Dontez Ford, Pitt receivers becoming more reliable

They're from the same family and play the same position and boast the same frame, but Dontez Ford and his cousin are very different receivers.

Ford, Pitt's 6-foot-2, 205-pound redshirt junior, has always thought of himself as a physical wideout, never shy to take on defensive backs and help someone else break off a long play. His cousin, current NFL free agent Toney Clemons, has used his 6-foot-2, 205-pound stature to blow by defenders at the college level with Colorado and get drafted by the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers, in the seventh round in 2012.

With plenty of throws to be caught for the Panthers this spring, Ford has relied on Clemons more than usual lately, texting him regularly for tidbits on how to become a bigger threat in Pitt's passing game.

"He has a different style of play," Ford said. "I feel like he's a faster guy, and he has more of a finesse game, but I just feel like I want to bring that type of game into what I do. I've been talking to him a lot recently and just taking little tips and advice on how I can work on my craft and become a better receiver."

This is welcome news to a Panthers aerial attack that became overly reliant on Tyler Boyd last season. Defenses know what the junior sensation is capable of after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. They'll also no longer overlook James Conner in the backfield, not after his ACC player of the year campaign in 2014.

So it is up to Ford and the other receivers to help diversify Pitt's offense. Ford has done his part so far this spring, drawing rave reviews from his new coaching staff after a number of big plays and, thus far, earning the inside track to start opposite Boyd come fall.

"He started to get better toward the end of the year last year, stepping up and making some plays," receivers coach Kevin Sherman said. "My goal for him this spring was the same thing: Just keep mastering your craft, learn the game, because we're trying to teach the game to these guys conceptually, not just position-wise."

Opportunity knocked down the stretch of 2014, with senior starter Manasseh Garner missing three games because of a foot injury and Ford earning extended action in his place. The audition gave him a confidence boost heading into winter workouts and spring ball, where he is now being relied on more than ever.

If that sounds like a bit much for someone with just three catches and 50 yards to his name, well, consider that Ford is the Panthers' leading returning wideout in 2015 not named Boyd. Returning tight end J.P. Holtz's 21 catches last year marked the closest any Pitt pass-catcher came to Boyd's 78 grabs, which overwhelmed a stat sheet with hardly any room to spare.

Ford and the majority of his fellow wideouts are cognizant of the perception of them out there as the other guys, and they know the onus is on them to change it.

"The way I see it, it is what it is," he said. "People on the outside are going to say things like that as much as they want, but what happens on the field between us is what happens. As long as we can get out there and win games, then that's what's most important to us, and part of that is other receivers contributing for us to win games.

So I'm just going to go out there and work and try to contribute as much as I can. It'll take more pressure off of him, it'll put more pressure on defenses because we'll have multiple weapons out there."

A Pittsburgh-area product who redshirted as a safety at Syracuse in 2012 before transferring, Ford is playing under his third different position coach in as many years with the Panthers. And Sherman, who came from Purdue, has presented a blueprint right up the alley of a receiver who takes as much pride in laying into a cornerback as he does breaking off a big gain.

"I want to turn a 10-yard gain into an 80-yard touchdown," Sherman said. "I want these guys to understand their job is to be a blocker as well. We want these guys to take pride and be a complete football player, catching the ball and learning reverses and things like that. But I want them to be a complete football player, because I think that just helps our football team."