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Pitt will feel loss of linebacker Quintin Wirginis on many levels

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, 7:00 p.m.
Pittsburgh linebacker Quintin Wirginis (58) forces a fumble by Penn State running back Ricky Slade (4) during first half of an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. The fumble was recovered by Pittsburgh defensive lineman Rashad Weaver. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh linebacker Quintin Wirginis (58) forces a fumble by Penn State running back Ricky Slade (4) during first half of an NCAA college football game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. The fumble was recovered by Pittsburgh defensive lineman Rashad Weaver. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Pitt will feel the loss of fifth-year senior middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis in its meeting rooms, in the locker room and — where it matters most — on the field the rest of this season.

His season-ending knee surgery, performed Wednesday a day after an injury in a noncontact drill Tuesday, could affect the team long after it returns from Notre Dame on Saturday.

Perhaps the toughest question to answer is how the team will recover. Pitt lost a co-captain only two days before players must board an airplane for South Bend, Ind., and play Notre Dame, the No. 5 team in the country.

Coach Pat Narduzzi said Wednesday night on his show on 93.7 FM that Wirginis’ injury “took the breath out of a lot of guys.”

Wirginis, a Fox Chapel graduate, was not only a productive player on defense, leading the team in tackles (41), tackles for loss (seven), sacks (three) and forced fumbles (two, co-leader with cornerback Dane Jackson). But he was an example of what hard work and resiliency can mean to a player.

The injury occurred in an individual drill, Narduzzi said.

“(He) plants his foot and goes down and lays flat on his face,” the coach said.“And you kinda go, ‘He’s going to get up like he normally does.’

“They go down in a game, it’s one thing. They go down in practice, it’s a whole different ball game. Sad day.”

Narduzzi said Wirginis is at home with his family.

“He’s resting,” the coach said. “He said the painkillers aren’t working, which is par for the course. But he’s a tough kid. I just feel bad for him. He’s had an incredible year. You wanted to see him go 13, 14 games. But we’ll embrace those games we had.

“He ended it the right way. He had a heckuva game against Syracuse (last Saturday). Quintin’s had a great career at Pitt. It’s just unfortunate it ended like it did.”

Wirginis, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, is no stranger to misfortune. He missed the 2017 season after suffering a hamstring injury in a non-football related accident just as he was about to start a three-game suspension.

Despite those two strikes against him, Wirginis was welcomed back with enthusiasm by Narduzzi, who called him perhaps the best middle linebacker he has ever coached.

“Our team is one big family and we will certainly rally around him,” Narduzzi said earlier Wednesday in a statement. “Knowing Quintin, I have no doubt he will remain a huge influence in our locker room. His leadership will remain as valuable as ever for our program.”

Coaches relied on Wirginis’ strength and knowledge to make plays on the ball and his football acumen to ensure teammates, many of them younger than him, were aligned properly.

His determination to transform Pitt from an ACC also-ran to a championship contender was best displayed Saturday when he forced a fumble from Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey, repeatedly tugging at the football like “starting a lawn mower,” as he described it later. The ball squirted loose and Jackson picked it up and returned it for a touchdown to put Pitt on the trail of an important conference victory.

Pitt has good depth at linebacker, and two players who have backed up Wirginis this season — sophomores Elias Reynolds and Chase Pine — have earned coaches’ trust and gained considerable playing time already this season.

In a pinch, junior Saleem Brightwell, who started every game at middle linebacker last season, also can play the position. Brightwell is a backup at money (outside) linebacker but is ninth on the team with 17 tackles in six games.

“I’ve been pleased we were able to play a lot of players,” defensive coordinator Randy Bates said Tuesday before the extent of Wirginis’ injury was known. “I believe as guys play more they get better.”

“It’s next man up,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll make a game-time decision (on a starter) and go with it.”

But none of those possible replacements have made the big, game-changing plays that lead to victory since Brightwell’s interception against Clemson in 2016. Reynolds, 6-2, 235, has 10 tackles, and Pine, 6-2, 250, has three. Brightwell’s half-tackle for a loss is the only play among the three players that led to a negative gain this season.

Pitt also lost another starter when tight end Tyler Sear left the team for personal reasons in a mutual agreement with Narduzzi, according to a team official.

Sear, a sophomore from Neshannock, started five of the first six games and recorded two receptions for 9 yards. He also played in nine games last season, starting two and recording one catch for 10 yards. He may be replaced by junior Will Gragg, a transfer from Arkansas, who has three catches for 21 yards.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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