PITTSBURGH (AP) — There was a time when Ejuan Price wondered if his college career would ever end.
Now that it’s fast approaching after six seasons, three different head coaches, a position change, one college degree earned and another on the way, the Pittsburgh defensive end almost doesn’t want to cross the finish line.
That’s understandable. The Panthers are competitive, his NFL draft stock is rising and the 23-year-old is seventh in the country in tackles for loss and 12th in sacks.
But he isn’t the only late bloomer making an impact across the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Well-traveled Syracuse wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo has turned out to be a perfect fit in head coach Dino Babers’ uptempo offense. The Maryland graduate transfer leads the ACC and ranks in the top 10 nationally in receiving yards (1,246), receiving yards per game (124.6) and receptions per game (7.9). He’s also second in the league with eight TD receptions and his 79 catches are tied for fifth in the country and he most among Power 5 receivers.
“Amba has been outstanding,” Babers said. “He’s been a pleasant surprise. Obviously, we had no idea he’d be able to do the things that he’s done.”
North Carolina senior receiver Bug Howard is suddenly in a much larger role since top deep threat Mack Hollins was lost for the season with a broken collarbone. Howard has had some good moments as part of four-receiver sets in 2015 and caught the winning touchdown with 2 seconds left to cap a wild comeback win against Price and Pitt in September.
Howard — now wearing Hollins’ No. 13 in his teammate’s honor — was just getting started. He had 10 catches for 156 yards at Miami in the game Hollins was injured, had seven catches for 109 yards with a score against Virginia then had six catches for 120 yards and another TD against Georgia Tech. His streak of 100-yard receiving games ended at three in last week’s loss at Duke, though he still had a TD catch there, too.
The 6-foot-5 target whose pet peeve is being mistaken for a player on the Tar Heel basketball team is finally living up to his massive potential. He already has a career-best 45 receptions with at least three games left to play. The NFL isn’t out of reach either. The way Howard boxed out Pitt’s Ryan Lewis for the clinching score on Sept. 24 showcased the kind of ball skills that would translate well at the next level.
It’s a destination that might be in reach for Price too, one he doubted would materialize at times during his star-crossed career at Pitt. He’s been around so long he originally signed at Ohio State when Jim Tressel was the Buckeyes’ coach before flipping to the hometown Panthers when Tressel stepped down that spring.
Price is one of the emotional leaders for the surprising Panthers (6-4, 3-3 ACC) heading into their game against Duke on Saturday.
Price made an immediate splash with the Panthers, collecting four sacks as a true freshman for Todd Graham in 2011. Then Graham left and a pectoral injury in 2012 forced Price to take a medical redshirt. New coach Paul Chryst moved Price to defensive end in 2013, intrigued by the explosiveness in Price’s 6-foot, 255-pound frame. The experiment lasted all of six games before a back issue shelved Price yet again and he didn’t play a snap in 2014 after tearing a left pectoral muscle during the offseason that required surgery.
He tried to keep his spirits up during the long layoff, it wasn’t easy when he was unsure about the payoff at the end.
“It’s easy to be motivated for a couple days,” Price said. “But do it over and over and over and over, you’ve got to find a reason to stick with it.”
So the player teammate Brian O’Neill likened to a “Steady Eddie” because of his relentlessness learned to train his mind as well as his body. Price knew he could be a force if he stuck with it. The reprieve came last fall. Finally healthy and emboldened by new coach Pat Narduzzi — the program’s third coach in four years — to get to the quarterback, Price picked up 11.5 sacks while earning first-team All-ACC honors even though he hardly fits the mold of prototypical defensive end.
“He can bull rush you,” O’Neill said. “He’s so low. You see how low he can get, how he gets leverage. That’s how he uses his height to his advantage.”
In February the NCAA granted Price a rare sixth year of eligibility. He picked up his degree in communications last spring and is currently working on one in administration of justice, fitting for a player whose long journey appears headed for a happy ending.
“All the blemishes in my past that got kind of looked down upon,” Price said, “I’m thanking god for putting me in that position.”
AP Sports Writers John Kekis in Syracuse, New York and Aaron Beard in Raleigh, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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