Fitzgerald shows skill beyond his years, peers

Pittsburgh sophomore is top receiver in nation

National notebook

November 07, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald probably won't win the Heisman Trophy this season.

He's a sophomore, and the award for college football's best player traditionally goes to juniors or seniors. He's also a wide receiver, which poses another problem because throwing and running the ball have always seemed to be a prerequisite among the voters.

But that doesn't mean Fitzgerald shouldn't win.

Fitzgerald's 60 catches for 1,174 yards and 16 touchdowns lead the nation. His 14 straight games with at least one touchdown catch broke an NCAA record last week.

"The Heisman - what's that?" Fitzgerald joked during a teleconference this week. "I try not to look at it too much. It's not something that's important to me. ... My main focus and goal is to help this team win a championship. As of now, Virginia Tech is the only thing I'm thinking about."

Losses at Toledo and to Notre Dame eliminated any Bowl Championship Series possibilities for the Panthers, but they still have a chance to win the Big East title. Currently ranked 25th, Pitt plays host to No. 5 Virginia Tech tomorrow.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound wide-out, who chose Pitt over Ohio State and Michigan State, made an immediate impact last year: 69 receptions for 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns.

"Before he came, Coach [Walt Harris] was saying how good he was, but I don't think anyone expected him to have so much success as soon as he did," said quarterback Rod Rutherford.

Fitzgerald's accomplishments have come during a difficult time. Last spring, his mother, Carol, died of cancer. A teammate, receiver Billy Gaines of Urbana, died in the summer after a fall through the ceiling of a church attic.

"Football, during the season and after the season when everything was happening, it was like my outlet, my safe haven from everything," Fitzgerald said. "It kind of deflected the pain and suffering I was going through at the time. That was where I felt comfortable."

Perhaps Fitzgerald's most useful natural talent is his ability to jump over cornerbacks. He said his vertical leap was measured to be 39 inches.

"Ever since I've been a little kid, that's been the play - `Throw it up to Larry' in the end zone or downfield - throw it in the air," Fitzgerald said. "I just think I have great timing and have a good nose for where the ball is going to be at."

If Fitzgerald manages to jump ahead of the current favorite, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White, to win the Heisman, he'll likely thank a lot of people. At the top of the list will be his mother.

Against the wishes of her husband, Larry Sr., Carol Fitzgerald signed her two sons up to play pee-wee football in Minneapolis. But it was through his father, a sportswriter for the city's African-American newspaper, that Fitzgerald met Vikings receiver Cris Carter, who became something of a mentor.

Said Pitt receivers coach J.D. Brookhart, a former NFL assistant with the Denver Broncos: "He's really a combination of a lot of players. The person he most reminds you of is Cris Carter because of the really unique ball skill he possesses."

Two-headed monster

Craig Krenzel is 21-2 as a starter over the past two years, but after leading Ohio State to a national championship last season, he is in a difficult position: sharing the job with fellow fifth-year senior Scott McMullen.

Part of coach Jim Tressel's decision to use both quarterbacks tomorrow against Michigan State stems from Krenzel's mild concussion suffered in last week's 21-20 victory at Penn State. Part of it was to reward McMullen, who led the Buckeyes on two touchdown drives.

"I think it's a touchy situation; I've never been a fan of a two-quarterback system," Krenzel said. "If you are a coach and you have a guy and you think he deserves to be getting some playing time, then that's the guy you go with."

Spurrier's rumors

With every defeat of his Washington Redskins, the chances of Steve Spurrier returning to college coaching become more distinct. Though Spurrier says he plans to stick it out at least through the end of next season, don't be surprised to see him flinging his visor in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004.

Most would figure on Duke, where Spurrier coached with great success in the 1980s and where Carl Franks was fired last month. But a stronger possibility is North Carolina. The Tar Heels could offer everything Spurrier needs to be successful and one he needs to be happy - great golf courses nearby.

No one in an official capacity in Chapel Hill is talking about John Bunting's tenuous status, but the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech next season makes the ACC more attractive.

The Associated Press and other news organizations contributed to this article.

Three games to watch

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