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Conway Award winners could be key in 2017

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The Ed Conway Award, annually presented to the most improved players of spring camp, typically goes to depth chart pluggers, players who might finally be ready to break out of the realms below the two-deep and make an impact. Or, in some years, players who are poised to be starters for the first time.

But for 2017, the award went to a pair of players who have some starting time under their belts.

On offense, the most improved player was redshirt senior offensive tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith; on defense, it was redshirt junior linebacker Elijah Zeise.

Jones-Smith’s tale is one that has been determined by fate as much as anything. Two years ago, he was primed to be the starting right tackle, ready to take over for Matt Rotheram and bookend Pitt’s offensive line with Adam Bisnowaty. But in the summer of 2015, a freak accident left Jones-Smith with a knee injury that sidelined him for the season.

The coaches were in a bind trying to find a suitable replacement, so they opted for a position switch: they moved Brian O’Neill from tight end to offensive tackle. Two years and 26 starts later, O’Neill is seemingly on the verge of an All-ACC and potentially an All-America season at left tackle. His breakout success in 2015 while Jones-Smith was injured led to a locked-up starting job in 2016 - which meant Jones-Smith was a backup last season.

Now Jones-Smith is ready to step into the role he earned two years ago; this time he’ll be bookending Pitt’s line with O’Neill, and given his performance this spring, the Pitt coaches are optimistic about how Jones-Smith will perform in that spot.

“He came back last year after that traumatic knee injury,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said after Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, “and I don’t think he missed a day of practice but he wasn’t right. He wasn’t 100%. There was something, something about the strength of it. I don’t know where it was; I couldn’t pinpoint it.

“But he has come back and he’s like a totally different guy. It just took time. That’s about as bad a knee injury as you can have, what he had. And he’s back. He’s back to normal.”

Jones-Smith’s return to full strength helps an offensive line group dealing with the losses of Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson, two soon-to-be NFL linemen who anchored the left side of Pitt’s line in 2016. To replace them, Pitt will move O’Neill from right tackle to left tackle, a move made more successful by having Jones-Smith to step in an replace O’Neill.

Zeise is also coming back from an injury. He was hurt in the season opener against Villanova last year, going down in the first quarter with an ankle injury and missing every game until the bowl, when he got a few snaps on special teams. Before he got hurt, though, he was one of the surprises in training camp; he came to Pitt as a wide receiver and didn’t move to linebacker until last spring, but despite having less than six months of experience playing the position, he won the starting job at Star linebacker.

“I think he just continues to learn,” linebackers coach Rob Harley said after the Blue-Gold Game. “A big word we have in our team room is ‘knowledge’ and he continues to increase his knowledge. And that’s a big jump (from receiver to linebacker). That’s a big jump. Yeah, he played linebacker and safety in high school, but it’s a big jump coming to Division I and having to do that and he’s done it at a high level and he’s competed.

“He was going to be our starter last year - at least be in the mix to start; we were going to rotate guys - and he has continued to learn. And he’s even moved positions again; he’s gone into the boundary ‘backer spot - very similar, they have the same rules, but for him, coming from wideout, it’s like a whole new world and he’s done a great job. We will be very glad to have him back for the entire season.”

Zeise grew in the offseason while recovering from his ankle injury, getting close to 240 pounds but keeping his athleticism. And by all accounts - as the Conway Award indicates - he was playing well this spring. But he suffered another injury in the final scrimmage of camp that shouldn’t cost him any time this season but did cause him to miss the Blue-Gold Game.

“He just came out and he stormed,” Narduzzi said. “You didn’t get to see him [in the Blue-Gold Game] because we held him, but he had a heck of a scrimmage [two weeks ago] and it was unfortunate - he’s gotten rolled up a couple times. We just have to keep him healthy. But he’s huge, he’s playing well and he understands the game of football.”

Harley said that Zeise has been adding a knowledge of the Money linebacker position to his arsenal after learning the Star spot last year, and the redshirt junior from North Allegheny could potentially play either outside linebacker position this season. If that’s the case, then Zeise could find himself once again in direct competition with another former Tiger: redshirt junior Oluwaseun Idowu, who took over as the starting Star last year after Zeise’s injury.

Idowu is well familiar with Zeise from their time together in high school, and while they may be in competition this summer, Idowu has been impressed with his current and former teammate.

“He got a little bit more dog in him, you know what I’m saying?” Idowu said of Zeise. “He’s got a little more dog in him. He’s getting at guys, making big hits, big plays, stuff like that. All I knew when he was in high school, and you can ask anybody there, they’d say the same thing that he was a grinder. He was a guy who always just worked hard. Whatever he needed to do, he worked on it, and that’s what he did here. No surprise there.”