Let’s set the record straight on Pitt recruit Jeremiah Taleni, the big defensive tackle who lives and goes to high school in Hawaii.
“I’m Samoan,” he told me late Wednesday night. “I’m just from Hawaii.”
One more thing: Taleni said he could have gone to the University of Hawaii and play Division I football, but he decided to reach a little higher.
“My plan was to play on the east coast,” he said. “To bring Islanders to the east coast. I was trying to set a trend.”
Washington State and Massachusetts also offered Taleni a scholarship, but Pitt was closer to the east coast, his intended destination. More importantly, Taleni developed a good relationship with defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield and coach Paul Chryst.
Taleni said Pitt coaches told him that he is the first player from Hawaii to be offered a scholarship by the university.
I can’t say that Taleni will be a star at Pitt, but I’ll say this: The kid is a bullet off the snap. It’s not that Hawaiian offensive linemen couldn’t block him. On a lot of the video I watched, Taleni was past the blockers before they had a chance to get in his way.
At 315 pounds, he has quickness that is rare for a player of that size.
Taleni, of course, has a lot to learn and the linemen he eventually will face in the ACC won’t be as easy to defeat. Some of them will be just as quick off the ball. If he’s not redshirted this season, most people will be surprised.
But he’s an athlete worth watching.
Taleni is the 25th prospect to verbally commit to the Panthers. Already, it’s the largest class at Pitt since 2006. Expect a few more commitments in the next three weeks.
The College Locker Room
Let’s set the record straight on Pitt recruit Jeremiah Taleni, the big defensive tackle who lives and goes to high school in Hawaii.
Pitt has 25 prospects on its 2013 football pledge list, including only three four-stars (Tyler Boyd, Dorian Johnson and Tre’von Chapman).
Yet, the little-known prospects — especially four big offensive lineman — could turn this year’s recruiting class into one of the best in the ACC. Rivals.com ranked Pitt’s class sixth in the conference last week.
Pitt has pledges from 13 three-stars and nine two-stars, including defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni, the first Hawaiian offered a football scholarship by Pitt (or, at least, in anyone’s memory). Taleni may not help until 2014, but his quickness at 315 pounds has the Pitt coaches intrigued.
A couple of other lightly recruited players from Wisconsin could end up at Pitt, too, after visiting this weekend.
– Wide receiver Jester Weah of Madison (Wisc.) Memorial High School, who is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential, according to coach Mike Galindo.
Weah has been mainly a basketball player at Madison, starting as a sophomore for a state championship team in Wisconsin’s biggest classification, averaging 20 points per game this season and recording six dunks in one game.
Galindo said Weah, whose uncle George was a celebrated Liberian soccer player who once ran unsuccessfully for president in that nation, is one of the top athletes ever at the school that is known for its outstanding sports teams.
“He figured (football) out real fast,” Galindo said. “He is a natural learner.”
– Linebacker Zach Poker of Oconomowoc (Wisc.) High School, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound athlete, who is being recruited by Pitt as a linebacker. But he played wide receiver, fullback, tight end, kicker, punter and returned kicks in high school.
He also plays basketball and has thrown the shot put 60 feet.
Poker is looking at Air Force and Army, along with Pitt and Western Michigan, but his coach Ryan McMillen said Poker turned down scholarship offers from some MAC schools because he didn’t like their engineering program. That’s the type of character player coach Paul Chryst wants to add to his program. If they can play, of course.
Weah and Poker don’t even have offers from Pitt yet. And if they get them and accept, they likely will be redshirted next season. But they could develop into good players and, eventually, help the Panthers build desperately needed depth.
Pitt recruited a similar athlete last season when it offered a scholarship to offensive lineman Gabe Roberts, who could have walked on at Wisconsin. Roberts was redshirted last season by the Panthers, but he could compete for a starting job in 2013.
“The first thing (Pitt) kids say when you mention that kid’s name is `He’s a beast,’ ” said Bob Lichtenfels, a nationally known recruiting analyst with 247.com.
“Sometimes, that kid with fewer offers has more to play for and he comes in a little hungrier. Just because they are under the rader to us doesn’t mean they are under the radar to (coaches). You have certain guys who fit what you are trying to do.”
While talking to Oconomowoc coach Ryan McMillen, I asked him how the high school coaches in the state feel about Chryst and other members of his Pitt staff, who previously coached at Wisconsin.
“Their presence is felt. They have built a lot of relationships,” McMillen said. “They have built a lot of trust.”
