When Pitt implemented a dime package during a two-minute drill, an undersized walk-on defensive back was put in with the first-team defense. He looked around the huddle and saw future NFL Draft picks in linebackers H.B. Blades and Clint Session and cornerback Darrelle Revis.
When the pass came his way, the safety jumped to intercept it, spinning in the air before he landed. Even now, a year later, he gets excited talking about the pick.
“To be able to make a play like that was awesome,” the safety said. “That was my highlight, probably. Had to be.”
That the highlight of his career came in a spring practice at Center High School in 2006 is a reason why Ross Ventrone transferred from Pitt. He knew he was going to be relegated to special teams and, years from now, that play might be the highlight of his college career.
“All the competition I had at Pitt – I was playing against top receivers like Derek Kinder and watching guys like Darrelle Revis – helped me understand the game better because I didn’t get to play in high school,” Ventrone said. “I loved everything, just being a part of the Pitt tradition, the team, the coaches, but I had to be fair to myself.
“I wanted a legitimate opportunity to play.”
With the blessing and, more importantly, help of Pitt’s staff, Ventrone earned a full scholarship to Division I-AA Villanova, where his brother, Raymond, had starred. A redshirt sophomore, Ross has three years of eligibility left and can start playing for the Wildcats immediately.
His is a success story based on perseverance. Ventrone was 96 pounds as a freshman at Chartiers Valley High School and concentrated on wrestling. He didn’t play football until his senior season, which was limited to the final four games after he tore his hamstring in camp.
Ventrone was invited to walk-on at Pitt, which had recruited Raymond and watched him make the NFL. Ross became a scout-team standout, especially in special-teams drills, because of his desire, dedication and smarts.
“You’d try him at strange positions,” Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said. “I tried him as a ‘Mike’ (middle) linebacker. You knew you’d at least be sound.”
The former 135-pound wrestler developed into a football player who spent the first half of spring drills on the second-team defense at free safety. He was quickly supplanted when Elijah Fields returned from a suspension, however, and knew he’d fall on the depth chart once Irv Brown recovered from shoulder surgery and freshman Dom DeCicco of Thomas Jefferson arrived on campus.
“It always comes down to your investment and making sure the guys with $100,000 scholarships are having opportunities and we are bringing them to their potential,” Rhoads said. “Every time Ross got on the field, he was productive. He’s probably too small, a step too slow (to play at Pitt), but I think he’ll do extremely well (at Villanova). He’s covered in practice against too many good people and showed he can be productive in that regard.”
With the help of video coordinators Chad Bogard and Justin Acierno, Ventrone made a highlight tape from Pitt’s practices and scrimmages to send to other colleges. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, Rhoads and defensive backs graduate assistant Jeff Hafley made calls on his behalf.
“They were awesome about it,” Ventrone said. “They all helped me out. They were talking to a bunch of different schools for me. They really made it easy on me. They were very supportive. I really appreciate everything they’ve done for me.”
At Pitt, Ventrone had grown into a 5-foot-9, 175-pounder who was capable of bench-pressing 225 pounds for 14 repetitions and could run the 40-yard dash in the high 4.4-second to low 4.5-second range.
“That’s the one thing that stood out on his film, his ability to run,” Raymond Ventrone said of Ross. “Another school that contacted him was Albany, which is a Division I-AA scholarship school now. They wanted him to play receiver because he played there for the scout team.
“Pitt understood that they didn’t have the financial investment in him and they understood his reason to try to play somewhere else. I’m excited to see him hopefully get on the field. He’s going to have a better opportunity as far as playing time at Villanova.”
Ross enrolled at Villanova for the second summer session and has been learning the defense while participating in seven-on-seven drills. The workouts are tough, Ross said, but he was well-prepared after undergoing what Buddy Morris puts the Panthers through. In fact, Ross had such a tight bond with Morris that he got choked up when telling him of his decision to transfer.
“I love his personality,” Wildcats coach Andy Talley said. “He’s fit in with the kids. We knew we were getting a great person. We based it on the fact that he was Ray’s brother. And the people at Pitt had nothing but great things to say about Ross.”