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Pitt’s All-Americans

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Upon leaving the Pitt football program after the 2006 season, H.B. Blades issued a warning that the Panthers might be losing an All-America at middle linebacker but that his replacement was ready.

Until then, Scott McKillop was a virtual unknown. Yes, he had starred at Kiski Area, but took a backseat to McKeesport’s Dontey Brown. Scott was better known as the younger brother of Pitt defensive end Chris McKillop, always standing in the shadow of stardom.

Yet Blades, now a starting linebacker with the Washington Redskins, knew that McKillop had the makings of a big-time player. Not just because they were former roommates and played the same position.

“The reason he’s done so well is he doesn’t buy the line,” Blades said. “What I mean by that is, he doesn’t listen to what people say. He just went out and made a name for himself. You can’t listen to what people are telling you what you are or telling you what you’re not. That’s what makes you who you are. You can judge people by their height, weight and speed, but the heart inside of you is what makes you what you are.”

McKillop, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound fifth-year senior middle linebacker, has received his share of honors in the past week. He was named Big East defensive player of the year last Wednesday, becoming only the second Pitt player to be selected unanimous All-Big East in successive seasons. He was named first-team All-America by the Football Writers Association of America on Saturday and to the All-America second teams by the Associated Press and SportsIllustrated.com today.

McKillop is only the ninth Pitt defensive player to earn All-America first-team honors in the past 30 years, joining Blades (2006), tackle Marc Spinderl (1989), linebackers Jerry Olsavsky (’88) and Ezekial Gadson (’87), end Tony Woods (’86), defensive tackle Bill Maas (’82), linebacker Sal Sunseri (’81) and end Hugh Green (’78-80).

Not bad for a guy with one scholarship offer.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t start until his fourth year.

>”I was never surprised,” Blades said, “just because in practice and meetings, he always worked hard. He was playing behind people like myself and Clint (Session), so there wasn’t much room to get in the lineup.”

McKillop finished the regular season with 126 tackles (78 solo, 48 assists), and his 6.5 solo tackles per game led the Big East and ranked second in the NCAA while his 10.5 total tackles per game that led the Big East and ranked ninth nationally. He also had 16.5 tackles for loss, another Big East-best that tied for 20th nationally.

McKillop is the first to say that anyone who acts as if they don’t pay attention to individual statistics is lying, but after leading the nation in tackles last season he doesn’t hesitate to say that he wouldn’t trade another first-place finish for what this season brought.

“It would have been something nice to have, but last year I was the leading tackler and all I got was a plaque,” McKillop said. “There was no parade, no banquet, no dinner. It’s a nice individual award, but I’m more content with beating UConn and finishing compared to where we were at last year. I would rather have my stats and win than to flip that.”

McKillop’s most tackles (17) this season came against Big East champion Cincinnati, and his double-digit performances came against Buffalo, Iowa, South Florida, Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Connecticut. He had two games with double-digit solo stops, 12 against USF and 11 against Cincinnati.

“Our defense is set up so our middle linebacker has to be productive,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said, noting that the Dallas Cowboys had Ken Norton Jr. and the Miami Dolphins Zach Taylor thrive in the same system. “We’ve got to have a smart, good player in there. That position is looked at on our defense like the quarterback is on offense. You have to be accountable but very productive.”

What impressed Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett about McKillop is how evident it is that football is important to him. This coaching staff will hold McKillop up as an example of patience paying off, that taking a redshirt or spending a season as a backup doesn’t constitute failure.

Wannstedt: “I think it’s a great, great lesson for all these young kids, whether you’re in college or high school, so many guys when they’re not playing right away and think they should be playing have a tendency to blame someone else or lose interest instead of putting in their time and let it takes its course.”

Bennett: “He had a vision. He saw himself being a great linebacker. He went through three years playing behind good players, contributing any way that he could, and instead of worrying about where he was at, he worked to get better. He polished his game. He learned from H.B. Blades. He learned from his coaches. He absorbed a lot of things.”

