We knew coming into the season that Paul Chryst's offense would rely a lot on tight ends, both for blocking and pass-catching. With a veteran like Hubie Graham and a raw talent like Drew Carswell at the position, it seemed pretty well set up for a good year. The dark horse coming into training camp was freshman JP Holtz. It was obvious early in camp that Holtz had the physical tools to play Division I (the most frequent comment about him was, "He's a freshman?!") but he played mostly running back during his career at Shaler, and blocking, a critical component to playing tight end, was new to him.
"He was definitely newer at it," offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Joe Rudolph said. "Just getting in a three-point stance, the whole thing was kind of new. He’s made a lot of strides."
Holtz credited Rudolph with his development.
"Coach Rudolph’s a great coach. If it wasn’t for him, I’d be a horrible blocker," Holtz said.
Rudolph credit his freshman tight end with a fearless attitude, something that makes him a lot easier to coach.
"That’s what you appreciate about him from day one," Rudolph said. "He wasn’t going to shy away from the contact or the physical nature, because it is taking a step from high school. That was something he had great confidence in. You don’t always get that."
Holtz said his blocking is the area he has improved most since the beginning of the season. With Graham missing three games (and parts of others) with injuries, Holtz's versatility has been absolutely necessary for an offense that employs a lot of two-TE packages, usually with Holtz and Carswell.
"I used to get really nervous. My first start, before Virginia Tech, I was really nervous and I didn’t know what to do," Holtz said. "Now, it’s just another game. It’s the same thing each day."
The passing game with Holtz has been a bit more hit and miss. He had a 20-yard reception in the first game against Youngstown State (that likely would have gone for a touchdown had he not stumbled). He didn't have any more receptions until one against Syracuse when he had one 15-yarder. He caught his first career touchdown pass on an 18-yarder against Temple, and had his best career receiving game the next week against Notre Dame.
He had three catches against the Irish, one on a beautiful 43-yard TE screen pass and a nine-yard touchdown catch on the next play that put Pitt up 17-6 at the time.
"It was a really good experience, scoring there," Holtz said. "I still wish we would have won that game, but definitely scoring a touchdown was a good experience at Notre Dame."
Rudolph said the inconsistent receiving numbers from Holtz were more a product of the way Pitt's gameplans have been playing out. Usually, tight end receptions are the result of successful playaction passes. When Pitt is running the ball well (as it did against Notre Dame, for example) the playaction can open things up down the field for the tight end.
"You’re not going to draw up the perfect pass play to throw to that 250-pounder all the time, but if you’re running the ball well, the playaction’s are awesome and you can work those," Rudolph said. "You can put some things in formationally, and that’s why they’re all fighting with each other to be on the field. If it’s a run and it’s successful, it’s a formation that’s good, chances are you’re going to be out there and get a chance to fight again."