OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Dennis Pitta had experience as a wide receiver in high school in California when he arrived at BYU in 2003.
After sitting out his first college football season as a grayshirt walk-on, Pitta caught 17 passes as a tight end in 2004 under then-BYU head coach Gary Crowton, offensive coordinator Todd Bradford and tight ends coach Mike Empey.
“When I first got to BYU the tight end coach was Mike Empey,” recalls Pitta, 29, now a tight end for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL. “I was making the transition from wide receiver. I knew nothing about the position. He really helped me along and helped me make that transition. He was a great football coach.”
After the 2004 season, Pitta served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Dominican Republic. When he returned for the 2007 season in Provo, a new coaching staff was in place and Empey was gone.
“I owe a lot of credit to him and the things that he taught me from the start about playing tight end,” said Pitta, listed at 6 foot 4, 245 pounds.
Pitta has parlayed that transition to tight end into a productive and lucrative career in the NFL. In March he signed a five-year deal worth $32 million with the Ravens, according to USA Today.
“In my mind I always wanted to come back here. But you never know; there is a business side as well. But at the same time you have to keep your options open,” he said.
Pitta caught 221 passes at BYU and was then drafted in the fourth round by the Ravens in 2010.
His ascension to being a starting tight end in the NFL has not come without setbacks.
A year after winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens missed out on the playoffs in an injury-plagued 2013 season. Pitta suffered a hip injury in July 2013 and missed most of that season as the Ravens finished 8-8.
“I was out for 12 or 13 weeks. At one point I didn’t know if I would return,” said Pitta, standing just outside the Ravens’ locker room following practice here Wednesday in suburban Baltimore County.
He did return in Week 13 and caught six passes against Minnesota. He finished the season with 20 catches for 169 yards in four games (one start) after he had 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns during the Super Bowl season.
“He is very versatile,” reserve quarterback Keith Wenning said of Pitta. “He is athletic and a dynamic tight end. We can use him in a lot of different spots.”
Pitta enters the year with 122 catches for 1,244 yards and 11 touchdowns in his NFL career.
“Last year as a team it was tough. You have expectations for yourself. We had a lot of injuries and a lot of turnover (among personnel). We were able to be around the cusp of the playoffs. It was still a disappointing season,” Pitta noted.
He said returning late in the season meant he did not have as much anxiety in the offseason.
“It was good for me and good for my confidence. I knew that I could take a hit and make full-speed cuts. You can’t even replicate that, even in practice,” he said.
Pitta was held out of practice Aug. 10 but returned the next day. “Dennis had a little ankle sprain. So, he went for about, I don’t know
individually he went for about 30 minutes, and then we pulled him down,” said head coach John Harbaugh.
Pitta was drafted by the Ravens the same year the team drafted tight end Ed Dickson (Oregon), who signed with Carolina after last season. Another former tight end teammate was Todd Heap, who had a long career with the Arizona Cardinals.
“It is always tough,” Pitta said of the turnover in personnel. “That is what you have in this business. We have (90) guys on the roster (as of Aug. 9) and half of them won’t be here when the season starts. That happens every year. We have gotten used to it.”
This year’s crop of newcomers includes Steve Smith, a wide receiver in his 14th season out of the University of Utah. He has 836 catches in a career that began in Carolina in 2001.
“Steve has been great. He brings a lot of energy,” Pitta said. “He has been a great teammate. He is obviously a tremendous football player. He is someone that will be valuable for us this year. He is up there in age, but he does not look like he has lost a step. He is a great player; we are going to have fun this year.”
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“With the weapons we have, I think (opponents) will have to pick their poison,” Smith told reporters Aug. 11. “This (certain) guy may have a lot of catches and a lot of yards, and the other guys may not. And then the next week, a team is going to focus on shutting down that guy and then another guy. I think that benefits us. You can never have too many horses in the stable.”
And one of them is Pitta, who overcame an injury to strike a big payday with the Ravens.
NOTES: Other players in camp with the Ravens as of Thursday with ties to Utah include rookie defensive tackle A.J. Pataiali’I (Hunter High, Utah State) and ninth-year defensive tackle and Salt Lake native Haloti Ngata (Highland High).