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March 12, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Upper St. Clair’s Repischak picks Pitt, and he isn’t going to just stand around at practice

Upper St. Clair senior Joe Repischak isn’t going to Pitt to ease the burden on the scholarship arms at summer practice (although he certainly will do that).
He decided Wednesday to walk on for two of the most basic reasons: Pitt gave him a chance and he plans to eventually compete for the starting quarterback job.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “I believe I definitely can be a starter.”
Repischak, 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, had no scholarship offers — although Cornell and Penn were among several schools that had shown considerable interest — but he said he wanted to play big-time football.
He will be one of four quarterbacks on campus this summer, joining sophomore Chad Voytik, senior Trey Anderson and incoming freshman Adam Bertke.
At the 2015 spring drills, Repischak could be one of only three quarterbacks at practice. Although he clings to loftier ambitions, he at least eases a personnel shortage at the position.
Pitt contacted him about walking on about a month ago. He and his parents visited the football facility last week, met coach Paul Chryst and other staff members and received a guided tour of the campus from director of football relations Bob Junko (an Upper St. Clair man himself).
“It felt like it’s the best fit for me,” Repischak said. “It seems like they care about their players a lot. It made me feel good about my choice.”
Anderson is the most recent quarterback to enter Pitt as a walk-on and play in a game. In 2011, he played four games as a freshman in relief of Tino Sunseri, completing 12 passes after coach Todd Graham had awarded him with a scholarship.
The most famous walk-on quarterback at Pitt was Tom Yewcic, who started three games in 1976 after injuries to Robert Haygood and Matt Cavanaugh. Pitt won all three on its way to a national championship. In the Navy game, Yewcic made the pitch to Tony Dorsett on the carry in which he broke the NCAA rushing record.
At Upper St. Clair, Repischak led the Panthers (11-1) to an undefeated regular season and the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals where they lost to Woodland Hills, 28-21.
He finished the season throwing for 1,411 yards and seven touchdowns and running for 304 and eight scores. Late in the season, when Upper St. Clair had injuries at running back, he became an important part of the running game.
Repischak, who has a 4.3 grade-point average, plans to major in finance and enter Pitt’s business school.  He will enroll in June when he will begin working out with the team.

 

February 28, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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What? No spring game at Pitt; Chryst again puts his stamp on the program

Leftovers from Thursday’s 42-minute, 40-second chat with Pitt coach Paul Chryst and an opinion (whether you like it or not):
Chryst did not consult with me before he decided not to schedule a spring game for the first time in anyone’s memory.  Former Pitt administrator Alex Kramer, who was a team manager in 1948, said he never remembers a spring without a game.
But if Chryst had lost his mind and asked me what I thought, I would have told him to play the game.
Yes, you lose some practice time (an hour or two).  Yes, it seemed like a waste of time, energy and gasoline to travel off campus to practice when Pitt and the Steelers spent millions to build their shared South Side facility.
But college and professional sports are all about perception. Pitt is one of only three FBS football programs that did not schedule a spring game, and Texas A&M had a good reason – stadium renovation. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy canceled his game, but replaced it with an open practice.
Pitt will not have open practices, but plans to reach out to fans in another way, officials said. And you can be sure the sideline will be lined with recruits and high school coaches on many of the 15 scheduled days of practice. Recruiting won’t be altered one bit by the absence of a spring game.
Nonetheless, taking away something that some fans (not that many) welcomed as a way to usher in a new season won’t sit well in this tradition-steeped region. Even with those who had no plans to attend. Most people around these parts do things for one, simple reason: They have done it before. Why change?
But here’s the main point:
It’s Chryst’s program and he has a right to run it the way he sees fit. When Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson turned over the keys to the program to Chryst 26 months ago, they gave him the power to do as he pleases (within reason, of course, and there is nothing unreasonable about scuttling a poorly attended function).
Pitt is not going to pay Chryst millions of dollars per year and then turn around and second-guess every decision he makes (and I’m sure he did not make this decision without consulting with his superiors).
The man is running the program as he sees fit. He recruits the way he believes is right, he hunts for his type of  player, he runs the offense and defense that he prefers, he hires the coaches whom he knows and believes in and he does not spend one second worrying about what people outside the program think of him or his program. He respects the fans and is grateful for them, but he does not let them change the way he thinks.
For that, I applaud him. Chryst’s strong will is the first clue that Pitt probably hired a good coach.

