The tight end position has a new look to it for 2011, both schematically and personnel-wise. Gone from the group is Mike Cruz, who started 12 of the 13 games last year and led all tight ends with 19 receptions for 213 yards, with two touchdowns.
Also gone from the group are Justin Virbitsky and Andrew Devlin. Virbitsky moved over to the offensive line, while Devlin will finish out his Pitt education on a medical hardship. Devlin is still around the program, helping out as a volunteer in spring drills, and has hopes of catching on as a graduate assistant.
Despite those losses, the position is still deep, and has two tight ends who will benefit in the new system. Redshirt junior walk-on Chris Mike will also help out with the tight ends, while freshmen Brendan Carozzoni and Dan Schneider are coming off their redshirt years.
There might not be much experience behind the two guys who have taken the bulk of the reps through the first week of spring practice, Hubie Graham and Brock DeCicco, but with these two at the forefront of the position, it's a position that's still in pretty good shape despite the losses in personnel.
Graham is a unique player because even though he's used to the pro-style offense going back to high school, he is easily adaptable into the new spread system. Last year, despite having to sit out the entire season due to the NCAA transfer rule, he was used heavily as a member of the scout offense. In the week leading up to the Notre Dame game, Graham was used to replicate Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph. Graham is similar in style to Rudolph—a big tight end type of player who can line up in the slot. Interestingly, he finds himself playing that exact position this spring.
"(Notre Dame) was definitely the most fun week for me, was playing Rudolph," Graham said. "I was able to catch a lot of balls and do what I enjoy. It was definitely a pleasure, contributing in some way. I was happy to do that."
Graham was initially recruited by Pitt when he came out of West Scranton (PA) High School in 2008. He signed with Illinois, where he played in 20 games during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. He relished the opportunity to transfer to Pitt, even though he knew he had to sit out a year. A member of the scout team, he did whatever he had to do to contribute, but that didn't mean that it was any easier not being able to play in a real game.
"Last year was definitely a struggle for me; mentally," Graham said. "I've been playing football since I was six years old. Taking that year off, I didn't know what to do with myself. Now that I'm back on the field, I'm excited, I feel prepared. I'm just out there working hard trying to learn a new system, and get up to pace."
Then came the coaching change for Graham. Though he initially liked Pitt—even as a recruit—for their pro-style offense, and the way they used the tight ends, he has found Todd Graham's spread system to be to his liking as well.
"The adjustment has been going real good," Graham said. "I know I'm just going to speak for myself, but it's definitely been an adjustment with the pace, the conditioning and running so many deep routes, catching so many balls.
"It's definitely exciting. We feel we're going to be able to contribute in a huge way, not only catching the ball, but blocking. (Tight ends) coach (Tony) Dews has made it very clear that we're not going to catch many balls if we don't block first. That's definitely what we're focusing on."
Another thing Graham likes about this tight end position, or three-back as it's referred to, is that it's a multitude of positions all into one, but he's still able to use all the abilities he has as a tight end.
"It's just a hybrid; it's a fullback, it's a wide receiver, it's a tight end all into one," Graham said. "It's not really too different if you look at it as a position. Yeah, we're motioning around and coming out of the backfield, but that's football and I definitely think that myself and the guys at my position are definitely capable of doing a good job."
Another of those guys Graham refers to is DeCicco, who is the most experienced returning tight end on the roster, from 2010. DeCicco had a pretty good ratio of receptions-to-touchdowns in 2010. Starting in three games last year, DeCicco caught just two passes in 2010, but both were for touchdowns—one at Syracuse, and the other against Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
DeCicco progressed throughout his redshirt freshman season, developing as a blocker and as a pass catcher. He came to Pitt at 6-5, 235 pounds. Entering spring, DeCicco has bulked up to 250 pounds. Learning the previous system was a challenge. After a year of getting comfortable and being a contributor at the position, DeCicco had to start all over again, learning the way the new system works. Through one week, he has taken reps with both the first-team and second-team, proving the need for two three-backs the way the system works. So far, the transition has been pretty smooth.
"It's pretty good, we're getting into it," DeCicco said. "We're getting everything down right now. We're in the backfield right next to the quarterback, and we're in the backfield right behind the tackle. It's definitely different, but I like it so far. It's pretty cool."
Being in the backfield is something different for DeCicco, but he is easily seeing how it works. He has watched film of how Tulsa used Charles Clay. Clay—also listed as a running back at Tulsa—was used the same way Graham and DeCicco are expected to be used. Clay caught 43 passes for 526 yards and seven touchdowns, and was also used as a ball carrier. He carried the ball 34 times for 226 yards. It remains to be seen if Graham or DeCicco will also be used in running the ball, but DeCicco is excited about the possibility.
"They were saying we might be able (to run the ball)," DeCicco said. "Definitely everything; passes out of the backfield, runs out of the backfield, everything. (Clay) had a bunch of catches. I don't know what it was, but we have a chance to pretty much do everything; get a lot of balls in and block a lot."