Pitt redshirt junior wide receiver Devin Street said Wednesday night on Twitter that he will make an announcement Thursday, also on Twitter.
Street wasn’t specific, but he has been exploring his potential status in the NFL Draft this year and weighing it against a return to Pitt next season when he has chance to:
Become a team leader, one of the top pass catchers in the ACC and an even higher draft choice in 2014. If he comes back to school, he will have the opportunity to get bigger, stronger and more attractive to the NFL.
If Street decides to leave school early, however, he will get drafted. He has the speed and size that the NFL desires, and he is playing for a smart, highly respected offensive-minded coach.
No one, not even quarterback Tino Sunseri, benefited more from the Paul Chryst coaching staff than Street. He looked like a different player this season — quick out of breaks, able to run away from most defensive backs, dependable with the ball in the air and a playmaker. He led the Big East in receptions (73) and was third in yards (975).
But there is only one reason for college stars to leave school early: He must be sure that he will be drafted in one of the top three rounds. Fourth round? Not high enough, in my opinion. (Of course, it’s not my decision to make.)
Another point (which Street should ignore):
Pitt would be in big trouble without him. Senior wide receivers Mike Shanahan and Cam Saddler will be gone, leaving tight ends Drew Carswell and J.P. Holtz (13 receptions each) as the Panthers’ leading returning pass catchers. The top returnee at wide receiver will be Ronald Jones (seven receptions, 66 yards).
Also (something Street may have a hard time ignoring), he will become the leading pass catcher in Pitt history with only 28 receptions. He will need 1,015 yards to pass Antonio Bryant for first place on the all-time receiving yardage list.
Bottom line: Pitt needs Street.
Does Street believe he needs Pitt? His answer Thursday afternoon will provide the answer.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Pitt hasn’t won three games in a row since 2010, but a victory Saturday against Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl will match that winning streak.
That would be no small accomplishment for first-year coach Paul Chryst, especially after the team followed up its two previous two-game winning streaks this season with two losses in a row.
Beating Ole Miss won’t be easy, largely because the Rebels have more speed on offense than Pitt has on defense. Plus, the Rebels have been competitive, if not successful, in the SEC.
Ole Miss had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of its game against Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel before losing, 30-27. Texas A&M won, despite committing six turnovers.
The Rebels also nearly upset Vanderbilt, losing, 27-26, even though quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 403 yards. The next week, Ole Miss ventured into Baton Rouge to play LSU and led, 28-20, after three quarters. The Rebels ended up losing, 41-35.
Those games represent Ole Miss deficiencies on both sides of the ball, but they also indicate the Rebels can score. In 10 of 12 games, they recorded 26 or more points — seven times reaching 30.
In the most recent two games, wide receiver Donte Moncrief totaled 13 receptions for 334 yards and five touchdowns in losing to LSU and beating Mississippi State.
Overall, Moncrief finished fifth in the SEC with an average of 79 receiving yards per game and a total of 948.
– Pitt needs to control the game’s tempo with a running game, so Ray Graham and Rushel Shell need to play well behind a rebuilt offensive line.
Zenel Demhasaj, who came to Pitt in 2011 from Nassau (N.Y.) Community College, will start at right tackle. Demhasaj is 6-7, 325 pounds, but this will be his first major-college start. Matt Rotheram, a natural guard who may move there permanently next year, will switch from right tackle to right guard to replace Arthur Doakes, who has been suspended for violating team rules.
Doakes is the second offensive line suspended by Chryst this season, which probably bothers him as much as any loss this season.
– Pitt can beat Ole Miss because players and coaches always prepare well, and they minimize turnovers. In fact, Pitt is the only team in the country with single-digit turnovers lost (eight).
Predicted score: Pitt 27, Ole Miss 24.
As always, watch, but don’t bet.
– Quick story from former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerfful, the keynote speaker Friday at the Compass Bowl luncheon:
Wuerfful, the 1996 Heisman Trophy winner, attended a Heisman ceremony a few years ago where he was followed by a boy with a helmet that he apparently wanted signed.
Wuerfful was wary of autograph hounds using children to get autographs, and he knew if the item was personalized, that would diminish the worth of the helmet.
So,. when he asked the boy whose name should he put on the helmet, the boy was silent. He asked again, and the boy just stared at him.
Finally, the boy said, “I don’t know who you are, but I saw you talking to Tim Tebow. Could you get his autograph for me?”
– Wuerfful gave an inspirational speech about his ministry, which he started in New Orleans to help grow impoverished neighborhoods. He also talked about his battle with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that can cause paralysis.