Business as usual
Further proof that outside forces don’t affect him, Chryst said he won’t change the way he recruits in the wake of Penn State and West Virginia hiring assistant coaches and recruiters (Terry Smith and Tom Bradley) with strong ties to Western Pennsylvania.
“We’re not going to all of a sudden recruit harder,” he said. “I don’t think any of that has anything to do with us recruiting here at Pitt. And I’m not trying to blow them off or not give them credit. There have been a lot of good recruiters in this area for a long time.”
He said recruiting this area “has been our intention the whole time.”

Here’s how you do it
After great success at the Senior Bowl and NFL scouting combine, Aaron Donald returned to the practice facility this week and met with Chryst.
No matter where Donald goes in the draft — and I would be shocked if he’s not a first-round choice — he always will be an example for present and future Pitt players.
“He attacked the Senior Bowl. He attacked the combine. He chose to be a great player,” Chryst said. “He was going to win at those things and he did.”

February 19, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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What if Savage had said yes to Pitt?

NFL Network commentator Mike Mayock knows college football players and their ability to adjust to the next level better than most analysts. His work is among the best because he studies players — in person and on video — like a student preparing for final exams.
So, when he mentioned former Pitt quarterback Tom Savage without a prompt during a three-hour, pre-combine conference call Tuesday, it told me this: Savage will get a chance in someone’s camp this summer.
Mayock, a former NFL and CFL safety who was the Steelers’ 10th-round draft choice in 1981, called Savage “the wild card” in this year’s draft that is top-heavy with promising quarterbacks.
“I saw him throw the football in eighth grade when he played on a team with my son,” said Mayock, a native of Philadelphia. “I said, `For an eighth-grader, he can really rip it.’ ”
Savage has a strong arm, but he isn’t the most accurate passer — 61.2 percent was 55th in the FBS last season — and Mayock acknowledged that.
“He had accuracy issues at times, but he can really push the football down the field,” he said.
Savage is working on that and his footwork in his preparations for the NFL Combine that begins Saturday in Indianapolis.
“A lot of guys in the NFL can throw the ball 70 yards,” Savage said. “The tough thing is doing it with people in your face.”
I think he will open some NFL eyes.
I know it’s not always fair to use hindsight in recruiting, but just imagine if Savage had accepted Pitt’s scholarship offer when he was a junior at Cardinal O’Hara High School, near Philadelphia. Instead, he went to Rutgers and Pitt settled on Kolby Gray, a nice kid from Texas who left school when it became clear he never would start at quarterback.
How the fortunes at Pitt would have changed. For you dreamers:
– Pitt would have had quarterback depth — something it has lacked for years — and a true challenger to Tino Sunseri’s job.
– Speaking of jobs, perhaps it would have saved Dave Wannstedt’s.
– Savage would have been in one offensive system (not three) for five years, and he would have been better prepared for the NFL.
– We never would have met Todd Graham.
– Paul Chryst would be the head coach at Wisconsin.
– And Pitt would have had a more experienced quarterback for its first season in the ACC.
To his credit, Savage is looking forward, not backwards.