Bennett is even more amazed at how McKillop shouldered the responsibility heaped upon him after starting weak-side linebacker Shane Murray was lost to a knee injury a week before the season started and starting strong-side linebacker Adam Gunn was lost to a neck injury in the opener. They were replaced with a pair of first-year defenders in fifth-year senior Austin Ransom, a former walk-on receiver, and redshirt freshman Greg Williams, who spent his first year at Pitt playing running back.

“He had two guys beside him that he trusted and had played with. Then, a week before the season and within the first game, they’re gone,” Bennett said. “[If we had a deficiency in depth, it was at linebacker. I put a lot on him, but I don’t think it ever fazed him. He knew what he had to do. Scott never missed a beat.”

Blades doesn’t think McKillop will miss a beat in making the jump to the NFL, either. McKillop is projected as a mid- to late-round pick based on his size and projected speed but revels in dispelling doubters. He could improve his stock with strong workouts at the NFL Combine or Pitt’s Pro Day by running the 40-yard dash in the 4.5-to-4.6-second range.

“These agents are going to tell you where you should be drafted and how high they’re going to get you drafted. They’re all lying,” Blades said. “It’s about what a team needs. I see a guy like London Fletcher. He was a free agent. To see him persevere, all you can ask for is the opportunity.”

Blades believes playing at Pitt has prepared McKillop for the NFL.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Blades said. “If you look at Pitt linebackers over the past few years, from (Gerald) Hayes starting in Arizona, Clint starting in Indianapolis and I’m starting in Washington, our linebackers coming out are pretty good. He’s going to get an opportunity to play in the NFL. Once he gets that, it’s up to him.”

* Pitt is one of only three schools – Ohio State and Oklahoma are the others – to boast nationally ranked football, men’s and women’s basketball and wrestling teams. The Panthers are ranked No. 18 in football, third in men’s basketball, 16th in women’s basketball and 24th in wrestling.

Wannstedt said it helps provide a recruiting edge.

“That’s great for our university,” Wannstedt said. “One of the highlights of our recruiting weekends is taking recruits to a basketball game because it’s a full house and there’s a lot of energy. That wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have a good team.”

* Wannstedt announced that freshman Shayne Hale, a U.S. Army All-American middle linebacker at Gateway, has been moved to defensive end and was impressive in Monday’s practice. Hale was named scout-team defensive player of the year at Sunday’s team banquet.

“Shayne Hale made some plays at defensive end,” Wannstedt said. “We did a live scrimmage, and I think he made three plays in a row. I think he’s got a chance to be real good.”

* Sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy was a second-team All-American selection by SI.com, which made him one of three McCoys on the SI.com All-America team. Texas quarterback Colt and Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald were the others.

Look for more in tomorrow’s Tribune-Review about walk-on cornerback Danny Cafaro being named a finalist for the second annual Rudy Award, presented to the college football player who demonstrates exemplary character, courage, contribution and commitment.

I spoke with the award’s namesake, Dan “Rudy” Ruettinger, the Notre Dame player who was the inspiration for the 1993 movie, about Cafaro overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma to achieve his dream of playing Division I-A football for the Panthers.

Ruettinger was most moved that Cafaro was on campus at Virginia Tech – where he spent his first two years of college – and in a nearby building during the mass shooting there in April 2007. A motivational speaker, Ruettinger had been on the Blacksburg campus just a week earlier.

“I was at Virginia Tech right before shooting and spoke there,” he said. “One of the kids who was shot told me he tried to deal with the grief by watching the movie ‘Rudy.’ I talked with the kid. It’s about how you look at life. Life is short. You have to be ready to live in that moment.”

“It helped him. I had no idea that movie would have that type of impact on someone like that. We look at athletes, because we use football as a metaphor and Notre Dame as a campus. This kid is dealing with more than just football. He’s dealing with real-life issues. But you still must move toward your goal, and with courage.”

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