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November 22, 2012

Commit Tales, Part One

Today Panther-Lair.com presents Commit Tales, a walk through Pitt's recruiting class with stories of the recruits and the seasons they've had.

Proving Ground

Zach Challingsworth had a lot to prove during his senior season.

With differing opinions about his skills, the competition he faced and his prospects as a Division I player, the South Fayette receiver wanted to prove all of his doubters wrong and show what he could do.

Based on the numbers, it seems his mission was accomplished.

"That's what I wanted to do this year," Challingsworth said. "I see the stuff on the (message) boards and that. I know that people doubt me and everything, but that comes with everything. This year, I really wanted to prove that I deserved a scholarship. A lot of people said it was given to me because they (the coaches) felt bad. This year, I finished up with almost 1,200 receiving yards on 58 catches and 17 total touchdowns.

"People say that I don't go up against the best d-backs, but what kid does. You're not going to go up against Division-I kids week in and week out. So I just tried to prove myself on and off the field. I think I did a good job of it this. Hopefully, the fans feel more comfortable with me coming in this year."

The numbers for Challingsworth, who's team lost in the WPIAL semifinals to Washington and finished with an 11-1 record, were nothing short of stellar. He caught 58 passes for 1,190 yards and 15 touchdowns. He never had less than three catches or 52 yards in a game and scored a touchdown in every contest. He only had one drop on the entire season.

But it wasn't just receiver where Challingsworth impressed. He rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns. He recorded four interceptions on defense and returned two for touchdowns. He averaged 37.9 yards per punt, and finally, he served as both the kick and punt returner, gaining 33.3 yards per kick return and 15.4 yards per punt return.

"I feel like I can do anything they want me to whether it's returning kicks, returning punts or playing special teams or you name it, I'd do it," said Challingsworth, who leaves South Fayette with a 43-7 record. "I'm blessed that the coaches at my school put my in a position to get exposure like that. I was recruited as a receiver, but I feel like I could have been in the athlete category because with all the things they have me do, it really shows the athleticism I have and the potential that I can play."

Challingsworth is now excited to move to the next chapter in his life. He believes Pitt's shown this season that the Panthers can play with anyone in the country. He's also intrigued by the improvement he's seen from the receivers - especially Devin Street - under the tutelage of receivers coach Bobby Engram.

"They've had him for one year. I'll be lucky enough to have him for four or five," Challingsworth said. "It's a great opportunity and a great position to be in because he understands the coaching aspect, but also the player aspect of what we need to do and how you get there. He's the best wide receiver coach in the nation. No doubt about it, with his resume, he just gets it."

Down But Not Out

Tony Harper's senior season didn't go exactly as planned when he injured his knee early in the season. His team finished 4-6 overall, but Harper tried to make the most of his final year at the high school level.

"I took a hit in the second game," Harper said. "I caught a pass coming across the middle and got hit on my knee. I sprained my MCL and after that I missed the next two games.

"Then, I decided to play through it. I ended up missing overall four games, but I wore a knee brace and played through it. I've been rehabbing since the season, and it's pretty much a 100 percent now."

The injury mostly affected Harper's ability to cut, and the wear and tear of the season made things worse. Still, he finished with about 15 catches as he acclimated to the H-back position.

"I was pretty confident in being able to [play the position] when I get to Pitt," Harper said. "When I was working at the camp with Coach Rudolph, I never really did much of it before, but I was pretty successful in the camp.

"Going into the season, I was doing pretty good at it. I was successful early before I got hurt. I still have it in my mind that I can definitely do it at that position. I think I'll be even better at it under Coach Rudolph."

Now that Harper's senior season is behind him, he's looking forward to his time at Pitt. He's currently at 205 pounds and wants to put on more weight before getting to Pittsburgh, and he's ready for the road that lies ahead.

"I'm even more excited about it now than when I first committed," Harper said. "Their record doesn't really show the team they are right now. I think they easily could have won a few more games."

"I'm lifting with one of the assistants who played at Ohio State, so he's working me out pretty hard. They want me to come in about 215 or 220 pounds, so I should easily be able to do that."

Answering The Call

Matt Galambos found himself in an interesting situation.

After Haverford School's sophomore running back went down with an injury in the season's second game, the coaching staff approached Galambos, the starting tight end, to play running back.

"I thought each back would get like 10 carries," Galambos said, "but in the first game, I had 19 carries and 206 yards. After that, they saw what I could be at running back, and they just put more trust in me every game. Some games I would get more carries, some less, but it was interesting being back there."