February 11, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Losing Engram hurts Pitt, but Chryst tries to make staff even better

The Baltimore Ravens have yet to officially announce the hiring of Pitt wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, but already two names have surfaced as possible additions to the Panthers’ staff.
Both are veteran coaches, who have mentored some big-name players.
* Troy Douglas, the Iowa State defensive backs coach, would bring a quarter-century of coaching experience to the Pitt defense. He has been at 11 schools since 1988, but what matters is that four of Douglas’ pupils are in the NFL: The Oakland Raiders’ Tracy Porter, who had the key interception in Super Bowl XLIV for the New Orleans Saints;  2008 first-round draft choice and All-American Mike Jenkins (Raiders); Nate Allen (Philadelphia Eagles); and Da’Norris Searcy (Buffalo Bills).
Jenkins, Allen, Trae Williams (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Jerome Murphy (St. Louis Rams) were with Douglas at South Florida where the defense finished 10th in the nation in 2008. Douglas coached Porter at Indiana and Searcy at North Carolina.
By the way, Douglas doesn’t want to hear any excuses from his defensive backs when they drop a seemingly sure interception. You’ve heard it before: “If he could catch, he would be wide receiver.”
But here’s what Douglas said about that: “There is no such thing as playing defensive back because you can’t catch. You have to be able to catch the ball. You have to be able to make plays on the ball.”
Pitt picked off only eight passes in 13 games last season. Maybe Douglas can help the Panthers do better.
First, he must accept the job. Bobby LaGesse of the Ames (Ia.) Tribune is reporting that Douglas has an offer, but hasn’t decided to accept it or stay at Iowa State.
Pitt also must juggle some positions to fit another defensive coach on the staff and remain in compliance with NCAA limitations.
* The other possible hire would be a replacement for Engram. The name on coachingsearch.com is Erik Campbell, who spent the past season with the Montreal Alouettes.
Campbell’s connections to Pitt coach Paul Chryst stem from his time coaching wide receivers in the Big Ten at Iowa and Michigan. His pupils at Michigan who became first-round draft choices included Braylon Edwards, David Terrell and Charles Woodson, who won the Heisman as a defensive back and only occasionally played wide receiver.
Campbell also coached Amani Toomer, Jason Avant and Steve Breaston with the Wolverines. He was on the Iowa staff that oversaw the comeback victory against Pitt in 2011.
Again, nothing is official. But if Chryst lands Douglas and Campbell, he has taken a bit of misfortune (losing the talented and highly respected Engram) and made his staff better.

 

February 5, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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It’s time for everyone to move on from the Freebeck flip

I haven’t spoken to Pitt coach Paul Chryst since quarterback Wade Freebeck flipped his commitment from the Panthers to Vanderbilt on Tuesday afternoon.
I’m sure Chyrst wasn’t happy about it. The Pitt coaching staff had invested plenty of time and airline miles in Freebeck.
Chryst and quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger were at Freebeck’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home Jan. 23. Bollinger, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and wide receivers coach Bobby Engram returned six days later.
But I also know this: Chryst quickly moved on. Rebuilding the Pitt football program is a 24/7 job, and there is no time to curse your bad luck.
Maybe Chryst pulled a short list of other quarterback prospects out of his desk drawer and wondered which one he should call first. More likely, however, he resumed making plans for spring drills next month when he will have only two veteran quarterbacks on his roster. He must figure out a way not to wear out the arms of Chad Voytik and Trey Anderson. (Adam Bertke will make three when he signs Wednesday, but he doesn’t graduate from high school until June.)
For sure, Chryst didn’t waste time cursing his bad luck. That is certainly not his style.
That said, do not underestimate the seriousness of losing Freebeck to Vanderbilt. It hurts, badly. It looks bad. It is bad.
Freebeck, 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, is a good prospect who could have competed for the starting job, possibly as soon as 2015. Losing him matters. Pitt has not had good depth at quarterback for several years (other than Chad Voytik’s second half in the bowl game), and Freebeck and Bertke looked like they might resolve that problem.
Now, Pitt needs another plan.
Here’s a possibility: Elizabeth-Forward’s Jaquan Davidson, a 6-foot-2, 173-pound three-star prospect, will sign Wednesday. He played quarterback in high school. In fact, I received this tweet Tuesday night from veteran talent scout Joe Butler of Metro Scouting Index:
“Not to worry about Freebeck, Eliz.Forward athlete Jaquan Davidson is a very capable QB/WR prospect. He may be a QB.”

