Tyrone Ezell started off in the mix at defensive tackle last season, but as the season went on his reps diminished. While the previous staff indicated at points during the season that Ezell had put on some weight, and was working to keep his weight down, Ezell said that was not the case.
"Last year, I felt like the coaches didn't trust me anymore," Ezell said. "After the Miami game, I blew a couple of plays; maybe two M.A's (missed assignments). I knew the coaches didn't trust me. I saw my playing time go down after that Miami game."
Ezell ended up playing in six games, despite a good fall camp and a good start to the season. This spring, he has earned almost daily praise from head coach Todd Graham. Even though Myles Caragein was held out of Thursday's practice for precautionary reasons, Graham proved he has some trust in Ezell, has he put the 6-4, 285-pound defensive tackle in at nose with the first-team on Thursday.
Graham joked that as he's getting to know players by their first name, he says that as they begin to make plays, he learns their last name first.
"I know him as Ezell, I really like him," Graham said. "He's a guy who's really bought in. There's so many things; off the field, in the classroom, so many things that he's done, that he's buying in. He's a great young man. He's got a great disposition about him. Our guys have some mean, nasty about them. They play irritated. He's one of them. He has been a guy who has really stood out to me, especially in the last three practices."
A lot of things are coming together for Ezell right now, as he prepares for his third year in the program. One of them was just learning how to compete, something he wasn't accustomed to in high school.
"I wasn't used to the competition," Ezell said. "I went to Steel Valley. I was the guy. I didn't have no competition. When I got here, I had to learn how to compete. Last year, I was not in my mind that I needed to compete more. This year, I realize, people from way bigger high schools, there's talent around me. I'm in a big part. I need to learn how to compete more. I've been getting it more. I'm competing, fighting for more playing time and everything."
Under Graham and company, combined with his lessons from making the adjustment from high school to college, Ezell feels like he has a second chance.
"I would say so," Ezell said. "I feel like this year, we got new coaches who know me like they don't know anybody else. It's a clean slate. Last year, I felt like I learned. Last year, knowing what I know now, it's easier to work with them than I worked with the old coaches that were here."
One of the first things that helped him when Graham and his staff came in was the new strength program. Even though he wasn't used to the competition factor in high school, he was used to a strength program that put him in position to get a number of Division I offers coming out of high school. Ezell says he has an easier time relating to new strength coach Shawn Griswold.
"Physically, it's been much better than my freshman year when I first got here," Ezell said. "I've been in there with (former Pitt strength coach) Buddy (Morris) first. It was like getting in there and getting used to the style of lifting. With Coach Gris, the style of lifting, it's more of what I did in high school. It got me back to my high school days, and the way I played with the hip explosion when we're doing cleans and everything. I feel more stronger and everything, more explosive off the ball than I did when Buddy was in the weight room and everything."
Aside from the conditioning routine, Ezell also likes the structure of the conditioning program now.
"It's more organized," Ezell said. (Griswold) is in there more with you. With Buddy, you take what they give. They let you do it on your own, and they come and watch you. Coach Gris, they're right there with you making sure you get that good form in and get everything that you need ; your lift and your nutrition, the stretching and everything you need."
Carrying over to the field, Ezell goes from being a defensive tackle in a four-man front to a defensive tackle in a three-man front. A lot of times, he will be expected to take on two blockers. Ezell says there's no difference from what a defensive tackle is responsible for.
"It's really not that much different, be more sound," Ezell said. " You can't take two more gaps or anything like that. You have to sink in and make sure they don't run that ball up your A-gap. Pretty much the same thing to me. Still in the trenches."
He does believe the new system is easier, when it comes to getting the ball from the sideline. Instead of taking the call from the middle linebacker, Ezell and the other defensive linemen get the call themselves from the sideline. It sounds like it's a lot more memory required for a defensive lineman—understanding the calls, and where to go once that call is made. Ezell feels this new system is easier.
"I like the signals, the signals you get from the coach, I like that a lot better," Ezell said. "I feel a lot better knowing the signals; I'll know what the play is instead of depending for the linebackers to get it in. Sometimes we'll get it in, I'm out there like, ‘what's going on?' Last year, we got the call from the backer. The coaches would signal it to the backer, and the backer would tell us. This year, we all have to get the signals. I like that a lot better."
Ezell knows that he is behind Caragein for now. He talked about learning what it's like to compete more. When you listen to him talking about his role this year, and how it will translate for this season and the future, you can tell Ezell is a player who took last year and his decreased playing time very personal. He understands what he needs to do, and is already placing an added level of responsibility.
"I'm definitely going to contribute," Ezell said. "Myles, I need him to stay on me and tell me what I'm doing wrong, and stay on me hard. I want to get better so I can help the team win and get a Big East Championship for his senior year. I'm looking at him, and learning from him. I'm more behind Myles this year. I'm playing my role, seeing how the season plays out. I know it's his last year, so I have to step up next year. I have to get that starting spot when he leaves."