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The 3-2-1 Column: Transition classes, biggest surprises and more

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In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re thinking about secret weapons, transition classes, ranking recruits, hoops additions and more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

A thing you should know
There’s something of a standard list that recruits turn to when citing the reasons they picked a school.

It’s like an Oscar speech: you have to thank your family, your friends, your co-stars, your director, God and whoever else.

When you commit to a school, you have to talk about facilities and relationships with the coaching staff and the competitiveness of the team and the academics. It’s just what you do. It has become almost rote. That’s not to say it’s not genuine, but there is something repetitive about it.

But one factor has been sticking out to me lately, and it’s not really a recent development. Through the rash of June commitments, I kept hearing about one element, one part of what Pitt has to offer that seemed to really stick out to the recruits.

It was the Life Skills program.

During an official visit weekend, the recruits will spend time hearing a lot of presentations. Presentations from the coaches on the offense or defense. Presentations from the academic advisors on the available programs. And they’ll spend some time with Penny Semaia, the former Pitt lineman who now heads up the Cathy and John Pelusi Family Life Skills Program.

Recruits kept mentioning that presentation from Semaia, and they’ve been mentioning it for a few years. But the tipping point for me came when four-star receiver Aydin Henningham committed and said this:

“The way the program is set up for the football players is something different. With the Life Skills program for the student-athletes and how the tutors are there for you 24/7, they just talk a lot about life after football, which got me and my dad’s attention.

“When they were talking about the Life Skills program, that’s when it clicked for me. The way he was talking, it just caught everybody’s attention. That’s what made my decision and everybody’s decision, I think. That was really impactful.”

That’s not just an idle quote. That’s an impression - a positive one - and after hearing that from Henningham, I knew I had to dig deeper on the Life Skills program. So I started looking into it and I actually got a chance to spend some time with Semaia talking about what exactly Pitt does for its student-athletes.

What I learned was more than impressive. The goal is to put the student-athletes in the best position for success while they’re at Pitt and after their time at Pitt, and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. 98% of the graduating class in 2017 was placed in a career field within six months of graduation.

98%. That’s a huge number. And I’ve heard the number might even be bigger for the 2018 group.

That’s success. That’s putting kids in position to succeed, not just on the field or on the court or on the mat or in the pool or in the gym, but in life.

You want something to really sell to recruits, something that you can offer that nobody else can? That’s it. Other schools have similar programs, but nobody’s Life Skills program is as big as Pitt’s. Nobody’s. Pitt is, quantifiably, doing more for its student-athletes than anybody else in the country.

And that’s translating to recruiting. Parents buy into it and level-headed kids realize the value in it. It’s a secret weapon that should be a whole lot less of a secret, because Penny Semaia and his crew deserve a ton of credit for the work they’re doing.

Another look back
We continued our series of re-ranking previous recruiting classes this week with a look at the 2015 class. That was an interesting one, just like the 2012, 2011 and 2005 classes because it was a transition class: a class started by one coaching staff and finished by another.

We’ll talk about transition classes in a minute, but let’s talk about 2015 first. That class had its beginnings with Paul Chryst and was completed by Pat Narduzzi, who replaced Chryst after he left for Wisconsin. Narduzzi inherited a decent class with a fair number of commitments and managed to hold onto nearly all of them. By my count, three players decommitted after Narduzzi was hired: quarterback Alex Hornibrook and defensive linemen Kraig Howe and Kevin Givens.

Hornibrook and Howe followed Chryst to Wisconsin and had varying levels of success. Hornibrook was solid; he started 32 games over the last three seasons, including every game in 2014, and the Badgers were 26-6 with him as the starter (the best winning percentage by a quarterback in Wisconsin history, the school’s website tells me). He completed 60.5% of his passes and threw for 47 touchdowns and 5,438 yards over that span. He’ll finish his career at Florida State, where he landed as a graduate transfer this offseason.

Howe has been a nonfactor, appearing in just one game over the last four seasons. Givens played 36 games at Penn State and recorded 13.5 sacks; he left early for the NFL but went undrafted and signed with the San Francisco 49ers.

