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A Rare Talent

One look at Greg Romeus and you see a world of potential, the type of size and athleticism that projects him as a future NFL player. One conversation with the Pitt redshirt freshman defensive end and you wonder whether he’s either too naïve to know it or too humble to admit it.

Regardless, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Romeus is an emerging star on the Panthers’ defensive line, not so much for his statistics but his ability to make plays others can only dream of, oftentimes in crucial situations.

“You want players that coaching doesn’t make them good,” Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said. “We want to fine-tune and make him a technician, and that’s what Greg is – he’s become a great technician – but we want guys who can feel plays and make plays, and he’s shown us he has those abilities.”

Against Cincinnati, Romeus made a pair of third-down plays that forced the Bearcats to punt. The first came early in the second quarter, when he broke up a pass on third-and-27 at the Cincinnati 44. The second came on a third-and-8 at Cincinnati’s 46, when Romeus tracked down quarterback Ben Mauk and forced another punt.

“The play he made on the quarterback, he probably would have ran for 15 yards, but he made a tremendous play,” Gattuso said. “One play that no one talked about and no one saw is that he jumped on a short pass toward our end zone and the quarterback had to throw over him out of bounds. He presents different problems out there.”

Although Romeus hasn’t cracked the starting lineup, his repetitions are increasing on a weekly basis and he’s positioned himself for a starting job next season, after Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop graduate. Romeus has a chance to become to Pitt’s defense what quarterback Pat Bostick and tailback LeSean McCoy are to its offense.

“Every week, he gets better. He’s no different than Pat Bostick and LeSean McCoy in that he’s a big puppy out there sometimes,” Gattuso said. “He’s just not used to all the things that are happening. Every week is a new learning experience for him.”

Romeus also endured a setback when he broke his right hand earlier this season, and had to play with a cast. Gattuso called Romeus an “exciting player” with a “lot of talent,” noting that he might have surprised himself by knocking two offensive linemen on their backs in practice.

Even so, Romeus is in his third season of playing organized football and only his second competitively (he was restricted to the scout team last fall). Romeus has plenty of room for improvement, but certainly has the tools.

“He needs to understand how important little things are to being a great defensive lineman. He makes spectacular plays, but a couple of mistakes cost us a few yards,” Gattuso said. “He eliminates experience problems every single week. That’s what he doing right now.”

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt was asked how the Panthers found Romeus, who didn’t play football until his senior year at Coral Glades High School in Coral Springs, Fla. Turns out, special teams coordinator Charlie Partridge, a Florida native, spotted Romeus in a Broward County all-star game and convinced him to visit Pitt. Romeus had made a verbal commitment to Central Florida, but reneged and switched his choice to Pitt.

“We watched a tape on him. I saw about three plays. I saw him run down a quarterback from sideline to sideline. That’s all I needed to see,” Wannstedt said. “Then they said he played basketball, and that was good enough for me.

“He was kind of our Leon Lett evaluation. The only tape we saw of Leon Lett was him playing basketball at Emporia State. I remember sitting in a draft meeting after Jimmy Johnson and Butch Davis had gone out to Emporia State to see him. We needed a defensive lineman, and we were talking about Leon Lett but we really didn’t have a lot of quality film. Butch Davis told the story that he saw him take the basketball and dribble from one end of the court to the other end and dunk it, 360. Jimmy wrote his name on a card and handed it in and we drafted him.

“Sometimes, you’re going to have guys with inexperience like Greg Romeus, and if they’re smart and they’re hard workers, you take some chances. He was a guy we took a chance on.”

Romeus might turn out to be the least heralded player but the best pro prospect in Wannstedt’s first full recruiting class. Romeus never attended a scouting session or training camp, which is practically unheard of in this day and age.

“You’ve got to hit on, I don’t know what the number is on each class, but you probably need five or six guys that are really difference makers in each class,” Wannstedt said. “You’d like for him to be the most heralded recruit in the class, but in the end it’s really no different than the NFL Draft. About 50 percent of the first-round picks never make a difference on the football team. Nobody cares at the end of the day was he a first-rounder or a free-agent? You’ve just got to get enough players.”

* Wannstedt said it’s likely he will coach again from the press box Saturday at Louisville. And it’s not because he’s a superstitious sort (although a victory over a top-25 team should be reason enough to stay put).