He is recovering, but admits he moves a little slower these days. He was able to joke about the spinal tap he received early in his treatment when the doctor told him, “Don’t worry, you’re in good hands. I’m an Alabama fan and (the other doctor) is an Auburn fan.”
Pitt wide receiver Devin Street, well-spoken and smart, appears to be more eager for his senior season than the NFL draft.
Street, a redshirt junior, said coach Paul Chryst suggested he file the necessary paperwork to determine his potential standing with the NFL, but he said he doubts he will leave.
“(Coming back) is a great opportunity for me to get a little stronger and improve my game,” he said.
He also said he likes being one of the older players on the team.
“Guys come to me and ask me questions,” he said. “I would definitely be excited to get back at it next year.”
He did admit, however, that the presence of NFL scouts at the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 5 will be exciting.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to go out there and prove what I have to offer,” he said.
Even if the scouts will file it away until 2014.
KEEP AN EYE OPEN
Chryst is using pre-bowl practices to get a look at young players and put down a foundation for spring drills. After I spoke to a few players Tuesday, these names surfaced as future Panthers to watch:
– Freshman safety Jevonte Pitts of Woodland Hills
– Freshman wide receiver Chris Wuestner
– Senior-to-be quarterback Tom Savage
– Redshirt junior running back Desmond Brown.
Street said Savage has one of the strongest arms he has ever seen.
Chryst said he won’t burn anyone’s redshirt in the bowl game and probably will stick with the same rotations of personnel he has used all season.
READ MY LIPS
A reporter asked Chryst if he was pleased that the rumors connecting his name to the Wisconsin opening had a short shelf life.
He answered that he had no trouble keeping his focus on Pitt, no matter how long his name was out there.
“There was a lot more talk around it than what I lived,” he said.
Asked to elaborate, he complied, smiling: “There was a lot more talk around it than what I lived.”
End of discussion.
I like the way Chryst approaches his job and refuses to complicate it with clutter.
NO NEED TO WORRY
Linebacker Todd Thomas said he never was worried about Chryst leaving.
“Coach Chryst came here for a reason,” he said. “There is no way you’re going to come and preach what he did and just leave. He’s a good guy. He’s a real good coach. I knew he was here for the long haul.”
LESSONS FROM GRAHAM
Freshman running back Rushel Shell said he learned a lot playing behind senior Ray Graham, and the best of it was unrelated to football.
He said Graham told him, “Whenever things aren’t going your way and it looks like everything is about to just end, just keep on pushing and eventually you will come to the light.”
Shell added that he was unconcerned when Graham received the bulk of the carries in the latter part of the season.
“I feel like you should put whoever is doing the best in the game, and that’s who was doing the best,” Shell said.
OFF TO WISCONSIN
Glassboro, N.J., running back Corey Clement, who committed to Pitt in June before changing his mind, has said he will attend Wisconsin. Clement is the 15th-ranked running back in the nation, No. 1 in New Jersey.
Late Tuesday afternoon, while I was immersed in another assignment, calls, texts and tweets came flying at me like locusts.
Everyone wanted to know: “Do you really think he’s leaving?”
Another tweet wanted to know: “so um how big is Chryst’s buyout.”
All of this because Bret Bielema vacated the head-coaching position at Wisconsin to accept the same job at Arkansas. Suddenly and understandably (given events of a year ago), Pitt fans launched into panic mode, thinking Pitt coach Paul Chryst — a Wisconsin graduate and Madison native — was the logical successor to Bielema. Not just Pitt fans, but many people within and without college football assumed Chryst would be Wisconsin’s first chioce.
I heard such things as “seven coaches in two years” and “who will be the third interim coach at the Compass Bowl?”
Never mind that Chryst — to my knowledge — never was offered the job in the immediate hours after the Bielema story went viral.
Nonetheless, while Pitt assistants quickly started calling recruits to assure them Chryst was staying, the coach and Pitt officials wisely issued a statement, affirming his commitment to the University of Pittsburgh. Here it is, word-for-word:
“I understand the speculation surrounding my name given today’s developments. I am committed to the Pitt football program and the University of Pittsburgh. I am focusing all my time and energy on our team’s bowl game preparation and recruiting a great group of young men to join our program and this outstanding university. We are working hard every day to re-establish this program and I am excited about the future of Pitt football.”
Chryst never mentioned the Wisconsin vacancy specifically, so he didn’t tell us whether or not he would be interested, if it was offered.
