Panther-lair - Aston returns to role as the Swiss Army knife
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Aston returns to role as the Swiss Army knife

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George Aston had a pretty simple answer when he was asked on Tuesday if he gets vocal as a leader for Pitt’s offense.

“When needed.”

And yet that simple answer could apply to any number of questions someone might want to ask of the Pitt redshirt senior. You could ask, for instance, if Aston plays fullback.

“When needed.” (That would fit as a response.)

Does he play tight end?

“When needed.” (It fits again.)

How about running back?

“When needed.” (And again.)

Wide receiver?

“When needed.”

Even receiver, according to Pitt assistant Andre Powell, who is the running backs coach but gets Aston in his group.

“George can play the fullback position, he can play the tight end position, he’s got good ball skills, he can play a receiver’s position, he can line up at receiver and motion in the backfield and play fullback, play tight end; he can do a lot of different things,” Powell said this week. “He’s like a Swiss Army knife.”

Now the Swiss Army knife is back for Pitt. Aston missed effectively all of 2017 while dealing with a training camp injury, eliminating the encore to his breakout season in 2016 when he scored 10 touchdowns in true Swiss Army knife fashion, with five rushing and five receiving.

Aston was one of eight players in the country - and just five in FBS conferences - who had at least five rushing and five receiving touchdowns in 2016, and only one player hit that mark in 2017. So it’s somewhat rarified air, but it’s what Aston does:

He scored rushing touchdowns “when needed” and he scored receiving touchdowns “when needed.”

What Aston needed, though, was to be on the field with his teammates, which he’s getting a chance to do this spring. As he continues to recover from the injury that claimed his 2017 season - Aston says he’s “about 100% now,” but Powell says he’s “not 100% back yet” - the former walk-on is looking forward to helping Pitt improve on last year’s 5-7 record, which he had to watch from the sidelines.

“It’s already bad enough to not be able to be out there with my guys, but how the season played out, that probably made it a lot worse,” Aston said Tuesday.

“It’s always great to play football, especially coming off a year like that. Just being able to come out here and play is the best feeling ever.”

For the coaching staff, getting Aston back doesn’t just mean returning one of the most productive weapons from 2016’s ultra-productive offense; it means getting back a player who sets a tone for the rest of the offense.

“Practice is a lot different when George is around,” Powell said. “It sounds different. It moves quicker. It’s normally more productive when he’s around.”

“George, he’s the energy,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said last week. “He’s the energy bus. Besides being a good football player, those things, and being tough, I think he brings guys together. Having him in that huddle, there’s a lot of things we can do offensively. He’s a difference-maker.”