While Narduzzi lost those three from Chryst’s class, he did add Saleem Brightwell, Anthony McKee, Jazzee Stocker, Allen Edwards, Ben DiNucci and Rafael Araujo-Lopes. Hornibrook had a better career than DiNucci, but overall, Narduzzi finished the class well. And, perhaps more importantly, he held onto the rest of the class he inherited: guys like Jordan Whitehead, Darrin Hall and Quadree Henderson all stuck with the Panthers despite the coaching change.

As with any recruiting class, the 2015 group had its ups and downs. Whitehead may not have reached the top of his potential, for a variety of reasons, but he was very good in his Pitt career nonetheless. Hall and Henderson both had one outstanding year each - with Henderson’s 2016 season being one of the all-time great performances in Pitt history - but the surrounding years left something to be desired.

Dane Jackson has been perhaps the biggest surprise of the class. A versatile athlete at Quaker Valley who didn’t really have a position when he arrived, Jackson has grown quite a bit, both figuratively and literally. Now he’s one of the top cornerbacks in the ACC and seems to be primed to turn a strong senior season into an NFL Draft selection.

The other big surprise from the class was Araujo-Lopes. A very late add by the staff - he committed during the spring of 2015 - Araujo-Lopes was a totally unknown JUCO receiver. But he finished as the team’s leading receiver in each of the last two seasons. Earning that title with a grand total of 80 catches isn’t exactly noteworthy, but he was the most productive receiver on the team, regardless of how ineffective the overall passing game turned out to be.

After those top six or so from the class, though, things thin out real quick. Six of the other nine recruits left before finishing their eligibility. Stocker and Tre Tipton are still at Pitt but haven’t really made a big impact, for a variety of reasons.

Overall, expectations are generally lower for transition classes. They often tend to be a mix of inherited commitments and late-cycle fill-ins; Narduzzi’s fill-ins featured three recruits who had been targeted by the Chryst staff - Brightwell, McKee and Stocker - which isn’t always the case, plus a quarterback who started a handful of games and a receiver who was one of the more effective players during his time with the Panthers.

The turnover rate for the class is fairly high, but again: that’s to be expected with a transition class. That group will finish its eligibility this year.

Difficult transitions
Thinking about that 2015 class got me thinking about more transition classes: specifically that class and the 2012, 2011 and 2005 classes. 2012 was the class that went from Todd Graham to Paul Chryst. 2011 went from Dave Wannstedt to Todd Graham (it wasn’t really a handoff from Wannstedt to Graham; more of a double-reverse with Michael Haywood taking the handoff from Wannstedt and then pitching it to Graham). And 2005 went from Walt Harris to Dave Wannstedt.

So I started looking back at those classes and, boy howdy, was that a trip down memory lane. Here are your refreshers:

2005
2011
2012
2015

Remember those names?

The first thing that stands out is this:

Wannstedt’s 2005 class had almost as many significant contributors as the other three classes combined. Bill Stull, CJ Davis, Mick Williams, Oderick Turner, Gus Mustakas, Rashaad Duncan, Conredge Collins, Cedric McGee, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Shane Murray, Doug Fulmer - that’s 11 guys who made impacts of varying degrees during their time at Pitt.

Meanwhile, the next two transition classes - the back-to-back whammies of 2011 and 2012 - pale in comparison. Each class had some good players, but I really had to stretch to find 10 total between the two. 2012 contained some significant names: Adam Bisnowaty and JP Holtz lead the charge, but Mike Caprara had a good career at Pitt, Bam Bradley played quite a bit and is still in the NFL and Ryan Lewis made a huge play in each of Pitt’s signature 2016 wins.

The 2011 class was a mess, though, which is probably what you would expect when a class of 21 is thrown together in approximately two weeks. Wannstedt had put together a pretty strong group, but it took on water when he was fired and then completely sunk after Haywood’s New Year’s Eve incident. After Graham was hired, he had just a couple weeks of on-the-road recruiting to put something together, and what he came up with wasn’t exactly a long-term solution.