The decision will have more to do with medical evaluations after Wannstedt had surgery last week on the knee and Achilles tendon on his left leg, which he has to keep elevated for a few more days.

“I’m going to see the surgeon who did the Achilles (Wednesday),” he said. “If the stitches aren’t out, which I’m pretty sure they won’t be, I’ll probably be up in the box for another week, just to stay off it, which will be fine. I’m not really sure what the setup will be there anyway.”

* Neither Wannstedt nor offensive line coach Paul Dunn is ready to proclaim John Bachman the starter at right guard against Louisville, but it’s pretty apparent that the Panthers are counting on Bachman to do just that.

Bachman replaced Joe Thomas (hamstring) in the second quarter against Cincinnati, and played well enough to merit his first career start.

And Bachman is expecting as much.

“I definitely do,” Bachman said. “Joe is a very good player himself. I’m not going to take anything away from him. We’re very good friends. I hope he gets better. I am approaching this as me being the starter. That’s my mindset.”

Bachman and Thomas had been splitting time in practice and games, so Bachman was ready when needed.

“It wasn’t a big shocker. I was prepared for it, mentally and physically, when my number was called,” Bachman said. “I stepped in and did my job.”

Wannstedt said Thomas hasn’t practiced this week, and Pitt coaches are hoping that, at best, he’ll be able to contribute, if necessary.

“We don’t lose jobs around here because of injuries,” Dunn said. “Joe Thomas got hurt, so if the playing field is level, they compete just like they do every week.”

Dunn said redshirt junior Dom Williams, the backup left guard, would likely be the first player used if Bachman or C.J. Davis has to come out.

* Pitt rediscovered its ground game against Cincinnati, rushing for 260 yards on 46 carries and producing a pair of 100-yard rushers in McCoy (137) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (100) for the first time since 1988.

“Our backs were making pretty spectacular runs in the first half, but we weren’t really mashing them until the second half,” center Chris Vangas said. “We started wearing them down. We could see their body language, that they didn’t want to be out there. It was like, ‘LaRod’s running great. We’re going to pound these guys.’”

Pitt will be using its fourth different starting combination against Louisville, although a front five of senior Jeff Otah at left tackle, junior Davis at left guard, fifth-year senior Vangas at center, redshirt sophomore Bachman at right guard and fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn at right tackle would be the most veteran group.

“It’s good to have the veterans lead the way for those young guys we have in the backfield,” Vangas said. “We have to step up. We’re the most veteran group on the whole team. We knew it was a big challenge coming in. Coach Dunn tried to challenge the interior line to get it done: ‘If we can control the line of scrimmage, we can have a heck of a day.”

Pitt did just that against a Cincinnati defense that was allowing only 86.7 rushing yards a game. Perhaps the Bearcats weren’t expecting Pitt to run, considering the Panthers had only 90 yards on 35 carries at Cincinnati last season. Then again, Stephens-Howling was out with an injury and Pitt was using freshmen Shane Brooks and Kevin Collier, neither of whom saw the field last week.

“That’s outstanding, to have over 200 yards against a team that had not given up many rushing yards at all,” Bachman said. “That was a great accomplishment for our offensive line and we needed that. There’s a long road to go. The rewards will be paid off at the end of the season. It was definitely great to win a big game against a top-25 team. There’s a lot more rewards to be had.”

Now, the Panthers want to build on their momentum.

“We finally had to step up and just play, play how we’re capable of playing,” Vangas said. “We’ve got to keep on going every week. We have a big opportunity to make a run in the Big East. We’ll see what happens.”

It was Pitt’s best rushing performance since going for 261 yards on 45 carries in a 52-7 victory at Central Florida on Oct. 13, 2006. Stephens-Howling rushed for 135 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries in that game.

The UCF win also marked back-to-back 200-yard rushing games for the Panthers, who had 236 on 35 carries at Syracuse. Stephens-Howling had 221 yards on 27 carries, including a 70-yard touchdown run.

Dunn, for one, is being cautious about the success.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Dunn said. “We’ve had one conference victory under our belt and we’re looking for a second one against Louisville. Hopefully, these guys are going to continue to progress and know that this thing is going to heat up and get tougher each and every week.”

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