Galambos finished the season with 156 carries for 818 yards and six touchdowns. He also added 11 catches and 152 yards receiving. On defense, Galambos amassed over 100 tackles, five sacks and snagged an interception.

Though slated to play linebacker at Pitt, Galambos' performance on offense got the Pitt coaching staff talking.

"They always joke around. I showed them my tape, and they really enjoyed me at running back," he said. "Of course, I always talk to Coach (Chris) Haering, the linebackers coach, so he doesn't want me to be on the offensive side of the ball. But he said they always debate offense or defense when they watch my film. It doesn't really matter to me, wherever I get a chance to play."

Wherever Galambos ends up playing, he's excited to get started at Pitt. He believes some of the inconsistencies the team's faced this season will go away as the team gets accustomed to head coach Paul Chryst. Galambos was sad to see his high school season end, but he's ready to open the next chapter of his life.

"It was a little bittersweet," he said. "I was sad two weeks ago, but I'm excited to get working out. I'm going to work out 10 times harder than last year because the college level is a lot hard than high school, the speed and everything. I'm just excited to get better and do whatever I can to try to help out Pitt next year."

Fast Finish

It's not how you start, but it's how you finish. Rachid Ibrahim took that to heart, and it paid off.

Ibrahim and the Avalon School team was struggling on offense. The lack of chemistry between the running back and his offensive line took its toll Avalon's ability to run the football. It was so bad that an assistant coach even got in Ibrahim's face to get his attention.

But coming off Avalon's third loss in its last four games, Ibrahim committed to Pitt. Not wanting to be known as a senior with one foot out the door, a light came on, and Ibrahim became the player Pitt coveted in the first place.

"I started off real slow at the beginning of the year on the offensive side of the ball at least," he said. "As we kept going, I developed more chemistry with the offensive line, and as the team, we got a lot of things going. We ended on a four-game winning streak. I think it was just about getting together, and getting that chemistry going. Once we got that, we were unstoppable."

In those four games, Ibrahim rattled off 1,143 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. It also included a pair of back-to-back 300-plus yard games immediately after committing.

Ibrahim was pegged as a safety when recruited by Pitt, but after seeing his performance in the final few games, he could have a future on offense.

"I finished out the season on a really high note, and I think the coaches saw that," Ibrahim said. "My coach told them you might want to look at Rachid at running back. I had two back-to-back 300-yard games. So they reviewed those games and really liked them.

"Even from the beginning, they talked to me about offense but told me their need was at safety. That's why they pushed me toward that, but they never ruled out offense. They're going to look at me on both sides."

With his high school career behind him, Ibrahim is ready to contribute at Pitt. He knows that this season has been rough for coaches, players and fans alike, but he believes things are starting to look up for the Panthers.

"I'm looking at the bright side rather than looking at right now," Ibrahim said. "I'm looking at what it's going to be like for the next four or five years when I'm there. We really have some promising things going on, and the coaches have us going in the right direction. I'm really excited."

Recruiting Never Ends

Shakir Soto thought committing early was the best thing for him, believing it would allow him to focus solely on football during his senior season. So, in late April, he became the third commit in Pitt's 2013 recruiting class and thought his recruiting days were behind him.

He was wrong. But in a good way.

Since joining the Panther family, Soto has been a recruiter of sorts among the 2013 recruiting class. He's been in contact with all of the commits, trying to strengthen the bond of the prospects coming to Pitt.

"I've talked to all the commits," Soto said. "I talked to Dorian (Johnson) before he committed, me and him talked a lot. I've talked to all of them.

"I just wanted to become a leader now instead of waiting until later. I want us to all become boys and become a family. I talk to them almost everyday. I'm just an out-going type of person, and I like to be a leader."

Still, his role of recruiter didn't affect his play on the field. He finished the season with over 100 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, and also recovered six fumbles. His team also came a long way from finishing 3-7 in his freshman season to a 7-3 record this year and a playoff berth.

"Committing early really helped me a lot," Soto said. "I got to focus on just my senior year of football. Everything just increased my speed, power. I became a better football player, a better leader and a better person."

However, with his high school season behind him, Soto is ready to start at Pitt after graduating in December. He's already reached out to the fan base through the Panther-Lair.com message boards (and likes the nicknames "Shak Attack" and "Sack Soto" equally), and he wants to be the best he can be at Pitt.

"It's good to start that relationship with the fans because more people you know, the more comfortable you get and the better you play," he said. "I just want to let them know when I get to Pitt that I'm going to work my butt off to be the best person I can be and the best player I can be."

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