I found five guys in the group who you would say made a positive impact on the field during their careers: Lafayette Pitts, Artie Rowell, Nicholas Grigsby, Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Isaac Bennett. The vast majority of the rest of that class never even saw the field.

Now, that class was a unique situation, to be sure, and Graham was put in a challenging position. I can’t fault him too much for what he assembled in January of 2011; with a limited timeframe and a football program that was taking a lot of heat as it appeared to be slipping backward, Graham did the best he could with what he had.

The 2012 class, on the other hand, is completely on Graham. A number of the commitments that he passed on to Chryst had to be gently dismissed from the class before Signing Day. And only a few of the 16 who actually signed with Pitt ended up sticking it out to finish their eligibility; just six players from that class played a full career with the Panthers: Bam Bradley, JP Holtz, Ryan Lewis, Mike Caprara, Adam Bisnowaty and Darryl Render. That’s actually a worse success rate than the 8-of-21 from Graham’s 2011 class.

So 2012 was about as close to a lost class as you can get. Even as the 2015 class has suffered from some attrition, it is still on track for 60% of the recruits in the class completing their eligibility (or leaving early for the NFL).

For comparison to that 2012 class, which saw 37.5% of its recruits complete their eligibility, the following year’s class brought 27 players to Pitt and nearly 60% made it all the way through (or left early for the NFL). The 2014 class was closer to 50%, but still better than the dismal results from 2012.

Transition classes are always tough to put together, and if someone out there collected data on all transition classes over the last decade, I bet you’d find that they typically trend toward having fewer players make it to the end of their eligibility.

So while it’s fun to remember some of those recruits who signed with Pitt and were never heard from again, it’s probably better to reflect on those who did well, since they’re often part of the exception.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Who stands out from those classes?
Of course, since it’s 2019 and ranking things is what we like to do, I thought I’d rank the players in those four transition classes. Not all of them - how could you order Justin Jackson and Steve Williams? - but maybe the top 10 Pitt players to come out of transition classes.

There were 75 total signings in those four classes, so it’s a wide pool to choose from. But at the same time, it’s not actually that big; I think less than half of those 75 players finished their eligibility at Pitt (or left early for the NFL), so we’re looking at 35 or so players.

Narrowing that to 10 isn’t too hard; actually, the tough part is filling out the 10, since there are some obvious choices (Whitehead, Bisnowaty, Holtz, etc.) to go at the top but a whole group of guys like Gus Mustakas and Cedric McGee and Nicholas Grigsby and Bam Bradley and Mike Caprara who had decent careers but, when lumped all together, are kind of indistinguishable.

So here are the 10 players I chose from the group:

10. Artie Rowell
9. Lafayette Pitts
8. Dane Jackson
7. Mick Williams
6. Bill Stull
5. Quadree Henderson
4. JP Holtz
3. Adam Bisnowaty
2. CJ Davis
1. Jordan Whitehead

Even I have a lot of questions about that ranking.

Like putting Jackson ahead of Pitts. The latter was a rare four-year starter, which is pretty notable. But Jackson is on the eve of his third year as a starter and was an All-ACC honorable mention last year, while Pitts played one year in the Big East and three in the ACC and never received all-conference honors. I’m also guilty of having quite high expectations for Jackson, so there’s some personal bias in ranking him where I did.

You can likely see what I meant about separating someone for that No. 10 spot. I went with Artie Rowell as a two-year starter who would have been a three-year starter if not for a knee injury in his redshirt junior year. But guys like Mustakas and Bradley and Grigsby probably aren’t too far behind.

I also wonder if I under-ranked Stull. He was 19-7 as a starting quarterback at Pitt, winning 18 games over his final two seasons and leading Pitt to its best season since the early 1980’s. Similarly, I wonder if I over-ranked Mick Williams based on his outstanding senior season in 2009 when he had 17 tackles for loss and five sacks as a defensive tackle.

