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Seasoned Pitt embracing change yet again

4/9/2015

PITTSBURGH -- K.K. Mosley-Smith had little time to feel sorry for himself. As a fifth-year Pitt senior, the defensive lineman had been through this routine before. Three times, in fact. He had pledged to Dave Wannstedt, who was fired five months after the commitment, and he had played as a freshman under Todd Graham, who bolted for Arizona State. Finally, with Paul Chryst aboard, there was some stability. Which in this case meant three whole years.

"At this point when it happened this year, this time it really was like a jaw-dropper," Mosley-Smith said. "I was like, 'there's no way that this is really going on again,' and sure enough it happened again."

Chryst left in December for Wisconsin, his alma mater. Pat Narduzzi was hired from Michigan State. The constant turnover -- which doesn't even include the 2.5-week tenure of Mike Haywood, who was hired and fired between Wannstedt's firing and Graham's hiring -- weighed on the locker room, but Mosley-Smith knew the onus fell on him to keep the ship steady, to abide by whatever the new regime ordered.

"I stay positive, and try to keep the guys around me positive, my teammates, the younger guys, because they've never been through anything like this," Mosley-Smith said. "And you get questions like, 'Well, is it going to keep happening?' You can't predict the future, but you just try to keep those guys positive."

For their part, Narduzzi and his staff have not exactly had to reinvent the wheel. Chryst was hired elsewhere, after all, not fired. The Panthers went just 6-7 last season, but they return arguably the ACC's two-best skill position players -- James Conner and Tyler Boyd -- and they have a first-time head coach who had been patiently waiting for an opportunity like this one, rather than jumping to the first suitor who called his name.

All things considered, the honeymoon has been a success so far, with Pitt's spring game nine days away.

"Kids want discipline, I think," Narduzzi said. "I think they're looking for change, too. They don't want to win six games. They want to be a champion, I hope. At least those are the type of guys we want playing for us. If they don't want that then we obviously have a big problem that we need to fix. So I think kids want discipline, they want to win championships, and that's all we're doing is trying to pull it out of them. You're not coming in going, 'how do we play touchy-feely with this situation?' We're not doing that at all. We're going in there full-force and hoping they buy in."

That started with early morning winter workouts, what the staff referred to as "winning the fourth quarter." The Panthers were 18 points away from an 11-win campaign last season. Though games cannot be won at 4:30 a.m. in the dead of winter, the coaches reasoned, they can certainly be lost.

"If you treat people the right way, you can go in and make them work their tail off without dog cussing them," Narduzzi said. "There's none of that. We're positive coaches and looking at the positive part of it. Even (if) you get a losing grade, we're going talk to them about, 'Hey, why are you losing?' We're pushing through that workout. You can be awful the first couple stations, but as it goes on the coaches are talking to them, they can see they're not getting it."

The extra discipline has been welcomed in the most important corners, particularly the backfield.

Conner is the reigning ACC player of the year after a standout sophomore campaign. He might be a rookie when it comes to adjusting to a new staff, but he has been humbled by it, which he knows is only a good thing.

"It's a little different because Coach Chryst and Coach (Joe) Rudolph, those were the guys who gave me my scholarship, the guys who recruited me, and for [a] new guy to come in it's a little different, but I think it's for the best actually for me," Conner said. "I look at it like I'm a freshman again, trying to earn a position, trying to prove a point, and so that helps me stay grounded because some people get satisfied after winning major awards. I think everything happens for a reason, so I think it's for the best."

Mosley-Smith knows he will only be better off, having endured so much change and so many questions. Being a local kid has helped with the stability aspect, he says. That, along with his tenure here, was an advantage that he knew many others in the program lacked.

"That's exactly how I took it," Mosley-Smith said. "You go to the locker room and you get a lot of guys just asking you questions. You're getting texts like, 'What should I do?' I just tell them, 'You got stick it out, what's right, fight for it. It's going to be a fight. We're new to them and they're new to us.'"