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Small numbers, strong bond for Pitt’s 2014 recruiting class

August 22, 2018
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review Pitt’s Quintin Wirginis through drills during practice Aug. 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

When the day is done, while the sweaty, grass-stained practice shirts are in the wash and players finally put down their playbooks and relax, Pitt’s seniors get together.

And talk. Every night.

Linebacker Elijah Zeise said during one recent session, a few guys brought up an interesting fact, and it made everyone smile.

“There are only 13 of us now,” he said. “Crazy.”

Zeise, an outside linebacker from North Allegheny, is part of the last recruiting class put together by former coach Paul Chryst in 2014. Ten months later, Chryst left for Wisconsin.

Counting walk-ons, there were 30 high school seniors who joined the team that year. Many transferred or were dismissed by coach Pat Narduzzi. Brian O’Neill and Avonte Maddox are in the NFL. Running back Chris James looks to be the backup to Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor at Wisconsin.

Those who remain are among the top players in Pitt’s program, including at least nine starters. So, if he wants, Chryst can claim a fraction of the credit -- or blame -- at the end of the season.

• Six of the 13 are starting offensive linemen Alex Bookser, Connor Dintino and Mike Herndon and linebackers Zeise, Quintin Wirginis and Seun Idowu, a former walk-on who’s added more than 40 pounds since joining Pitt as a safety from North Allegheny.

• Qadree Ollison and George Aston (also a former walk-on) will be important ball carriers this season.

• Shane Roy and James Folston Jr., who combined for 16 starts last year, will fill important roles on the defensive line.

• Dennis Briggs and Phillipie Motley, one of the fastest players on the team, will play key roles in the secondary.

• Wide receiver and special teamer Kellen McAlone has played in 22 games and earned a team-high three letters as a walk-on.

Roy, who has played for three position coaches in five years, said he doesn’t mind change because of one constant.

“One thing that always stays consistent are the guys who are on your right and on your left,” he said. “What’s been consistent has been my teammates, and they’ve never wavered. That’s something I can lean on.”

Wirginis returned this season after missing all of 2017 with an injury. He also was suspended for three games, welcomed back by Narduzzi and inserted into the middle of this year’s defense.

“It’s a blessing,” Wirginis said. “I can’t ask for anything more. I can’t say I’d change a single thing in my life.”

Even though he never has been a starter, Wirginis has played in a team-high 38 games (tied with Briggs and Ollison), recording four sacks in 2016.

Zeise said the team got a kick recently from watching Wirginis on video from that season.

“We watched our third-down package from two years ago when he played, and we used to call him the ‘drunk bull,’ the way he ran around,” Zeise said. “Big dude. He brings the wood.”

Just as important, Wirginis, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, has become a leader, a testament to his personality and work ethic when one considers he missed an entire season.

“He’s definitely the guy in the huddle,” Zeise said.

“We’ve been through a ton,” Wirginis said. “When you’re with a group of guys for half a decade and you know some of them longer than that, the bonds you formed over the ups and down that we’ve had over these five years, that’s an unbreakable bond.”

Wirginis has six siblings in his family -- four brothers and two sisters -- but he said there are many more at Pitt.

“We know each other just as well as we know our families, and I consider these guys my brothers,” he said.

Wirginis credited strength coach Dave Andrews and his staff for getting him ready for the season, the coaches for keeping him sharp mentally and “my teammates, who never abandoned me at any time,” he said.

Before the season, Narduzzi sat down with Wirginis to relay the news he could rejoin the team.

“I’m honored for that opportunity,” he said. “I was going to finish my career with this class I came in with.”

Narduzzi has credited his senior class for exemplifying stronger leadership than last year’s group. Zeise is a good example because not only did he endure a coaching change, but he was converted from “a little, skinny, scrawny wideout,” Narduzzi said, to a 240-pound linebacker.

“Doesn’t say a word, works his tail off,” Narduzzi said. “He’s been so much more physical than what he was.”

Yet, it’s their mental makeup that distinguishes Zeise and the other surviving members of the 2014 recruiting class.

“Right when Chryst said he was going to leave, my dad asked me, ‘Do you think you might want to leave?’ ” Zeise said.

The thought was so fleeting that, “I maybe thought about thinking about maybe transferring for a second.

“It wasn’t very long. I said, ‘Nah, I just want to stay here.’ My mom lives right off campus. I’m five minutes away from her.

“I’ve been around this program forever. There’s no place I’d rather be.”

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