Since Chad Reed graduated in 2002, Pitt’s starting center has been a revolving door of fifth-year seniors but first-year starters (Jon Schall, Justin Belarski and Chris Vangas) and former walk-on transfers (Rob Frederick and Joe Villani).
The prospect of starting another walk-on, Alex Karabin, or a redshirt freshman, Greg Gaskins, did not enthrall Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt. Nor did the idea of spending another spring experimenting with a player learning the position, like John Bachman last year.
So the Panthers turned to the junior-college ranks and targeted Robb Houser of Butte (Calif.) College as a potential solution. The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder made a verbal commitment to Pitt Saturday, picking the Panthers over Big East Conference foe Syracuse.
What enticed Houser was the obvious void.
“That’s kind of what got me,” Houser said. “Being a junior-college transfer, I’m looking for a good program and a great opportunity to start. They’re not just going to give it to me. … The spot’s mine to take. I’ve just got to earn it.”
Houser played at Durham High School in Chico, Calif., where he was academically qualified but lightly recruited. He headed to Butte, where another Chico native, Aaron Rodgers, had developed into a Division I quarterback at Cal and an eventual NFL first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers.
“I just wanted to get exposure,” Houser said. “Butte has a reputation for getting players into Division I programs.”
What helped the Panthers’ cause is that Butte head coach Jeff Jordan was a former Pitt graduate assistant who knew Bob Junko, the long-time assistant who is now Pitt’s director of football relations and program enhancement.
“He had great things to say about Pitt,” Houser said of Jordan. “He said Pittsburgh was an amazing city to live in.”
Houser’s official visit earlier this month only reinforced that, as it was the weekend after Pitt’s stunning 13-9 upset at No. 2 West Virginia in the 100th Backyard Brawl. The Panthers had been telling Houser that they were on the rise; now they had proof to back it up.
And their enthusiasm was contagious.
“That win gave me a great feeling about where Pitt is going to go,” Houser said. “On top of that, the players gave me that feeling, too.”
Houser could be the missing piece for the Panthers, a center who is mature enough to handle the duties of snapping the ball and blocking. After playing offensive guard in high school, Houser is a two-year starter who has found a home at the position.
“I moved to center because you don’t have to get up to 300 pounds because you can get away with being fast,” said Houser, who runs the 40-yard dash in 5.15 seconds and bench-presses 405 pounds. “My first year, I hated it because I was used to having my hand on the ground. As a sophomore, I actually preferred snapping the ball.
“I have good quickness and movement off the ball. I have good bend and explosive power, and an urgency to get my hands inside.”
Most importantly, Houser noted that he was an academic qualifier out of high school. That allows him to enroll in January, where he can compete immediately for the starting spot. Such news should be a welcome relief to those worried about whether a junior-college player could learn Pitt’s West Coast offense in such a short time.
“I already know most of the terminology,” Houser said. “I’ve just got to get the scheme down.”
With Pitt’s problems at center, it should be a snap.