One more thing
Fans need to stop taking Freebeck’s name in vain on the message boards. Some of the stuff I read Tuesday night looked like it was written on the bathroom wall of a junior high. Grow up, people.
Freebeck, an excellent student, has the right to go to the school of his choice. He said he was thinking about academics, not football, when he flipped. Nice concept. More students should do the same.
Maybe he should have waited longer than June 30, 2013, before choosing Pitt, but NCAA rules allow him to change his mind until signing day.  He and his family exercised that right. Good for them. After all, it’s his future.
The way I see it — and I bet Chryst wouldn’t disagree — Freebeck (or any recruit) should go to great lengths to assure he is making the right decision. If it means changing your mind at the last minute, OK. Do what you think is right.
If it upsets some people who are only invested in the program because they watch on TV or occasionally go to a game at Heinz Field, too bad.
Get over it. Chryst has.

January 21, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Donald puts on a show Monday at Senior Bowl practice

Monday was the first day of the rest of Aaron Donald’s life.
And the former Pitt defensive tackle didn’t waste it, putting on an impressive show for NFL scouts and coaches at Senior Bowl practice in Mobile, Ala. Donald is a member of the North squad, coached by the Atlanta Falcons staff. The game will be played Saturday.
Here is a report from NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst Dane Brugler:
“DT Aaron Donald was an unstoppable force on Monday. Like his play all season, the Pitt defensive tackle was extremely quick in drills and was relentless from snap to whistle. His burst and anticipation off the snap and active energy to fight through and around blocks make him tough for any blocker to handle.
“Donald repeatedly victimized Baylor OG Cyril Richardson at practice, winning with leverage, hustle and fluidity that Richardson has likely never seen before on the football field. Donald’s skill-set is ideal for one-on-one drills so he should shine, but the NFL team that drafts him will get a really good football player.”
Here are some additional comments from Brugler:
– Former ACC quarterbacks Stephen Morris of Miami, Logan Thomas of Virginia Tech and Tajh Boyd of Clemson were “inconsistent on day one, which was almost expected after the up-and-down senior seasons of all three.”
“Boyd in particular struggled with accuracy and his ball placement is a strong concern. Thomas threw a few pretty passes that hit receivers between the numbers, but other fastballs hit the ground or sailed over his intended target.
The good news for this group? The only place to go from here is up.
– Also flashing good and bad tendencies was Miami OT Seantrel Henderson.
– Wide receivers Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin, Robert Herron of Wyoming and Josh Huff of Oregon looked good and have a chance to among the first 100 players drafted in May.
– North Carolina DE Kareem Martin (and his long 34 3/8” arms) did an excellent job combating hand moves from Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort and riding him past the pocket. But it was a good day overall for Mewhort, 6-6, 306, who has shown good improvement from his underclassmen days.
– Northern Illinois S Jimmie Ward is the top safety prospect in Mobile, according to Brugler. “He overcame a few poor angles early and put together a good practice, showing off his foot quickness and aggressive instincts.
– Clemson OT Brandon Thomas projects better at guard where he can operate in a smaller space. He measured in at 34 3/8” arms and will use that length to engage and bury defenders – just ask DE James Gayle of Virginia Tech. Thomas dominated Gayle a few times. But Thomas struggled in space during drills, bringing up questions on whether or not he should stay on the edges.

