5 Pitt Freshmen to Watch at This Year’s Spring Game

2015 Pitt spring football game

Well, that was fun while it lasted.

No, not Pitt basketball’s winning streak; rather, the unseasonably mild weather is that of which I speak. El Niño makes me yearn for El Spring Game.

God bless the common sense of Pitt’s new athletic administration for cleaning up that mess. It was so awkward under Steve Pederson it actually made me defend Todd Graham.

The two buttheads butted heads on the relocation of the event. Graham, to his credit, saw marketability in Heinz Field that Pederson did not.

Recruits might not be old enough to fully appreciate names like Dorsett, Marino or Fralic, But they sure as heck know the name Steelers, and they know Pitt as a school that not only shares facilities with them, but also matriculates players to the NFL regularly.

There’s no better place than Heinz Field for these ones to get their start, especially if fans pack the place like they haven’t for Blue-Gold games past. With Pitt boasting an increasingly star-studded recruiting class in 2016, they’ve got good reason to catch an early glimpse of these stars who might shine sooner than later:

Damar Hamlin, Defensive Back –

The Panthers already have a potential All-American at safety for the next two or three seasons. Imagine how much more formidable their secondary will be with two.

That’s not to say Pat Narduzzi can’t make extraordinary defensive backs out of ordinary ones. After all, he did it at Michigan State. And while Pitt ranked toward the bottom of the ACC in pass defense last year, it wasn’t quite the smoldering tire fire we saw under overwhelmed Matt House.

Hamlin was probably the best get of this class. It proved Pitt can still attract top-notch talent locally. The fact a player of Hamlin’s caliber even seriously considered Pitt shows how far the program, and perception thereof, has come in a short time under Narduzzi. Furthermore, it gave the Panthers a hell of a lot more athleticism where it was sorely needed.

@CoachDuzzPittFB didn’t need to pay any attention to his timeline last season to know he needs taller defensive backs. Hamlin, listed at 6’1″, is taller than anyone on his two-deep for the Military Bowl.

His smashmouth style is a perfect fit for Pitt. That jarring hit from the state playoffs (Central Catholic fans know the one I’m talking about), seen at the end of the highlight reel below, says it all.

Could the Panthers boast two ACC Defensive Rookies of the Year in a row?

Chase Pine, Linebacker –

Despite fielding one of the youngest teams in FBS in 2015, Pitt loses three players at the so-called “star” linebacker position, which opens a few doors. In the meantime, this linebacker is already a star to begin with, and he could be the star of this defense someday.

Pine comes to Pitt as one of the top-ranked outside linebackers out of Virginia. Panther Digest, in fact, put him first overall. This made him another outstanding–and difficult–get for Narduzzi, considering the other D-I teams that were after him, not just the two ACC rivals in his own home state.

For those of us who aren’t X’s-and-O’s guys, the “star” linebacker is one who juggles the responsibilities of a linebacker and defensive back. Pine certainly would be athletic enough to handle that. More likely, though, he will be called upon to bolster a pass rush that made Pitt among the national team sack leaders in just Narduzzi’s first year on the sideline.

A couple years ago Anthony Gonzalez, another quarterback-turned-linebacker like Pine, became a mainstay in House’s and then-coach Paul Chryst’s defense. Picture Anthony Gonzalez 2.0–someone who has the same physical tools, but could add a lot more big-play capability to the linebacker corps in the long haul.

Chris Clark, Tight End –

Pitt has enjoyed an embarrassment of riches at this position in recent years, but the Panthers become a little less rich with J.P. Holtz graduating. Clark, however, could be a proverbial cash cow, whenever he sees the field.

He was perhaps the top tight end prospect in the entire country when he entered UCLA, meaning, technically, he’s a freshman already, and also meaning Pitt is pushing hard for the NCAA to reconsider his 2016 eligibility as you read this. Seemingly, he was all set to transfer to Syracuse until, suddenly, he wasn’t.

Some feel his character is suspect, though Clark seems to have his head in the right place regarding his recruitment. Pursuing him was a calculated risk by Narduzzi, who, despite changing offensive coordinators this offseason, will be nonetheless shy about dialing up plays for his tight ends.

Returning starter Scott Orndoff has gotten his Pitt career off to a fine start, and he should prosper again this season. If he has an extraordinary talent pushing him for attention every week, then more power to him–and to the Panthers offense.

Brandon Ford, Offensive Lineman –

This Upper St. Clair standout was one of the first players in the freshman Class of ’16 to commit, so let’s see if his skill ultimately matches his enthusiasm.

Most of Ford’s offers came from Group of Five schools. That reminds me a little bit of this other local two-way lineman who, once upon a time, played for WPIAL Quad-A rival Penn Hills and excelled, but didn’t get many Division I looks from high-profile programs.

I wonder whatever happened to that guy?

Of course, I’m not ready to call that an apples-to-apples comparison yet. The point is, Ford has a lot of respect around these parts, and with plenty of polished players returning to Pitt’s offensive line, he’s a talent with whom Narduzzi and his staff can take their time.

As is the case with Clark, the more guys the Panthers have at that position who are equally capable of playing first-string quality football, especially early in their careers, the more likely they’ll be able to move the ball with greater consistency going forward.

Thomas MacVittie, Quarterback –

On the other hand, considering Pitt put its offense at the mercy of an unproven quarterback–and a transfer, at that–last year, maybe we should downplay the inconsistency a tad? Nate Peterman still has his job for now, but we’re all anxious to see what MacVittie can do, because finding the right QB for Pitt has been like Spinal Tap trying to find the right drummer.

I’ll admit my interest in scouting MacVittie this spring is somewhat personal. Pitt football media director E.J. Borghetti likes to playfully jab at my Cincinnati ties; thus, for me, it would be delightfully ironic if one of that area’s most terrific high school talents fulfilled prophecy and became the program’s next great signal-caller.

Some of our country’s best athletes have come out of Moeller (the name Griffey, for one, ring a bell?). That’s where MacVittie, one of the nation’s most highly touted pro-style passers, played through injury, piled up yards, piled up points and, most importantly, piled up wins.

Of just the same importance, he did all that without turning the ball over. MacVittie threw for 22 scores and was picked off just once as a senior. What more could Narduzzi want?

What more could Pitt fans want?

(Featured image courtesy of Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

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