Years before Dennis Pitta emerged as a clutch tight end for the Ravens routinely delivering acrobatic catches, he was an admittedly skinny high school wide receiver and cornerback.
Growing up in Moorpark, Calif., Pitta was a 6-foot-4, 185-pound Eagle Scout. He was also the proud owner of ambitious plans that outweighed his developing build.
"Everybody aspires to play in the NFL, and I wasn't any different," Pitta said. "I felt like I was a talented player in high school, but I was tall and skinny. I wasn't awkward, but football was very different than what it is for me now.
"It's been fun to evolve in football at two positions. It's obviously helped to have that receiver background throughout high school. Now, I get to do a lot of those same things with a little bigger frame and a lot better competition."
Since walking on at Brigham Young University nine years ago, Pitta has bulked up to 245 pounds through dedication to the weight room. It wasn't long before he switched from receiver to tight end and earned a scholarship.
After spending two years in the Dominican Republic serving a Mormon mission following his freshman year, Pitta became the Cougars' all-time leading receiver with 221 catches for 2,901 yards and 21 touchdowns and garnered All-American status.
"Dennis was an absolute dream to coach," said Lance Reynolds, BYU assistant head coach and tight ends coach, in a telephone interview. "He was a hard-working guy, never missed a practice. His practice habits were beyond reproach for us. He's a big-framed guy, that's the first thing we noticed about him. He was tall and skinny when he got here, but we had hopes he would be a tight end for us. If you stand next to him now, he's a broad-shouldered big guy.
"He's very fluid for a big man. He can adjust to things on the run. We moved him out in the slot, flexed him out, used him as a tight end, had him block on the goal line, used him in I formations. We moved him all over the place. He's as good a player as we've had, and we've had Todd Christensen and Chad Lewis here."
Pitta caught the attention of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome as one of the top performers at the 2010 NFL scouting combine. Pitta ran the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds, bench pressed 225 pounds 27 times and posted a 34-inch vertical leap with a 9-5 broad jump.
The Ravens picked him in the fourth round of that year's draft with the 114th overall selection, one round after taking fellow tight end Ed Dickson.
Today, Pitta is one of quarterback Joe Flacco's favorite receivers.
With 30 receptions for 276 yards and two touchdowns through seven games, Pitta ranks just one catch behind leading wide receiver Anquan Boldin, despite missing the entire preseason with a broken right hand that required surgery.
He's on pace to finish the season with a career-high 68 receptions and 630 yards after catching 41 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Pitta and his wife, Mataya, are close friends with Flacco and his wife, Dana, often going out for pizza dinners together in Baltimore.
However, Pitta said he doesn't get much ribbing from his teammates about Flacco showing him any favoritism on the field.
"Yeah, we're good friends and all that," Pitta said. "I think it certainly helps on the field to be on the same page, but nobody gives us a hard time."
Through the first two games of the season, Pitta was targeted 24 times, most on the team. He had five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the opener and eight catches for 65 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles the next week.
"If you're targeted, you have to deliver and Dennis is doing that," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said earlier this season. "He's doing that in critical situations. I don't think that's a surprise to us, or anybody else. We think he's a very good player, and I think he's really going to play well this whole year."
Deeply religious, Pitta attributes his growth on and off the field to his faith.
"It's a big part of my life," Pitta said. "Everything is centered around that for me, and it helps me stay grounded. I'm striving to be a good person, but I'm not perfect, obviously. I think I've been raised with good values and principles."
Pitta's mission was in the city of Santa Domingo, located on the east side of the Dominican Republic.
He assisted the impoverished, and taught his religion to the local population.
"It was an incredible experience," Pitta said. "You learn a lot about yourself and you appreciate what you have and what we have in this country. It's something I look back on with great memories."
On the field, the Ravens have created a unique role for Pitta that accentuates his skills as one of the most sure-handed skill players on the team.
Appearing in 306 plays, including 206 passing plays, Pitta has been allowed to concentrate on the receiving aspect of playing tight end. Meanwhile, Dickson has caught only eight passes for 74 yards while primarily being utilized as a blocker.
"Dennis is a great receiver," Dickson said. "He does a lot of things well, and he's got great hands. We have a lot of confidence in him. Dennis is one of my best friends, and he's a big asset to us. I know my time will come in the passing game as well."
Pitta has often lined up as a wide receiver, split out wide or in the slot.
With his size, speed, and knack for finding a seam in a zone, Pitta exploits mismatches against safeties and linebackers.
More than anything, Pitta's ability to cleanly catch the football with only his hands and not cradle it against his body has set him apart.
It's a fundamental attribute Pitta developed as a youngster playing catch with his father, Dennis Pitta Sr., a former Cal middle linebacker.
"I would always throw the ball around with my dad growing up," Pitta said. "I put all the work in and caught all those balls over the years. My time at BYU helped me a lot. The system there felt tailor-made to my abilities.
"I got to stand up flexed out and run a lot of routes and catch a lot of footballs. It got me ready for the NFL and what I'm doing here."
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