 

January 19, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt coaches make good impression on Canon-McMillan junior

Pitt coach Paul Chryst still has a lot of work to do and victories to claim before his tenure at Pitt can be called a successful one.
But he did something right while recruiting Alex Paulina, a junior offensive lineman at Canon-McMillan High School. At least that’s what Paulina’s dad David said.
“These guys (Pitt’s coaches) really are some of the best men I have met in college football,” said David Paulina after his son committed to Pitt on Saturday. “How they handle themselves, what their demeanor is. Their whole, entire approach is just kind of bar none.”
I’ve never been fortunate enough to watch Chryst interact with recruits and their parents (I’m sure that would be some sort of NCAA violation). But I’ve been around Chryst long enough to know that he treats people with respect, but makes no promises he can’t keep. If a coach does those things, people will at least listen to what he has to say.
Paulina has offers from Virginia Tech and West Virginia, his father said. Plus, he said they have met coaches at Ohio State, including defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of coaches,” David Paulina said. “This was almost getting crazy.”
Paulina, who is set to graduate 17 months from now, has plenty to prove. He has been a starter at Canon-McMillan since his freshman year and was named to the All-Quad South team that season. But he missed six games last year with a concussion and neck injury.
Pitt took a chance on him, but at 6-foot-4, 280 pounds, Paulina has plenty of potential, according to his Canon-McMillan coach Ron Coder, a former Penn State star who played 10 years in the NFL.
“He’s a great kid,” Coder said. “Hopefully, his senior year he will play real well and dominate.”
Meanwhile, David Paulina answered the question all Pitt fans are asking: Will Paulina actually sign with Pitt 12 months from now. After all, that’s a long time for other schools to whisper in his ear, and Dave said his son has received “an ungodly amount of mail.”
“I know Alex doesn’t want to commit anywhere but there,” David said. “He wanted to commit early so he could enjoy his senior year.”

 

January 15, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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With three weeks to go before signing day, drama leaves Pitt recruiting

National letter of intent day is three weeks from right now (Wednesday), and much of the drama has disappeared at Pitt — some of it not for the better.
Three WPIAL stars held news conferences in their communities to say they were going to West Virginia (Dravon Henry), Michigan State (Montae Nicholson) and Virginia Tech (Shai McKenzie). Pitt could have used Henry and Nicholson in the defensive secondary, perhaps as soon as 2014, but running backs Chris James and Qadree Ollison, plus the return of young, promising backs James Conner and Rachid Ibrahim, make the loss of McKenzie (while a big one) easier for Pitt coaches to swallow.
Speaking of defense, it appears Pitt will get at least one — most likely two — verbal commitments when linebacker Jamal Davis and defensive end Hez Trahan visit this weekend. Trahan said he has informed his chief recruiter, Pitt offensive line coach Jim Hueber, that he will commit before he goes home. Both players come from solid high school programs (Davis goes to Canton McKinley and Trahan to Roman Catholic in Philadelphia).
Trahan, 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, said he wants to stay close to family, but the stability in Pitt’s coaching staff also was a big reason that he chose the Panthers.
“It’s a stable staff, not constantly moving out,” he said. “Coach Hueber recruited me, and he is going to be there next year.”
Roman Catholic coach Joe McCourt said Trahan can play inside or outside on the defensive line.
“I think (Pitt) will start him (outside), but once they get him on the training table and he starts eating, he could go inside, too,” McCourt said. “He’ll live in the weight room. He is a very coachable kid.”
McCourt has sent several players to Division I schools, including defensive end Scott Paxson, who played for Penn State and the Steelers.
“Scott was more polished coming in (to college), but Hez has more upside,” McCourt said.
Trahan, a three-year starter at Class AAAA Roman Catholic, also had offers from James Madison and Massachusetts.
If Pitt gets commitments from Trahan and Davis, that will make 24 in coach Paul Chryst’s second exclusive recruiting class. He added 27 last year. That makes 50 players (2013 quarterback Tra Chapman is the only one who is no longer in school) brought to campus by Chryst, or 58 percent of the roster. The Chryst stamp is becoming more and more indelible.
The only issue is that Pitt left Detroit’s Ford Field after the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl three weeks ago with 83 scholarship players. Subtract 17 seniors, add 24 incoming freshmen and that makes 90, five over the NCAA-mandated limit.
Attrition, which may already be at work, must trim five players from the roster before the freshmen enroll this summer.

