who saw some playing time at wide receiver as a freshman, moved over to defense to work as a linebacker in spring practice drills.
By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Elijah Zeise received a text message early Tuesday morning from his coach, Pat Narduzzi, asking him to stop by before practice.
“Honestly, I thought I might have been in trouble or something,” the Pitt sophomore said, with a laugh.
What came from a cryptic text was a new opportunity. Narduzzi asked Zeise, a wide receiver last season, about giving linebacker a try. Though he hadn’t played the position before, he accepted the offer, and, at the team’s fourth spring practice Tuesday, he was working with the linebackers in drills.
While he acknowledged there’s some disappointment with the temporary move, he is embracing the crash course.
“It’s very tricky,” said Zeise, whose father, Paul, is a sports writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Back when I played corner and safety, I kind of just saw the whole field and reacted to whatever was left past the second level. With this, you have to read the tackles and you have to jam guys and be able to get out or get over the top of tackles and other linemen. It’s a lot more involved.”
A standout at wide receiver and safety at North Allegheny, Zeise had little experience at linebacker before this week. Pitt coaches, however, saw him as a fit at a position of need.
Zeise played a few reps at linebacker in practice leading up to the Military Bowl last season and impressed the coaches in those brief glimpses, making tackles and displaying what Narduzzi described as “a nose for the football.”
Listed at 6 feet 2 and 215 pounds, he’s a physical and athletic match for the team’s star linebacker spot, one that requires a player to get out and defend in space, almost like a safety.
“It’s not, ‘Is this guy worse at this position?’ ” linebackers coach Rob Harley said. “We want to put the best 11 and best 22 on the field, and we think he might have a chance.”
Last season, Zeise caught five passes for 54 yards. The change isn’t a permanent one, but the coaches have been impressed with his aptitude and potential.
“You look at it and you say a freshman receiver can maybe come and play if he’s good enough, but it’s hard for a freshman linebacker to come in and play right away,” Narduzzi said. “If you’ve got one sitting there you think you can end up starting for you, don’t wait. I think you’ll be surprised when next season comes around how far he has come.”
Talkin’ bout practice
Even before becoming Pitt’s coach, Narduzzi had cemented a reputation as being one of the best defensive minds in college football while an assistant at Michigan State. Given that background, he is concerned by a recent trend in which conferences have been limiting the number of days teams can have full-contact practices.
Earlier this month, Ivy League coaches opted to eliminate full-contact hitting at regular-season practices. In the past two years, the Big 12 and Pac-12 have limited their schools to two such practices per week.
“It’s a big deal,” Narduzzi said this week as a guest on The Audible, a FoxSports.com college football podcast. “We’re not playing soccer or field hockey or basketball. It’s the game of football, and it’s a contact sport. You can’t play the game without contact. You might as well cancel spring ball altogether because now what you’re doing is 7-on-7. You’re playing pass. You can’t stop the run. I think it’s a crazy rule.”
Though not quite to the same extent, Narduzzi reiterated his commitment to contact practices and teaching his players proper defensive fundamentals.
“We’re always trying to be smart,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t know what the trend is, but we’re not changing. We’re going to try to play tough football. Remember, we’re in Pittsburgh, right? This is a tough city. We’re just trying to play ball.”
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG
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