By Abbey Way and Matt Popchock

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — With the regular season coming to and end on Saturday at South Florida it’s a time for all of the players to reflect upon the season, and, for the freshmen, to reflect upon the start of their collegiate careers.

When Shaler standout J.P. Holtz arrived at Pitt, he didn’t even know how to block. That changed abruptly.

Under the guidance of offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and injured teammate Hubie Graham, he quickly transitioned into a starting tight end. This season, the Panthers, paying closer attention to attrition, and given more help from Holtz, have cut their total sacks allowed by more than half from 2011 to 2012.

Furthermore, Holtz, as he did in high school, has demonstrated he can be an extra weapon for the passing game, recording nine catches for 152 yards and two TD’s, including one in a near-upset of BCS-bound Notre Dame.

“I thought I was going to be in a couple packages, but with everything with Hubie being hurt, I got the opportunity to start, and I like it a lot,” he said. “Playing with Hubie is really good because he teaches me, and keeps me in line, and makes sure I’m doing what I need to do on and off the field.”

Holtz said he used to get very nervous before the games, but now it hardly phases him to go up against high-profile teams like the Fighting Irish:

There is even less doubt that Hopewell sensation and PIAA all-time rushing champion Rushel Shell will be a big part of the future at Pitt.

He learned a lot this from the coaching staff and his teammates in this up-and-down first year, and he remains optimistic about the direction of the program, and his role within it.

“I feel like a lot of things get lifted off your shoulder you get the system down and the plays, you get to bond with your coaches and you know what gets them mad and what doesn’t,” Shell said. “There are a lot of things to take from this year, and just finish this year and get ready for next year.”

A powerful, prototypical downhill runner, the transition to the NCAA from the WPIAL, where, like Holtz, he earned all-conference and Big 33 selections in 2012, was a change of pace for Shell.

He found himself in a traffic jam of talent that included a now-healthy Ray Graham, and initially struggled in camp to adjust to the speed of the college game. But even as Graham led the Panthers’ ground attack for much of this year, Shell still found ways to be an impact player.

Entering Saturday, he has racked up 509 yards rushing, averaging nearly five per carry, and four touchdowns, while also catching nine passes for 103 yards. Like Holtz, pass protection has slowly become an area of improvement for him as well.

Some of the seniors, including Graham, spoke to the underclassmen recently about always working hard because it will all be over before they know it.

“They talked to us and said, ‘when I was a freshman I wish I would have done this and and that,’ and it just makes us see that we should take full advantage of it now, so we don’t look back and wish we would have done this or that,” Shell said.

He added that he can see some of those guys going harder this week than before with the careers coming to an end:

Kickoff between the Panthers and South Florida is set for 7:00 P.M. Saturday. Panther Preview, featuring Gregg Giannotti, begins that day at 4:00 P.M. on your flagship home for Pitt football, SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan.

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