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From Unknown To Unmatched


Despite it being more than six years ago, Ravens quarterback John Beck clearly remembers the first time he saw Dennis Pitta.

It was January 2004 at Brigham Young University. Beck, then the Cougars' starting signal-caller, was running a seven-on-seven drill with the first-team offense.

Beck had four vertical routes and the safety slid to cover the inside receiver. So Beck bombed a pass down the sideline to a receiver he didn't recognize. Out of nowhere, a tall, skinny kid made an impressive leaping catch along the sidelines.

"I remember going, 'Who is this guy?'" Beck said. "Nobody standing around even knew who he was. We were like, 'Who is this kid and how did he even get in the building?'"

After much shoulder shrugging, somebody said his name was Dennis. They didn't know his last name.

So Beck went up to then Head Coach Gary Crowton and asked, "There's some kid named Dennis and he's good. Who is he?"

Crowton had no idea there was even a Dennis on the team.

Six years later, it's an entirely different story.

Despite being a gangly college walk-on and taking two years off to serve a*church mission trip in the Dominican Republic, Pitta paired a strong work ethic with gobs of natural ability to become *BYU's career receptions leader and one of the best college tight ends in the county.

And now, even though he's a fourth-round draft pick, Pitta is already starting to make a name for himself in Baltimore's burgeoning offense. 


Like most NFL players, Pitta played just about every sport he could growing up.

He settled on football, basketball and track at Moorpark High School in California and was named first-team All-County, All-League and All-Area as a senior wide receiver and cornerback.

An excellent student as well, Pitta drew some interest from Ivy League schools such as Dartmouth and Yale, but neither school offers athletic scholarships. He didn't get a single Division I offer.

"It was probably because I was a skinny little wide receiver," Pitta said with a laugh.

Pitta was 6-foot-4 but tipped the scales at just 190 pounds, meaning he would have to go through a steep body transformation at the college level.

BYU was always the place Pitta wanted to go, so when they offered him a preferred walk-on spot and he jumped at the opportunity. But that meant no scholarship and starting from ground zero. Not to mention, BYU's coaches also wanted Pitta to switch to tight end.

"It wasn't easy," Pitta said. "Coming in as a walk-on you have a lot to prove. Every day I had to prove myself."

Pitta gray-shirted his first year to learn the offense and bulk up in preparation for the position change. His coaches ultimately wanted him at about 250 pounds, which would mean increasing his body mass by a whopping 32 percent.

"It's a bit of a difference, but it didn't happen all at once," said Pitta, who started by adding 15 pounds as a freshman. "I think that's why it was easier to maintain my agility. I'd like to think it was muscle the whole time, but I don't know."

After senior tight end Dan Coates, who now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals, broke his hand midway through BYU's 2004 season, Pitta stepped in and caught 17 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns in two games (both against rival Air Force).

"As a freshman, never playing tight end before, he stepped in and played really, really well," Beck said. "I think everybody foresaw the potential he had."


Just when it looked like Pitta was on the verge of a breakout, his religion called.

Like many other LDS* *young men, Pitta sent in an application to The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) to serve as a missionary. They got back to him in the winter after his freshman season with a two-year assignment to the Dominican Republic.

Playing in the NFL was then still just a pipe dream, so Pitta accepted without hesitation and thus signed up for two years away from football.

"It was really important for me to serve and help others, so it wasn't a hard decision at all," Pitta said.

Pitta lived and worked with multiple families in the poorer parts of the third-world county. It was no beach vacation. He worked in poor surroundings, but noticed that the people were happy with the few things they had. It was an eye-opening experience for a 19-year-old.

"I certainly think I did a lot of growing up," Pitta said. "You're kind of taken away from your friends and family and everything you're comfortable with. It makes you learn something about yourself. I learned a lot of life lessons out there."

Since most BYU players go on a mission at some point during their college career, there is a tutorial about how to stay in shape while away. There are also many tales of players who are never the same football player after they come back.

But Pitta was so consumed by his mission that he wasn't able to continue his training. Also, not surprisingly, there weren't quality facilities in the Dominican Republic for him to do so.

"It's what you can do on your own with limited time," Pitta said. "To be honest, I didn't do a whole lot of training in two years."


Pitta hoped that a scholarship would be waiting for him when he returned from his mission. But when he got back, there was a new coaching staff in place, meaning a whole new group of people to impress.

Despite his time off, it didn't take long.

Just a couple weeks after returning in January 2007, BYU Offensive Coordinator and Inside Receivers Coach Robert Anae saw Pitta practice for the first time. His reaction was much like Beck's three years earlier.

"As out of shape that he was, it was very evident that he could run," Anae said. "His whole body had been dormant for two years, but just watching him run around it was clear to me he could do things that wideouts could do."

Pitta went to work, vigorously training in BYU's offseason program four times a week. He also developed his own running workout that he pushed himself through three times a week, often doubling up workouts.

"One thing that is tough to get back initially is your explosiveness," Pitta said. "Going on a long run is great and will get you in shape, but it won't give you that explosion you need. So it was a lot of working on my strength."

Not long into the offseason, BYU offered him a scholarship. Pitta returned the favor by notching 59 catches for 813 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. He upped that to 83 receptions for 1,083 yards and six scores as a junior.

As a senior, Pitta became quarterback Max Hall's top target with wide receiver Austin Collie now gone to the Indianapolis Colts.

Anae said Pitta has a unique ability to develop a quick connection with quarterbacks, but it didn't hurt that Hall and Pitta become brothers-in-law in July 2008 after Hall's wife, McKinzi, introduced Pitta to her sister Mataya.

But Pitta was also the target of many defenses. He still caught 62 passes for 829 yards and eight touchdowns and passed Collie as BYU's career receptions leader, which is quite the honor for such a pass-heavy program.

Pitta was also one of three Mackey Award finalists, an award given to the top college tight end in the nation.

While Pitta's breakout can be largely attributed to his work ethic, there's also plenty of "natural talent." It's a phrase that coaches and teammates often use when talking about Pitta.

There's the obvious size advantage at 6-4 and now 245 pounds. There's also the speed, (Anae* *called Pitta a "racehorse"). Pitta also does the small things, like creating separation from defensive backs with great body control. He also has superb hands and plucks the ball at just the right point.

"You can't coach that," Anae said. "They are natural gifts that you either have or you don't."

Pitta is working to improve his blocking skills, but his pass-catching skills are evident.

"He's very smooth, he does very well with people hanging on his back and he has great hands," Beck said. "I think we all knew he was going to be really, really good and I think Dennis has maximized it. The guy is a stud."


Despite a standout senior season and a showing at the NFL Scouting Combine that had analysts raving, Pitta tumbled all the way to the fourth round of the NFL Draft and pick No. 114. He was the sixth tight end taken off the board.

The Ravens, despite having drafted Oregon tight end Ed Dickson one round earlier, saw too much value to pass up on Pitta late in the fourth round and pulled the trigger.

Early on, Pitta has already shown it was a smart decision.

He's shown his knack for making the tough catches inside while also making some big plays vertically during the Ravens' Organized Team Activities. He's also lined up in multiple spots.

"[I'm] really happy with the rookie tight ends," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "Pitta has caught everything thrown to him."

Still, Pitta finds himself in a unique competition behind veteran starter Todd Heap and alongside fellow rookie Dickson.

"It's definitely interesting," Pitta said. "I think in their minds they drafted [Dickson] first for a reason and it's my job to prove they were wrong. As harsh as it sounds, that's my objective."

At this point, Pitta is no longer an unknown. But it's clear he's still got a lot to prove.

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