Speaking of one-year wonders, Quadree Henderson certainly fits the bill, but his one year was so superlative that I’m putting him in the top five.

I do think that CJ Davis is probably someone most people would overlook, but they shouldn’t. He started 43 consecutive games, dating from the final six games of his freshman season in 2005 all the way through the Sun Bowl in 2008. That last year, he shifted from guard to center at midseason when an injury left the team looking for a new man in the middle, and he was a key piece of the line, the offense and the team.

Honestly, you could make a case for CJ Davis to be No. 1 on this list, the more that I think about it.

As it stands, I picked Jordan Whitehead to be No. 1, but I’m not 100% sold on that. He was very good at Pitt; there’s no question about it. He was an outstanding athlete who started every year of his career and made plays on both sides of the ball. But he also missed time due to suspensions, which is a knock on him.

Still, Whitehead was really good overall in his time at Pitt, so I’ll give him the top spot. As always, disagreements are welcome.

Who was the biggest surprise?
If you follow recruiting long enough, you’ll find that memory lane is an interesting place. You see a player’s name and you’ll first think of his career at Pitt - or somewhere else - but you’ll also likely have some memories of more than just his time in college.

That’s the fun in following recruiting: when a player gets to campus, it’s not the first time you’re getting familiar with him. Chances are, you’ve known about that player for at least a year and probably more. You remember his recruitment, what schools he had offers from, when he committed and any other storylines surrounding his recruitment.

You’ll also probably remember what you thought of him as a recruit. You’ll remember your expectations for him and whether your excitement for his commitment went beyond “Good, Pitt got another player” to “This guy is going to help win a lot of games.”

Along those lines, there are two situations where you might have been surprised: either the player exceeded your expectations or failed to live up to them. I’m guessing there are far more of the latter than the former, simply because we build recruits up so much that it’s inevitable some will fall short. But for today, let’s focus on the positive:

Who have been the biggest surprises in, say, the last 10 years of Pitt recruiting?

Obviously we won’t count the 2018 class - maybe V’Lique Carter could count, though; I don’t think anybody had him playing offense and averaging 20 yards per carry in his college debut - and obviously the 2019 class isn’t included, so let’s go 2007-17. I know that’s actually 11 classes, but the 2017 class doesn’t have much to write home about just yet, so we’ll turn this discussion up to 11.

2007 - There weren’t many positive surprises in that class; I think that guys like Jabaal Sheard and Brandon Lindsey and Henry Hynoski and Dom DeCicco - not to mention some kid named McCoy - were all expected to be good. If I had to pick a surprise, I would probably go with Greg Williams; he was coming in as a running back but turned out to be a decent linebacker.

2008 - I would say there were a few positive surprises in this class. Andrew Taglianetti was a late add to the class who wasn’t even expected to be on the fall roster but ended up playing as a true freshman. Ryan Turnley looked like an okay lineman out of Hopewell but grew into a multi-year starter. And Manny Williams seemed like a project from Clairton, but he was okay in the opportunities he got.

2009 - I would say that Devin Street exceeded expectations from this class. We thought he could be good because he had some nice physical tools, but I don’t think I expected him to finish his career as Pitt’s all-time leading receiver.

2010 - This was a rough class. There were contributors in the group, of course, and guys like Aaron Donald and K’Waun Williams and TJ Clemmings had very good careers at Pitt. But a whole bunch of the recruits who signed that year went bust, for a variety of reasons. I might pick Clemmings as the biggest surprise, simply because he ultimately found a home at offensive tackle.

2011 - Yeah, this group was not good, which we already talked about. But I’ll give some props to Isaac Bennett here; like the rest of the class, he was a last-minute fill-in, but he had a nice career at Pitt - no worse than third or fourth in the class.

2012 - Another one we already talked about, and not favorably. But I think the surprise of this class has to be Mike Caprara. He was a late add to the class and didn’t have much in the way of expectations around him. But he ended up producing for a few seasons at outside linebacker and was probably better than fans gave him credit for.