But I think that was a calculated response, offered out of respect to the university he served for 12 years as student-athlete and later assistant coach. He tiptoed around the elephant in the room, largely because he didn’t feel the need or benefit in expressing disinterest in a job that wasn’t offered. Yet.
Of course, situations can change. Nothing would surprise me. That’s why it might be a smart idea for the university to turn up the volume on Chryst’s Pitt contract. Just my opinion. I know, it’s not my money.
As I told another caller Tuesday night, Todd Graham was not Arizona State’s first choice. ASU didn’t turn to Graham until the school had been turned down by others. Who knows where Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez will turn if he still needs a coach by the weekend?
The first name (other than Chryst) I heard connected to Wisconsin was that of Miami’s Al Golden. But isn’t his name brought up every time someone leaves a head-coaching job? Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco also is a hot name.
To answer those people who want to know if I think Chryst will leave, here’s the answer:
I believe Chryst is among the most honorable of men. A good guy, with good intentions. I believe he will respect his commitments to Pitt, the one he made last December when he was hired and the one he re-affirmed Tuesday night. Chryst realizes the job of rebuilding the program is too big to finish in 12 games.
If this was 2014 and Chryst had won nine or 10 games in consecutive seasons, Pitt fans might have reason to worry. Today, Chryst believes he has a job to do here.
I believe he wants to finish it.
That doesn’t mean Pitt fans have nothing to worry about. That doesn’t mean Alvarez will throw away Chryst’s phone number. And that doesn’t mean Chryst will ignore the phone when/if it rings.
Sadly, I think many Pitt fans will lose plenty of sleep until Wisconsin hires someone not named Paul Chryst.
A wise coach once said: “You are what your record says you are.”
In the spirit of the college bowl season, let’s amend that slightly: “You go where your record tells you to go.”
For Pitt (6-6), that means a third consecutive trip Jan. 5 to historic Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., for the BBVA Compass Bowl.
“Should (have) purchased a timeshare in Birmingham,” tweeted senior safety Andrew Taglianetti, who has been on both previous trips.
Taglianetti was joking, and his teammates made similar jocular comments last week when discussing possible bowl destinations (“Anywhere but Birmingham”; that type of thing).
But the truth is the Panthers are thankful to be going anywhere — even if it’s Birmingham. Without the bloated bowl system, which rewards 70 of 120 FBS schools with another game and a little vacation, Pitt would be going to class — or doing something equally mundane — instead of attending the nice luncheon the Compass Bowl people set up for them the day before the game.
They are all smart enough to know that if even one of their close losses (Syracuse, Notre Dame, Connecticut) was reversed, the Panthers would be going somewhere else.
My opinion: If you’re not going to a BCS Bowl, what difference does the destination make? You still get your little treat bags, free food and a chance to play on national television no matter where you go.
In Pitt’s case, the bowl experience this year will be different and better for the players because their coach won’t be elsewhere. The past two years, Pitt was led by interim coaches Phil Bennett and Keith Patterson — good, honorable men who did a fine job under the circumstances — after Dave Wannstedt was fired and Todd Graham resigned.
Last year, especially, there wasn’t much sentiment for the game against SMU, and practices were about 15 minutes long in Birmingham. (I’m exaggerating about the practices, but not by much). It was little surprise, then, that Pitt lost to a mediocre Conference USA team, 28-6.
This year, coach Paul Chryst will conduct the 15 pre-bowl practices with one eye on the opponent (Ole Miss of the SEC) and another on next year.
I know Chryst well enough to feel certain when I write these words: Pitt will not be looking for a new head coach before the bowl game, such as it did in 2010 and 2011. It has found its man, and the program is in good hands venturing into the ACC in 2013.
Chryst helped the Panthers resurrect their season three times this year, following up three two-game losing streaks with two victories in a row each time. The bowl offers them a chance to make it three and build momentum entering next spring.
Besides, the opponent and coaching staff are different and some of the players (freshmen Rushel Shell and J.P. Holtz, for example) never have played there.
Plus, 85-year-old Legion Field is a historic site.
Bear Bryant once roamed the sidelines when Alabama played home games there. A monument to the Bear stands outside the gates.
The legendary Iron Bowl — the annual game between Alabama and Auburn — was played there from 1948-1988.
Joe Namath played there as a collegian for Alabama and as a pro for the New York Jets in a regular-season game against the Boston Patriots in 1968.
The Birmingham Stallions of the USFL and the Birmingham Fire of the World League used Legion Field for home games.
To this day, Alabama-Birmingham plays its home games there.
