PITTSBURGH — When Daniel Carter plunged into the end zone at Heinz Field Saturday for the second time, it was his first time scoring twice in the same game since his senior season at St. Thomas Aquinas in 2018.
Pitt’s 2022 offensive Ed Conway Award winner was a workhorse in 2018 for St. Thomas Aquinas, rushing for 1,085 yards and 20 touchdowns on just 134 carries en route to a Florida Class-7A state championship appearance. It hasn’t been the same usage since he arrived at Pitt as a three-star running back a few months later, but he’s adapted to life as a blocker. And Saturday’s game may have opened some eyes.
“I just feel like last year, taking a step back and trying to help (Abanikanda, Hammond and Davis), just when my number was called, just doing the right thing and making a play,” Carter said. “Definitely coming into the spring, I’m trying to have a little more of a role this year.”
It’s mission accomplished for Carter this spring. He won the Conway Award as Pitt’s most improved spring player and he scored both touchdowns in the 2022 Blue-Gold Spring Game. And his versatility and understanding of the offense are a big weapon for Pitt.
“Definitely being versatile, showing that I can block and run the ball and pass block and definitely getting the offense down pat is a really big step for me, and I’m showing the coaches that you can test me with the all in my hands,” Carter said.
However, Carter wasn’t Pitt’s only Conway Award winner on the field Saturday, and he wasn’t the only Conway Award winner to show out this spring.
Bangally Kamara, who earned Pitt’s 2022 defensive Ed Conway Award, came out Saturday and recorded two tackles (one solo), 1.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks — and as he dropped back into coverage, he showed an added level of fluidity. It was the perfect showing for one of Pitt’s most improved players.
“Being out there today was definitely really fun, just to see how it feels to be on that field, and we already knew it was coming so, we were very prepared,” Kamara said. “It wasn’t like I was shocked to be out there, it was something that I’ve planned for and I feel like I was being matured to be by all the coaches.”
Kamara, who didn’t compete in spring ball last season, watched Johnny Petrishen win last season’s Conway Award and turn that into a strong season. “I knew when I came back, I said, ‘That’s the award I’m aiming for that spring because I know that’s given to the most improved player,'” Kamara said.
After an offseason in which Kamara rose from a linebacker with potential to leading the pack at Money linebacker, solidifying himself as a true three-down linebacker, it was the spring that Petrishen earned last year. And it’s all come about because of Kamara’s growth not on the field but in his own mind.
“Athletically, I feel like I had it all,” Kamara said. “Mentally is really where I’ve improved, and the coaches — and I keep going back to the coaches because they always been on me, the hardest — they just pushed me to be better mentally, because I feel like athletically I had it. Mentally I needed to grow.”
The coaching staff — Randy Bates, Charlie Partridge and Ryan Manalac up front — have been difference-makers for Pitt’s defense and Kamara individually. The standard at Pitt is very high, especially on defense, and that all comes from the coaching staff at the top.
The 2022 season won’t be stepping up to meet any expectations, but it’s more of fulfilling the standard that has been reset by the 2021 team. And with Kamara’s strong spring, he’s just very happy and honored that the coaching staff has recognized his growth.
The growth between Carter and Kamara, and countless Pitt players this spring, has been huge, and for Carter, it’s just been learning new-OC Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense. His smarts — called the best in the room by RB coach Andre Powell — have allowed him to make strides this spring. Even if he’s a little bit sore after a strong spring game.
After originally being drafted by the Blue team, Carter played for both the Blue and Gold teams Saturday, and as he scored the touchdowns for both sides, he couldn’t help but play up both sides throughout the game.
“I was really rooting for Blue, but I’m on both sides, so I can’t really root too much,” Carter said. “But after the game when the Blue team lost, I gave them the L a little bit.”