Pitt receiver taking one step at a time

Updated: December 10, 2003, 6:11 PM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald sidestepped questions Wednesday about whether he will return next season or try to enter the NFL draft.

In what might have been a telling comment, though, Fitzgerald emphasized Pitt's offense will be in transition next season without quarterback Rod Rutherford -- possibly an indication the NFL is becoming more and more attractive.

Tyler Palko and Luke Getsy, a pair of former Pittsburgh-area high school players who have played little at Pitt, will compete at quarterback next season. Palko is the early favorite but doesn't possess the strong throwing arm Rutherford does.

Pitt's offensive line also will be gutted by graduation following a disappointing season that saw the Panthers (8-4) reach the Top 10, only to slip out of the national rankings after losing four of their final nine.

Asked about his future at Pitt, Fitzgerald talked only about the near term -- his role as a recruiter, not a receiver. He said finances won't enter into the decision because he can afford to remain in school without any immediate money worries.

"This team is going to be in a rebuilding year next year, [but] I think I can be a piece of the puzzle in attracting some big-time recruits," he said. "We have a lot of guys coming on visits this week that can impact the program. I want to help the program any way I can."

He would do that by staying, but he understands he isn't likely to match this season's statistics -- 87 receptions for 1,595 yards and 22 touchdowns -- in a rebuilt offense. Nor is Pitt likely to challenge for a major bowl with so many new starters.

Fitzgerald admires quarterback Eli Manning for staying at Mississippi for his senior season but wouldn't say if that would influence his own decision.

Pitt faces Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl on Dec. 27.

"I'm going to play the bowl game and let the pieces fall where they fall," Fitzgerald said. "I'm not saying that's going to be my last game."

Fitzgerald, whose statistics in his first two college seasons (156 catches, 34 touchdowns) rival or surpass those of nearly every receiver to ever play in Division I-A, hasn't talked to the NFL about his possible draft eligibility.

The NFL allows college players into the draft once they've been out of high school for three years. Fitzgerald's original high school class graduated in 2001, but he spent a year at a prep school before enrolling at Pitt in 2002.

It's possible whatever ruling the NFL makes on former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett's eligibility might affect Fitzgerald. Clarett, who played only one college season, is expected to challenge in court the NFL's three-year waiting period.

Fitzgerald wouldn't rate his Heisman chances but recognizes Pitt's late-season losses in nationally televised games to Notre Dame, West Virginia and Miami will work against him.

He also knows what the Heisman would mean. No sophomore has won the trophy.

"It puts you in a very, very elite group," Fitzgerald said. "It's something that can't be taken away from you regardless of how your career is after college. You know for that one year, you were the best player in college football."

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press