The 1996 Atlanta Olympics used Legion Field for soccer, and once drew a record crowd of 83,810 for U.S. and Argentina.
And, then, there’s this: The media hotel has happy hour every night from 5-7 p.m. — free of charge.
What bowl do you think I was rooting for?
A couple of quick notes before putting the 12th Pitt game of the season to bed:
– Coach Paul Chryst acknowledged what he called “bad football” against South Florida. And it was played by the winning team. The Pitt offense committed 10 of the 13 penalties called against the Panthers, including six false starts in a stadium that was not noisy.
– Tight end J.P. Holtz has scored a touchdown every four times he has made a catch (3/12).
– The defense has allowed one touchdown in the past 10 quarters.
– Outside linebacker Todd Thomas returned an interception 33 yards — from the Pitt 5-yard line to the 38 — when he had little else but open field in front of him. Thomas said prior to his knee injury, he might have scored on the play. “I’m not 100 percent yet, but probably around next year in the spring, I’ll be ready to roll. I think I’ll get my giddy-up back.”
– Chryst didn’t rule out allowing senior wide receiver Cam Saddler to return to the team for the bowl game. “We’ll see,” Chryst said. Saddler was suspended for the South Florida game for disciplinary reasons.
– Pitt possessed the football for 41 minutes, 30 seconds vs. USF, more than 2/3 of game. That’s the first time the Panthers have held the ball for more than 40 minutes since beating Rutgers in 1988.
– Who knew that when Tino Sunseri threw an interception in the first half of the Cincinnati game way back on Sept. 6, he would throw only one more the rest of the season?
– With two in 361 attempts, Sunseri has been picked off about one-half of 1 percent of the time (.00554).
– Math teachers, feel free to check my arithmetic.
When former Gateway standout Cam Saddler decided to commit to Pitt five years ago, the Big East was one of the attractions, he said.
Times have changed.
“It’s not the same Big East,” Saddler said on the eve of his last Big East game Saturday night at South Florida. “If I was getting recruited (now), I don’t think it would be as appealing to come to Pitt.”
Five of the eight teams that were members of the Big East during Saddler’s freshman season in 2008 have either left or will leave the conference in the next year or two. Including his own school.
The Big East was/is a conference with an automatic-qualifying status for a BCS bowl (until 2014), but one that Saddler, 5-foot-7, figured was built for him. Plus, Pitt was coming off a stunning upset of Big East champion West Virginia the previous season, and Saddler and the 19 members of his recruiting class — 13 of whom ended up making significant contributions to the program — figured they could win at least a couple of conference titles.
That never happened, but the Class of 2008 (38-25) still can reach 40 victories (for an average of eight per season) by beating South Florida, advancing to a bowl and winning there.
“The Big East wasn’t a conference with (especially) huge guys, so I felt like I was able to a pounding,” Saddler said. “But I still took a (bigger-than-expected) pounding. It was worth it though, man.”
He does have one regret: He won’t compete in the ACC, which Pitt will join next year.
“They are going to play all the cool teams,” he said, “and now I don’t get a chance to play them.”
Born five years too soon.
– Saddler said he took the hardest hit of his life last Saturday when Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene collided with him on a punt return.
Several days later, Saddler had ice on left shoulder and said he was having trouble getting into a comfortable sleeping position. But he said he will return punts at South Florida.
Greene also was injured on the play, and stayed on the Heinz Field turf for several minutes after the hit while trainers tended to him. Greene, who is Pitt running back Ray Graham’s brother, recovered in time to play Thursday night in the Big East title-deciding game against Louisville.
“Ray said (Greene) is feeling good, so that’s good,” Saddler said. “I want to send my best wishes out to him.”
Wide receiver Terrish Webb, who was dominant Friday in Clairton’s historic 59-14 WPIAL championship victory against Sto-Rox, received a welcome surprise Saturday morning in the form of a scholarship offer from Pitt.
Webb caught four passes for 99 yards against Sto-Rox, including touchdown receptions of 22 and 24 yards.
Webb, 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, previously committed to Kent State, and he said Saturday that he has not de-committed. He also has offers from Toledo and Arkansas State.
He said he plans to take an official visit to Pitt, but he did not attend the Rutgers game on Saturday at Heinz Field.
“I’m still thinking about it,” he said of the Pitt offer. “I’m going to see how it all works out.”
He did admit, though: “I’m pretty excited.”
Pitt already has a verbal committment from Webb’s teammate defensive back Titus Howard and, of course, is chasing Clairton’s big-time recruit, Tyler Boyd.