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Pitt

Pitt counts on transfers to fill lineup, depth chart

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, 5:27 p.m.
Pitt quarterback Max Browne drops back to pass during practice Tuessday, Aug. 8, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt quarterback Max Browne drops back to pass during practice Tuessday, Aug. 8, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Pitt tight end Chris Clark during practice Aug. 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt tight end Chris Clark during practice Aug. 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Late one night near the end of last season, Pat Narduzzi decided there was nothing more he could do that day to further the cause of Pitt football. He was going home.

Suddenly, Tim Salem, a salesman hiding inside a tight end coach's body, walked briskly down the hall and shoved a phone in Narduzzi's face.

“ ‘Coach, here's the guy we kind of whispered about,' ” Salem said.

The voice on the other end belonged to Max Browne. Pitt's next quarterback was on the other side of the country, but he was closer to Pittsburgh than he thought.

“Coach Narduzzi had a really good conversation,” Salem said.

Browne, who was eager to escape the nightmare that was most of his USC career, eventually visited the Pitt campus and was sold. He made no other visits.

“I was sitting there during Christmas break,” Browne said, “and I'm saying, ‘If I'm not going to Pitt, what am I waiting on?' ”

That's how Browne became one of six players who transferred to Pitt after spending time at other Power 5 schools. All six are expected to contribute this season. They are Browne, tight ends Chris Clark (UCLA) and Matt Flanagan (Rutgers), defensive end Dewayne Hendrix (Tennessee), offensive lineman Brandon Hodges (Texas) and defensive tackle Kam Carter (Penn State).

“That's just a whole new phase of recruiting,” Salem said. “It's not just high school kids. It's now the college kids. If those kids are looking to leave, use every connection you can to get a hold of the kid, if that's a position of need.”

In Pitt's case, all six potentially can patch a hole on the roster. Before their arrivals, Narduzzi needed experienced hands at quarterback, defensive tackle and on the offensive line, a pass rusher to replace Ejuan Price and tight ends. Especially tight ends.

“I'd like to hide under the podium here if you asked me in the spring (about tight ends),” Narduzzi said.

Now? “It's one of those, ‘Wow!' positions.”

Part of that enthusiasm stems from Clark, rated the No. 1 high school tight end in the nation by recruiting services Rivals and Scout in 2015.

Narduzzi tried to recruit Clark to Michigan State and Pitt and was unsuccessful both times.

“I knew coach Narduzzi really well when I was in high school (in Connecticut),” Clark said. “When he got the Pitt job (December, 2014), he sent me a message on Facebook and said, ‘We need a tight end. Are you interested?'

“At that point, I was deciding on either UCLA or Michigan. Fast forward a couple months. I'm leaving UCLA. I ended up reaching out to coach Narduzzi, and it ended up working out.”

Why transfer?

“I don't really think I was mature enough to handle all the expectations that come with college football,” Clark said. “I was making some bonehead decisions out there and not really following the way that it goes. I was just kind of being a headache.

“Over the last couple years, I've matured so much. I don't even remember that guy I was. A lot has changed. Not to mention it was also so far from home. It was a lot to deal with. Getting to a school closer to home seemed like it made the most sense to me.”

Transfers are so prevalent in college athletics the NCAA has a tutorial on its website for players considering it. It's entitled, “Want to Transfer?”

Without specifically referencing Pitt's transfers, Salem isn't surprised players are changing schools.

“A lot of these kids, they're transferring in high school,” he said. “Go to some of these high schools in some of these states. These kids transfer every week. In the state of Florida, there are no rules. You can transfer anytime you want, no papers, no signatures, just go, go to the next school and go play. Some of these kids are brought up like that.”

Browne is one of 23 quarterbacks who found new campuses this year, and 247sports.com ranked them all. Browne is fourth on the list. Pitt lost a quarterback when Chad Voytik transferred to Arkansas State after he knew Nathan Peterman would start.

In the beginning, Browne did his homework on several schools. He said he knew little about Pitt, other than Peterman was graduating. But Salem called a few sources to get Browne's phone number, and then that late-night conversation with Narduzzi happened.

“Not until I got ahold of him was he interested in Pitt,” Salem said. “Pitt wasn't even on his radar.”

Browne, Flanagan and Hodges are graduate transfers, serious students who earned degrees and decided to play their final season of eligibility elsewhere. Narduzzi believes graduate transfers are emerging because student-athletes must declare a major after their sophomore year.

“Academically, people are doing a great job of getting their degree,” he said. “Twenty years ago, a kid could be a junior taking English 101 or taking what they call basket-weaving classes. You spent four years at a university and never got your degree.

“I think they're looking and saying, ‘Hey, I got my degree here. Let me go try something new.' ”

Flanagan is a unique case. He graduated from Rutgers with a degree in biological science, a minor in entrepreneurship and a 3.2 GPA.

“I'd love to know what I would have had if I didn't play football,” he said.

He was attracted to Pitt as much — if not more — by the Katz Graduate School of Business.

“Rutgers didn't want him and gave him his release,” Salem said. “He's a quality, first-class individual. You can trust that kid to do anything you want. To have him in the room is like having a second coach.”

Salem believes Flanagan can contribute on the field, too.

“To watch him on tape, he's blocked Michigan. He's blocked Ohio State. He's blocked Penn State. So he knows what it takes.”

He also could pick up some production lost by fullback George Aston's injury.

Hodges' transfer stems from his relationship with offensive coordinator Shawn Watson when he held that position at Texas.

“He kind of fell in our lap,” Narduzzi said.

“I remembered coach Watson was here, and I looked at my phone and hit him up one day,” Hodges said. “I was like, ‘Coach, can I talk to you?' He was always open to talk to me. All he did was tell me we'd love to have you.”

Hodges started nine games at Texas last year, but he said he wanted a fresh start.

“I feel like I moved past (Texas), and I'm at a better place,” he said. “The culture here is different. You carry yourself like a pro here.”

Of first-year Texas coach Tom Herman, Hodges said, “He has his ways and his days. He's a coach. That's all I can say.”

Narduzzi has been impressed by Hodges' strength on the football field and his appetite.

“He came on his official visit,” the coach said, “and ate this big cheeseburger and I (said), ‘For breakfast?' ”

Hodges was courted by Florida State and Mississippi State but chose Pitt, though he lives in Aberdeen, Miss., 51 minutes from the MSU campus in Starkville.

“I drove 12 hours (to Pittsburgh) by myself,” he said. “That's how hungry I am to be here.”

How was the trip?

“Stressful,” he said. “Coffee was my best friend that day.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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