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Pitt

Pitt football enjoys benefits of Paul Chryst's 2014 recruiting class

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, April 15, 2018, 5:36 p.m.
Blue team linebacker Jalen Williams blows up Gold running back A.J. Davis during Pitt's spring game Saturday, April 14, 2018 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Blue team linebacker Jalen Williams blows up Gold running back A.J. Davis during Pitt's spring game Saturday, April 14, 2018 at Heinz Field.
Blue team captain Dennis Briggs gets the team fired up before Pitt's spring game Saturday, April 14, 2018 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Blue team captain Dennis Briggs gets the team fired up before Pitt's spring game Saturday, April 14, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Paul Chryst is so entrenched as the Wisconsin coach — 34-7 and two Big Ten title game appearances in three seasons — that it's almost hard to believe he coached at Pitt only four years ago.

But he did leave a nice parting gift for Pat Narduzzi.

Senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis made an interesting point Saturday after the spring game (an event Chryst had little time for, by the way).

After the defense smothered the offense, Wirginis said, “The expectation is to be the best defense in the country, and I do believe we will be.”

That remark reflects great ambition and is certainly eye-catching, but it's not Wirginis' most thought-provoking comment.

Looking back at his freshman class (2014, the last Pitt class signed by Chryst), he said: “When you imagine as a freshman how you're going to be as a senior, that's what we're doing now.”

How have they evolved?

Chryst signed 23 players Feb. 5, 2014, and 13 of them made or are still making significant contributions. Brian O'Neill and Avonte Maddox are off to the NFL, but 11 will either start or compete for playing time. They make up 11 of the 17 players in this year's senior class:

• Alex Bookser, starting offensive tackle.

• James Folston, defensive end, who Saturday showed his “toughness,” according to line coach Charlie Partridge by playing through “soft tissue stuff.”

• Qadree Ollison, injured running back, who should be in the mix this summer.

• Phillipie Motley, cornerback, who started four games in the past and will compete with younger players.

• Elijah Zeise, starting outside linebacker.

• Shane Roy, starting defensive tackle.

• Wirginis, starting middle linebacker.

• Mike Herndon, starting right guard.

• Connor Dintino, starting left guard, named the most improved offensive player in the spring.

• Dennis Briggs, four starts last season at safety.

• Jalen Williams, backup linebacker.

Those players comprised more than half of a recruiting class that was ranked 44th in the nation by Rivals.com in 2014. It remains more than useful for Narduzzi. But he has signed three classes (2016-2018) ranked higher than 44th — No. 29 in '16, 38 in '17 and 36 in '18.

Plus, Narduzzi consistently has added transfers and given scholarships to walk-ons. Six seniors not signed by Chryst are likely starters this season — fullback George Aston, running back Darrin Hall, wide receiver Ra-Ra Lopes, offensive lineman Stefano Millin, defensive end Dewayne Hendrix and linebacker Seun Idowu.

What does it mean? Nothing until the games start to count Sept. 1, but the roster appears to be in better shape than at any time during Chryst's three-year tenure.

Other spring thoughts:

• Sophomore defensive end Rashad Weaver could be a taller version of Ejuan Price, a playmaker who will give offensive line coaches fits. Partridge, who is Weaver's position coach, is a fan.

“He's made a lot of plays with awareness,” he said. “He's aware of full formation, where the back is, what that means, how to respond.

“It's certainly his ability, but here's a kid who was pre-med and decided to change to business and kills it in school. He's a machine.”

• Partridge has taken time to look at video from last year, and he's noticed a significant improvement, especially from how the defense was playing early in the season.

“When you put early games (on video), it's quite a jump that we made,” he said. “It's from a fundamental standpoint, a reaction, an awareness. It's not even close. It's hard to even put into words how far we've come.

“I hope we continue to grow and it shows up on Saturdays in the fall. I think it has a chance to.”

• Wirginis' biggest problem this summer may be what to do with “a sorry excuse for a mustache.”

He said he has trouble growing facial hair, but once it started to come in, he decided to keep it.

“It's kind of funny. It looks really, really dirty. Some people like it,” he said.

He did get a hint from one person, who might not like it as much as others.

“My mom, on my birthday,” he said, “she got me shaving cream.”

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

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