January 8, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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New Pitt strength coach promises to turn up the heat on football players

Pitt’s football team opens its offseason training program Thursday with new strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej promising to put players “in the furnace this offseason.”
Kolodziej, who played seven seasons in the NFL and four at Wisconsin, was hired Wednesday after spending the 2013 season as an assistant to former Pitt strength coach Todd Rice, who resigned.
Rice was at Pitt for two seasons (2012-13), but his tenure was marked by too many back injuries and hushed complaints from former players about the team’s strength program.
Kolodziej sounds eager to implement change. And the players seem to like him. Perhaps as an indicator of how the new strength coach has been accepted in the weight room, former Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald immediately retweeted my tweet of Kolodziej’s hiring.
“Our goal is to reassert the Pitt program among the very best in college football,” said Kolodziej, a seventh-round draft choice of the New York Giants in 2001. “We have a sense of urgency to build upon the momentum from our bowl victory. That starts in the weight room this winter.
“It is our responsibility to maximize our players’ abilities and opportunities at Pitt. They may think they know what work is, but we’re going to put them in the furnace this offseason. The great thing is our kids have told me they want to work and be pushed. It’s that kind of desire that produces results on and off the field.”
Kolodziej, who also was a shot putter in college, started 45 games for Wisconsin from 1997-2000 when the Badgers won consecutive Big Ten titles (1998 and 1999). He holds Wisconsin weight room records for a defensive player in the squat and clean. He also holds defensive lineman records in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and pro-agility drill.
After leaving the Giants, he also played for the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals. He was a full-time strength and conditioning intern and a defensive graduate assistant at Wisconsin when Pitt coach Paul Chyrst was the Badgers’ offensive coordinator. Kolodziej owns a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Wisconsin and also has a certification in USA weightlifting, level 1.

January 5, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt loses Kamara to Virginia

Pitt has lost another top recruit who liked what he saw from coach Paul Chryst’s program — just not enough to commit to it.
That seems to be a theme after WPIAL stars Montae Nicholson and Shai McKenzie seriously considered the Panthers before saying they will go to Michigan State and Virginia Tech, respectively.
Jamil Kamara, ranked by Rivals.com as the 19th-best wide receiver in the nation, said Saturday he will attend Virginia after including Pitt and Wisconsin among his final three choices. Kamara played at Bishop Sullivan (Va.) High School and also has offers from Clemson, Florida, Miami, Michigan State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
Landing Kamara would have been important to Pitt’s rebuilding project — he also has some potential on defense — but he is from Virginia Beach and liked the idea of being closer to home than what Pitt offered him.
Virginia coach Mike London is doing a good job with this class, despite having the worst record in the ACC (2-10, 0-8) this season. Virginia is ranked 20th nationally in recruiting (fourth in the ACC), according to ESPN.com. By the way, seven ACC schools are ranked in the top 40, led by Florida State (No. 4). Pitt, which has three Rivals.com four-stars among its 21 commitments, is not on the list.
Pitt has a good shot at another four-star wide receiver, Adonis Jennings of Timber Creek  (N.J.) High School. Jennings, who also is considering Iowa and Arkansas, is playing in the Semper Fidelis All-American game Sunday night in Carson, Calif., and people close to him have said he may make an announcement at that time.
But he plans to visit Pitt on  Jan. 17. Meanwhile, Hawgsports.com (an Arkansas site) reports that Jennings will visit the Razorbacks on Jan. 24.
What if he commits to Pitt before the 24th? What if he commits to Arkansas before the 17th? He also has an uncle who went to Iowa.
Is it any wonder why following recruiting is so maddening?
The one aspect of the Pitt situation that is not in question — wide receivers coach Bobby Engram is key to the process. In only two years at Pitt, he has built strong bonds with several high school players and coaches, inside and outside Pennsylvania.
Some recruits go elsewhere, anyway, but Engram gets the Panthers in the front door.

 

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