2013 - There are a few guys you can point to as surprises in the 2013 class: I think Scott Orndoff outperformed expectations and Jester Weah (eventually) did, too. Even Jeremiah Taleni was viewed as a bit of a project as a January find from Hawaii. But I’ll give the nod to Terrish Webb; viewed as a “gift” offer to help secure Tyler Boyd’s commitment, Webb wasn’t expected to do much at Pitt after his career at Clairton. But he played in every game as a freshman and started 30 games over the next three seasons (limited mostly by an injury in 2014).

2014 - Outside of position changes - Brian O’Neill, Mike Herndon and Connor Dintino all moving to the offensive line, Elijah Zeise moving to linebacker - I’m not sure there were many surprises in the class. At least, there weren’t many positive surprises. Avonte Maddox might have outplayed the expectations. I could say the same for Qadree Ollison and the way he finished his career, but I think there were good expectations for him coming in. If I had to pick one, I’d probably go with Zeise in his move from receiver to linebacker, where he was a multi-year starter.

2015 - I think this one has to be Rafael Araujo-Lopes. Nobody expected much from him as a JUCO receiver who committed and signed in May, but he had a solid Pitt career. Dane Jackson gets an honorable mention here, too; he was tough to project as an athlete out of high school, but he has become a really good ACC cornerback.

2016 - There has been a lot of attrition in the 2016 class - nine of the 24 players who signed are no longer on the roster - but the class also makes up the foundation of this year’s roster. It’s tough to pick the biggest positive surprise, but I might lean toward Elias Reynolds; he seemed like a nice recruit but I don’t know if the expectations were too high. When he was thrust into action last year, he played well at middle linebacker.

2017 - There are some options in this class, although they’re largely based on projections for what will happen this season. Jason Pinnock was expected to be pretty good, but I think he’s on the verge of outplaying those expectations. Nobody knew what to expect from Gabe Houy, but he also seems to be ready for a step up in playing time. I would probably pick one of those two right now while reserving the right to change that opinion a year from now.

JUST ONE MORE THING

An addition for Capel
This is the last item for the column, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant; on the contrary, it’s quite important.

In case you missed the news, Jeff Capel added a piece to the roster on Wednesday when Ithiel Horton announced that he’ll be transferring from Delaware to Pitt. Horton won’t help this season; he has to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. But he’ll have three years to play after that, and that’s potentially big for the Panthers.

Horton made a splash as a freshman at Delaware this past season. He led all rookies in the Colonial Athletic Association by averaging more than 13 points per game and hit better than 40% from beyond the arc. That last part might be his biggest strength and the key asset he’ll bring to Pitt, since the Panthers certainly need to stockpile shooters as much as they can.

Horton told me that Capel sees him as a “combo guard,” potentially playing the point or off the ball. Either one will help, since in 2020-21 Pitt will need either a backup for Xavier Johnson or a replacement for him.

My guess is Horton will fit in as a shooting guard, splitting time with Ryan Murphy in that role. There’s the matter of making the jump from the CAA to the ACC and we can’t assume that Horton will make it smoothly, but he’s got a year to practice against some talented ACC-level guards and should be the better for it when his opportunity comes a year from now.

While he won’t be eligible to play, Horton does bring the number of scholarship players on this year’s roster to `12 and he’s the sixth addition this offseason. Capel would probably prefer to not have that many available spots in any given offseason, but he approached his seven openings with a rather balanced approach: three high school prospects, one junior-college player, one multi-year transfer and one graduate transfer.

That’s about the way I think a lot of people would have drawn it up. The incoming group of six players doesn’t really address the need for size up front, although UNC-Greensboro grad transfer Eric Hamilton will help there. Overall, though, Hamilton, Murphy and Horton should be a nice boost to the roster - again, with Horton sitting out - while the three freshmen have potential to develop.

Capel needs to keep aiming for a higher level of recruiting, to be sure, but he has followed his raise-the-expectations 2018 recruiting class with a solid haul for the next roster.