Cambridge (MA) Buckingham Browne & Nichols High School tight end / H-back Jay Symonds (6-foot-4 inches, 257 pounds) verbally committed to Pitt last Thursday. He became for the first recruit to join the class of 2018. Symonds chose the Panthers over offers from Boston College, Temple, Brown, Dartmouth and Massachusetts.
Symonds is an old school, physical tight end / H-back with surprisingly soft hands. He plays with a mean disposition and toughness on the field. When you’re asking a young man to eventually replace fullback George Aston, arguably one of the toughest players in the ACC conference, you have to be tough. Watching Symonds film, he will remind many fans of a younger J.P. Holtz (currently with the Cleveland Browns).
Symonds is cognizant that he’s the first 2018 player to commit to Pitt. This puts him in a bit of a leadership position for his recruiting class. He told Pittsburgh Sports Now, “I’m going to try my best to promote Pitt hard and whenever I have the opportunity to sell the football program to another player, I’m going to be doing it.”
To gain perspective on Symonds both on and off the field, I spoke with his head coach, Mike Willey.
Harry Psaros: Could you please expound on Symonds progression through your program. How did he develop into a D1 player?
Coach Mike Willey: Jay is definitely a unique player, a great, great player, but he’s had a long journey with us. He’s actually started on our varsity as an eighth-grader. He was a starter as an eighth-grader at wide out. He developed a lot as a player and in the weight room and the off seasons, all those sort of things and worked into more of his natural position for us.
Our program is a bit different. We run with a bunch of tight ends. We use the fullback and move a lot guys. We try to do a lot of that kind of stuff on offense, which is different than a lot of high school and college programs now. We thought he could fit in to our H, what we call H-back, and he can do some tight end things. He can do some wide receiver things. He can do some fullback things.
That kind of position for us is really important for what we try to do offensively, so Jay’s kind of a perfect fit for that now. He was never small, but he was 180 pounds, 6-foot-1 inches or 6-foot-2 inches wide receiver as an eighth-grader, and then just did all the work to create himself or to make himself into an H-back.
HP: What makes Jay standout on the football field? What are his strengths?
MW: Jay’s a tough guy. Again, like I think a lot of football coaches pride themselves on being tough, tough programs and having hard-nosed kids, and we do the same. I think we’ve had some pretty tough players, and we’ve had some pretty successful college players, but Jay’s one of the tougher guys. He’s hard-nosed. He’s a hammerhead. He’s the hammer, not the nail. He’s a guy that we use to lead block, we use to move and lead plays.
We use him in many different ways because of his unique skill set that includes he’s got great hands. He’s got great ball skills, but he’s also a really tough, tough guy. I think Pitt’s getting a guy that’s tough. He’s not afraid of contact. That’s for sure. He’s initiating a lot. He’s out there playing hard and physical every single play. We’ve played him on offense. We’ve played him on defense. We’ve played him at nose guard at times because we thought he could just really get after the center, get a good pass rush, stop the run and all that sort of thing. He’s played everything for us, and I think that talks to his toughness.
HP: What’s Jay’s demeanor like off the field? Is he a “lead by example” player or exceptionally vocal in the locker room?
MW: Jay is a quiet kid by nature, definitely a quiet kid by nature, but he’s also one of our hardest workers. He’s one of our toughest guys. He’s our most experienced player. He’s coming into his senior year as a four-year starter, so he’s elected captain by his peers to lead the team, be one of the leaders on the team. We talk a lot about leadership and what leadership means.
You don’t have to be the most vocal guy, which Jay is never going to be the most vocal guy, but you do have to hold your teammates accountable. We shy away from the term leading by example. We really do shy away from that, and that’s just a philosophical thing here … we talk about, “You need to hold people to the standard. You need to hold people accountable, and that’s part of leadership.”
He carries a lot of weight when he says, “Hey, man, we need to get the show going,” or “We need to work hard at this. We’ve got to improve that,” or “Come on, we’ve got to keep our heads up and keep going,” whatever it is because he’s built so much credibility, right?
We talk about, “You have to come from a space of credibility, or who’s going to listen to you,” right, so, “Doing your job is understanding you’re holding yourself to the standard. You have to do that before you can hold anyone else to the standard.” He just really does hold himself to such a high standard that he’s built credibility so he can hold people accountable. That’s how leadership works in our program, and he’s one of those guys.
HP: Pitt tight ends Coach Tim Salem was Symonds’ lead recruiter. What was your experience dealing with him and the Pitt football staff?
MW: Coach Salem’s great. He’s done a really nice job. I think in the national football recruiting world, I don’t think the Northeast, right, is a huge spot, but I think there’s some really good players. I think Jay is one of them. We’ve actually had in our program some pretty good players, so it’s a hidden gem where you can find some really good football players. Coach Salem did a great job, I think. They were nothing but professional with Jay, nothing but nice with Jay, great with me, kept me updated. I think they did a great job recruiting this kid. I think that’s a big part of it.
HP: Can Symonds contribute as a true freshman?
MW: Those are great questions, but that’s up to the Pitt staff. They do a great job. What we talk about with our guys is, with all of our guys that go off to college to play football it’s like, “Hey, you have to be ready, and what you need to do is make yourself as ready as possible.” What does that mean? “Well, do everything you can in the weight room, everything you can on the track. Get absolutely ready for when your number is called, and when your number is called, you need to perform.” That’s the business that they’re in.
We talk about, “What’s in your control? What’s out of our control? When your opportunity is going to come to you, that’s out of your control. That’s the coach’s decision. Those are outside of what you can control, so what you can control, though, is how ready you are for when you’re called upon.
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