Transfers look to make impact at Pitt
He wears an old, ragged jersey, and the sweat and grime on his face hardly paint a pretty picture.
But Ray Vinopal will tell you: He never looked so good.
After transferring from Michigan and sitting out the 2011 season, Vinopal is pleased to put that clean jumpsuit that he wore to games in the back of his closet, get his hands dirty and resume his collegiate career.
Vinopal, a redshirt sophomore from Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, is one of three Pitt transfers who look like they may help this season, either as starters, backups or on special teams.
Vinopal and redshirt sophomore cornerback Cullen Christian of Penn Hills - also a former Wolverine - have been running with the first defensive unit for much of the spring.
Former Gateway wide receiver Brendon Felder, who transferred from North Carolina to help his father care for his ailing grandmother, caught a long touchdown pass on the first day of his Pitt eligibility. He had been pushing veteran wide receivers for practice time before tweaking a hamstring last week.
All three didn't especially like working with the scout team and watching football on game day, but they lived with it and learned.
"We used to give (the offense) some headaches," Vinopal said, recalling last season's practices. "We took pride in that.
"But having to walk out of the tunnel in a jumpsuit without your chin strap buckled on, it makes you a little hungrier and makes you not take things for granted. We would have given anything to buckle up with our teammates."
Now, Vinopal and Christian look like contributors, if not fixtures, in the secondary. They have fit in well with veteran safeties Jarred Holley, Jason Hendricks and Andrew Taglianetti and cornerback K'Waun Williams. In fact, if there was a game today, Christian might start opposite Williams.
"There is a guy who spent a tremendous amount of time trying to learn football," coach Paul Chryst said of Christian. "It is important to him. The more guys like that you can get, you can't help but be better in the long run."
Christian was recruited by former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, but chose Michigan. Vinopal had no offer from Pitt, but he was recruited by Wisconsin before choosing Michigan. Chyrst remembers him.
"Only this is a more mature guy," Chryst said. "He is certainly tough. He's one we are lucky to have."
Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable can barely turn around in his office without seeing Vinopal somewhere nearby.
"He's in here studying football all the time," he said. "He's a football junkie."
Vinopal and Christian earned significant playing time as Michigan freshmen, but when the coaching staff was disrupted by the firing of Rich Rodriguez, they eagerly jumped at the chance to follow secondary coach Tony Gibson to Pitt. Moving closer to home was an additional perk.
Gibson left for Arizona after one season, but the players already had embraced Pitt and didn't panic such as others might do when a favorite coach departs.
"It was a shock a little bit, but we're not going to keep jumping around with a coach," Vinopal said. "We understand business decisions."
Christian said there is more to college football than the coaches.
"We can't be worrying about if coaches are going to keep leaving because what it comes down to is we have the team and that's what we are here for, the team."
Notes: Rain forced Chryst to move practice from Heinz Field to the indoor facility, and one of the lone offensive highlights during the padded scrimmage was a long touchdown run by running back Isaac Bennett, who is having a good camp. He hit a huge hole and veered to the sideline where a change-of-pace move helped him elude Vinopal. ... Later, Vinopal forced a fumble that cornerback Lloyd Carrington picked up for a touchdown. ... The defense looked good, especially tackle Aaron Donald, who lost his helmet during one pass rush, but still forced his way through a double team. Said quarterback Tino Sunseri: "Most likely, you are not going to find a guy like Aaron Donald on a lot of teams."Additional Information:
New faces at Pitt
Height, weight: 5-10, 195
High school: Cardinal Mooney, Youngstown
Did you know• Two years ago, Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph tried to get Vinopal to enroll at Wisconsin.
Height, weight: 6-0, 190
High school: Penn Hills
Did you know• He was recruited by Pitt two years ago, but picked Michigan
Position: Wide receiver
Height, weight: 5-10, 175
High school: Gateway
Did you know• He said he has run a 4.34 40, but Pitt lost him to North Carolina coming out of high school when Panthers coaches wanted him to play defensive back.