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April 24, 2014

Conway winners are improved - and committed

The Ed Conway Award is presented annually to Pitt's most improved players of spring camp, and Paul Chryst said Wednesday that 2014's trio of recipients - T.J. Clemmings (offense), David Durham (defense) and Todd Thomas (special teams) - earned it not just for their improvement, but also for their commitment.

"I thought those three had a really good spring and also sent a great message to our guys of what we need and the kind of commitment and approach that we need," Chryst said during an ACC football coaches teleconference Wednesday. "So those three are very well-deserved."

Commitment was a key element for all three players, but Thomas represented more than that. Thomas was just the second player in the 40-year history of the Ed Conway Award to receive the recognition for special teams, and that recognition reflected the dedication of the coaching staff to improve in the "third phase" this spring.

"We thought we had to be better in special teams and special teams was a point of emphasis this spring," Chryst said. "We said, 'If we're going to get better, we're going to need everyone,' and what's better than a senior starting linebacker that just championed every bit of the special teams, as well as had a good spring at the linebacker spot? It sends the right message that, if we're going to get better at it, everyone's got to be all-in."

The combination of a focus on special teams and Thomas' approach to that side of the game - in addition to his work as starting weak-side linebacker - led the coaches to put his name on the list of Ed Conway Award winners.

"We knew going into the spring where we had to get better, our points of emphasis and areas of growth," Chryst said. "And I thought Todd did a lot of good stuff; I thought he got better as a linebacker and I loved the way he approached any of the times when we did special teams. He earned it on all fronts, and we wanted to reward someone or recognize someone that approached it the way that Todd did."

Clemmings became the third repeat recipient of the Ed Conway Award in Pitt history and the second to receive it in back-to-back seasons (offensive lineman Mike McGlynn received it in 2004 and 2005, while defensive lineman Tyrone Ezell did so in 2011 and 2013).

And Clemmings' development is crucial; he moved from defensive end to offensive tackle late in the 2012 season, so last spring was his first extended practice time at the position, after which he started all 13 games in 2013. To follow that with another spring camp that saw the coaches recognize him as the most improved player on offense is a boost to the offensive line and helps solidify the right side of the line with Clemmings at tackle and fellow redshirt senior Matt Rotheram at guard.

"I thought T.J. had a great spring from start to finish," Chryst said. "You see that growth in a guy that last year, I thought he did some good things, but was just gaining familiarity with the position. Now I think he's done a ton of work in the offseason and is truly confident in his knowledge and what to do, how to do it, and therefore was able to just play without thinking as much. And he's certainly an athletically-gifted player."

Durham is another player who has switched positions since arriving at Pitt in the summer of 2012 as a transfer from Ohio State. He joined the Panthers as a fullback but moved to defensive end while sitting out the 2012 season due to transfer eligibility rules. He appeared in 13 games last season and started 11, recording 21 tackles and .5 tackles for loss in the process. That productivity wasn't eye-opening, but the coaches were pleased with his progress this spring as he enters his redshirt senior season.

"He was doing anything to help us practice (during the ineligible season) but last year he settled into the position and he's a guy that I think is doing everything he can to have the best senior year possible," Chryst said. "I think he's a great example to all our players and he's got motor that doesn't stop."

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