Opportunity spurs Zeise to Star linebacker

Elijah Zeise made the move from wide receiver to linebacker Tuesday to add depth to an injured unit but also compete to start at the Star outside linebacker position.

Elijah Zeise woke up Tuesday morning and planned to head to Pitt's fourth spring practice. Nothing out of the ordinary for the wide receiver.

Then, he received a text message from head coach Pat Narduzzi telling him to come in to talk. The message came out of the blue, so much so that Zeise wondered if he was in trouble.

Instead, Narduzzi approached the redshirt sophomore with a chance for more playing time.

"I went [to him] and he told me he sees a real opportunity for me at linebacker and it’s basically up to me if I want to do it or not," Zeise said. "I said I’d give it a try."

The Panthers are short on outside linebackers in this spring camp with Bam Bradley and Anthony McKee out with injuries, but Zeise's switch appears to be permanent. Narduzzi believes he has a chance to start at Star linebacker come fall, and that the position change was motivated by nothing more than putting the best players on the field. 

"He’s got a nose for the football," Narduzzi said, "you watch him run down on kickoff when he does that. He’s got an opportunity to make plays so we’ll try it out. I think it’ll go well and I think he’ll like it."

Zeise said Narduzzi actually began to hint at a possible move to defense last season. Narduzzi even admitted Zeise took some reps at the position during practices leading up to the Military Bowl and he made tackles on three straight plays. Now in the spring, Zeise finally relented and it already seems as if the move will stick. 

"I’m going to try to be all-in with it because I think that would probably be the best way to do it," Zeise said. "If you’re going to do something, do it 100 percent. I don’t want to have to be thinking about receiver or plays, routes and stuff like that in the back of my head."

Linebackers coach Rob Harley said after practice Zeise grasped some of the early concepts "pretty easily" Tuesday

"We gave him the base rules and just said 'hey go, go play,'" Harley said. "He seemed to kind of pick up those innate skills of just where’s the ball and should, he’s a wide receiver, go find the football.

"That’s really what you tell him. You’re a wide receiver but just on the reversed end. Mirror everybody else and go find the ball."

Harley sees the biggest transition for Zeise coming not in learning the playbook and responsibilities of a linebacker, but bringing the "action" to the offense. This, as opposed to the defense coming at Zeise while he played offense. 

Zeise isn't completely new to playing defense as he played defensive back alongside wide receiver at North Allegheny High School. But the responsibilities vary between safety and linebacker. 

"Back when I played corner and safety I kind of saw the whole field and reacted to whatever was left past a certain yard line," Zeise said. "This you kind of have to read the tackles and you have to jam guys, be able to get out or get over top of the tackles at the line."

While he will technically play outside linebacker, the Star position in Narduzzi's defense is a hybrid between linebacker and safety in many respects. Pitt's middle and Money linebackers play more in the box and focus on stopping the run, but the Star plays mostly to the field and must tackle in space. 

Zeise's athleticism and speed make him a good fit for the position, but Harley and Narduzzi both pointed to his intelligence as another factor that helped them decide to pull the trigger on the move. Narduzzi cited the importance of knowledge from the minute he arrived at Pitt, and believes it won't be long before Zeise catches up to his fellow linebackers.

"He’s smart and coach Harley does a good job at linebacker," Narduzzi said. "I think with a little extra time he’ll be caught up here in a week and it will look like he hasn’t missed a beat."

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