A week before spring break, Pitt wide receiver Mike Shanahan had a feeling spring practice wouldn't be everything he had hoped.
Fresh off a solid freshman year in which he finished fourth on the team in receiving yards, Shanahan, a Norwin High School graduate, put in countless hours in the weight room getting into the best shape of his life.
But just a few weeks before the start of spring practice, Shanahan contracted mononucleosis, keeping him out of the weight room and off the practice field for the beginning of spring football.
"It's never fun sitting out, so it was tough -- especially watching my teammates going out there and making plays," Shanahan said.
Shanahan lost 17 pounds during his illness, and after missing the first five practices of the spring, he said he had a lot of work to do. He was cleared to play two weeks ago and has been doing all he can to make up for lost time.
The Panthers conclude spring drills Saturday at 2 p.m. with their annual Blue-Gold Game intrasquad scrimmage at Heniz Field.
Pitt wide receivers coach Scott Turner said Shanahan's work ethic is uncommon.
"There are some kids who miss the first five days of spring ball and not think twice about it," Turner said. "He was checking with the trainers every single day, 'What can I do? What can I do?' The first opportunity they said 'OK, you can practice,' he was out here in full pads."
With unseasonably warm temperatures earlier this month, Turner had to check on Shanahan, a 6-foot-5 rising sophomore, to make sure he is OK in practice.
Turner can't afford anything else with Shanahan, whom he called a "vital part of the offense."
It is little secret that Pitt's main receiving target is Aliquippa grad Jonathan Baldwin, another 6-5 receiver.
"We've got some depth there," Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said of the receiving corps. "We're going to need it because everybody's going to be focused on Jonathan Baldwin."
Wannstedt said initially he thought Shanahan might put on enough weight to become a tight end. But he has been impressed by Shanahan's work as a wideout. As a freshman last fall, Shanahan got two starting nods, one of them in the Panthers' bowl game where he caught five passes for 83 yards, both career highs.
"Mike is a good football player," Turner said. "He continued to work and he got better. Once he got an opportunity, he proved himself."
A Post-Gazette East Fabulous Five basketball all-star selection at Norwin, Shanahan is using his hoops skills on the football field, according to Turner.
"He's really good at using his body to catch the ball," he said.
As a redshirt freshman, he hauled in 15 catches for 211 yards -- a 14.1-yards-per-catch average and finished last season No. 2 on the depth chart behind Baldwin.
"I've definitely taken big steps since my high school days," he said.
But there is still work to do, he said.
"I need to get stronger and faster," Shanahan said. "I just want to keep progressing -- practice to practice, week to week and game to game."
Next season will be his third fall on Pitt's campus after redshirting his first year. And though he will only be a sophomore on Pitt's roster, Shanahan said he is ready to be a leader.
Tight end Dorin Dickerson (49 catches, 529 yards) and wide receiver Oderick Turner (21 catches, 227 yards) were seniors last year, meaning Shanahan and others will have to take their places on the field and in the locker room.
But Shanahan said he is not much of a motivational speaker; he'll get his message across another way.
"I just want to go out there and give it my all, lead by example more than anything," he said. "I'm not much of a verbal guy."
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com or 412-263-1722.