Pitt’s Tylar Wiltz, Karter Johnson step onto bigger stage with confidence

The new Pitt linebacker began his first chat with reporters while flashing a smile and offering a friendly greeting.

“How y’all doing? I’m Tylar Wiltz, from Beaux Bridge, La.”

Not 20 seconds into the interview — before he answered his first question — he added, “It’s been a blessing to be in Pittsburgh and be part of this team.”

Wiltz and tight end Karter Johnson, a transfer from TCU via Butler (Kan.) Community College, are first-year Pitt players, but veterans of college football Saturdays whose lives have taken many turns — physically, mentally and geographically.

Most of Pitt’s position groups have at least one transfer, but Wiltz and Johnson break the mold a bit. Both men are making a significant jump from community college to the Power 5.

Wiltz played the past three seasons at Missouri State, where he was a third-team FCS All-American last year after spending 2017 and 2018 at Southern Arkansas and Independence (Kan.) Community College.

Is he worried about making such a giant leap? He sure didn’t sound worried.

“I’ve been blessed to have excellent at (the FCS) level,” he said. “Working my butt off as I’m doing here, having that confidence, saying that ‘I can do it,’ and knowing there was more out there.”

Wiltz doesn’t look at Pitt as just an avenue to the NFL.

“Here, everybody has the aspirations of going to the league,” he said. “But if you walk in here every day (and say), `Yeah, I’m going to the league,’ that’s a me attitude. You can’t win with a me attitude.

“Everybody (at Pitt) is playing for each other. You can’t just think (about) yourself. Success comes from thinking as a team.”

No wonder he gets along so well with coach Pat Narduzzi, whose favorite slogan is “We, not me.”

“Coach Narduzzi, when I sat in his office, he had his legs crossed with sandals on,” Wiltz said. “Most coaches that you speak to are not going to be that relaxed with you.”

At that meeting, Narduzzi spelled out Wiltz’s opportunity, and a bond was formed.

“He told me the situation. ‘This is what we want you to do. You come in, you work, you have a lot of talent, we’ll help you get where you want to get, and we’ll have success as a team.’ ”

When he was asked the difference between practices at Pitt and Missouri State, he thought about the question and came back to it five minutes later before answering.

“It’s honestly not that big of a difference. Everybody wants to be successful,” he said.

“The resources are a little different. There are more supplies for us to actually recover, to eat more. You’ll see a difference in my body (between) me playing here and playing there. My performance is going to rise gradually as we progress.”

Wiltz is one of eight linebackers competing for playing time at three positions. The only linebacker assured of starting is SirVocea Dennis, a second-team All-ACC selection, while Wiltz is joined by another transfer, former Notre Dame player Shayne Simon, plus Brandon George, Solomon DeShields, Bangally Kamara, Buddy Mack and Aydin Henningham.

“Everything is still up in the air,” Wiltz said. “That’s why we come in every day and work. That’s all we can do.”

Wiltz is proud of what he’s accomplished so far — he’s also a two-time All-Missouri Valley Conference pick — and what he must do on a daily basis to survive the rigors of college football.

“Not everybody can just wake up at 6 o’clock, go get treatment, come to practice at 9, be done at 12, maybe have an hour or two off and go through the whole schedule and be back to do it again,” he said. “You have to really be blessed, really be prayed up.”

Is it difficult? Sure, but…

“Every day I wake up with a smile on my face. I don’t know if y’all can tell, I’m happy to be here,” he said.

Likewise, Johnson is pleased to find a home at his third college after a successful prep career in Pickerington, Ohio.

Johnson went to TCU in 2019 believing he would play defensive end before he found himself on the interior and needing to gain weight. He didn’t play that season before transferring to Butler CC

He wanted to play offense — “I really wasn’t into taking on double teams every play,” he said — and he started a massive weight-loss endeavor in order to play tight end.

He lost 123 pounds in nine months, from 338 to 215, keeping his daily calorie intake under 1,000 and running two to three miles a day.

“That was really a big toll on my body. I was really weak at 215. I didn’t like it,” he said. “I ended up hitting the weight room a lot during the summer before I went to JUCO. Once I got there, they had a great program.”

He played last season at 238 and left Butler with career totals of 22 receptions for 293 yards and four touchdowns.

Now, he’s up to 255 on a 6-foot-2 frame.

“They feed us great here. Four times a day,” he said.

Johnson is happier now, much closer to home than the 16 hours between Pickerington and Fort Worth, Texas.

“In the beginning, it was a struggle,” he said. “I felt like I was on an island. I got really down on myself.”

After leaving TCU, he said he was focused on building back his mental health.

“I feel really good about myself,” he said. “I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at jdipaola@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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