Once overlooked, now-healthy Ejuan Price makes huge impact for Pitt

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ejuan Price is going to own it. Not the line of scrimmage, though the Pittsburgh defensive end routinely takes command of that moments after the snap on Saturdays.

He owns his short stature, a deviance from the 6-foot-3 defensive end archetype. Some coaches and players will liberally embellish height and weight information, which can make the weigh-in at the NFL combine into its own fact-finding inquiry.

“People call me short because I am short,” said Price, who accepts his 5-foot-11 frame. “I keep it straightforward with people. I’m done growing so I’m just going to own it.”

He rejects that he’s small. That implies the sixth-year, 250-pound senior isn’t strong.

“I feel like I’m not tall, but I’m strong enough to do everything I need to do,” Price said.

That includes swiftly breaking down offensive tackles to rush the quarterback, and no ACC player finished with more sacks per game than Price’s 0.89. His 11.5 sacks ranked third in the conference, but both defensive ends ahead of him played two more games.

At 5-11, Price feels he has an advantage as he’s quicker and can generate better leverage than a 6-5 offensive tackle. At his weight, he said he can still play the run as well as bigger defensive ends.

“Some of the best players I ever coached were this big,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, closing the gap between his thumb and index finger. “People get all caught up in size and will say he’s not tall enough. Aaron Donald? Not real tall. [Elvis] Dumervil? Not real tall.

“You can’t measure that size in him,” he adds, thumping his chest. “He’s a football player.”

When Narduzzi arrived before the start of last season, there was no tape of Price to watch. He wasn’t the undersized defensive end but the oft-injured one.

As a true freshman in 2011, Price played in every game -- he started five -- and recorded four sacks. He then tore a pectoral muscle in 2012 and missed the season. He played in six games in 2013 before a back injury sidelined him the rest of the season, and he tore his other pectoral muscle before the 2014 season.

“We have a pingpong table at the facility,” Price said, “and me and that pingpong table spent a lot of time together. I’m definitely top five on the team now.”

After an All-ACC season, the affable Price can laugh about it, but he reached his low point after the 2014 injury. It was his third major setback in the last three seasons, and he returned from the back injury in the best shape since he arrived at Pitt.

When he received word from the doctors he tore his pectoral again, he went numb for 24 hours. Once the realization of another season lost dawned on him, Price isolated himself in his room.

“He’s a jokester and laughs about everything. He’s hilarious,” Michelle, his mother, said. “He was quiet for some time [after the injury]. That was him refocusing.”

Giving up on football wasn’t an option. Price was too dedicated to his teammates to quit after three draining seasons.

Narduzzi, in his first season at Pitt, told his new team early on he wasn’t coming in with any preconceived notions. Everybody was on a clean slate. Of course he heard from those within the complex that Price was injury prone, but Narduzzi waited to make his own assessment.

“I said ‘You’re not going to get hurt. We’re going tough through some things, and you’re going to be fine. Just play ball and have fun doing it,'" Narduzzi said.

Narduzzi’s faith was rewarded, and if Price duplicates his 11.5 sacks from a season ago, he’ll move into fifth on Pitt’s career sacks list with 27. He’s intensely focused on following up his breakout season, so much so he couldn’t even tell his mother during a recent phone call what time the following day’s practice started. He wanted her to come watch, but he wasn’t going to get caught looking ahead whether it was tomorrow’s practice or an early September stretch that includes Penn State and Oklahoma State on consecutive weekends.

“When you step on that field,” Price said, “you better be ready.”

He’ll be healthy, too.