Mike Caprara was overlooked on the recruiting trail. He was overlooked after he arrived at Pittsburgh for three long, sometimes frustrating seasons.
Head coach Pat Narduzzi came into the picture in late December.
Now Caprara is overlooked no more. Caprara has been a key cog in the defensive resurgence the Panthers have had this season, playing all three linebacker positions while coming up with several crucial plays in big wins during the last few weeks.
Caprara has 21 tackles (six for loss), two sacks, an interception and a safety headed into Saturday’s game against Syracuse. This is the same player who went into 2015 with five career tackles in two seasons.
“When he first got here, everybody kind of wrote him off like, he can't play,” Narduzzi said. “That's what we've done for years where I've been. I love coaching the guy that they say can’t play.”
Consider it a mutual admiration society, because Caprara loves playing for Narduzzi, a coach with proven results everywhere he has been. Truth be told, Caprara was starting to wonder whether he would ever play.
As a senior at Woodland Hills High School in Western Pennsylvania, Caprara finished as the school’s all-time leading tackler. But scholarship offers were slow to come, mostly because of his size. He is listed at 6 feet on the roster, but most would agree that is being generous.
Caprara stayed patient, believing an offer would come. He waved off smaller schools, waiting and hoping. Finally, Pitt offered a scholarship a month before signing day and he committed. But once he arrived, he didn’t quite fit in with the complex schemes the Panthers were running.
Two different defensive coordinators and multiple scheme shifts only made matters worse. Caprara played on special teams, but he only played in four games on defense last year. When coach Paul Chryst left for Wisconsin and Narduzzi was hired to replace him, Caprara’s heart had to be doing flips.
After just a few meetings, Caprara felt invigorated. The biggest surprise? The simplicity of the scheme.
“Once I got down one position, it was easier to pick up more and more positions,” Caprara said in a recent phone interview. “Before spring ended, I knew all three, and then going into camp this year I played all three. From there, I can say it was really exciting learning it all.”
For a player like Caprara, who relies much more on instinct than his size, playing in a simpler scheme gave him an opportunity to play free and loose. Big plays, such as a sack in the end zone for a safety against Virginia, followed. He had five tackles (two for loss) against the Cavaliers. Before that against Virginia Tech, he had a game-ending interception and 9-yard sack.
“In past systems, we’ve had to read so many things and there were too many roles where you couldn’t just be a football player. You had to be in a certain gap at this time. You had to be in this certain area. You had to put hands on somebody,” Caprara said. "With Coach Narduzzi’s defense, you just have an alignment, an assignment, you read a certain key and you just react. That’s a unique thing because a lot of other defenses, it’s all specific and really detailed parts. It’s not necessarily the same situation with Coach Narduzzi’s defense.”
There’s a reason for that.
“If you look at all the backfield sets, formations, motions, and the different runs and pass plays you're going to get out of an offense, how can you have so much defense that you can't possibly coach up all those defenses and fit them all up run-wise and pass-wise and expect your kids to play fast and then blame them when it's not good?” Narduzzi said. “A 20-hour workweek, you can't get half of it in if you play three fronts and 10 coverages. We've got a unique system, I think, that works for us and gives kids abilities to make plays.”
Caprara’s success has been made even more gratifying for those who know him best because of the impact he has made off the field. For three straight springs, Caprara has done mission work in Haiti, helping young children at orphanages.
Last spring he organized the entire trip for 13 Pitt student-athletes, including six football players.
“It’s fun to go out and reach out to the people who don’t have as much as you, but most of them have stronger faith than you and that’s something that pulls me back there every time,” Caprara said. “It’s really unique to see kids who don’t have much, but they thank God every day that they have God, and that’s it.”
Caprara always has been grateful for what he has, too. There might just be a little more to be thankful for this year.