Currently, Pitt's recruiting class ranks 55th in the country, 6th in the Big East. Those rankings don't reflect the effort the Pitt coaching staff put in these last three weeks, after being put in place January 11, with a few other assistants signing on the week after.
The most important thing for this first Pitt class, is the coaching staff went out in search of players they felt would fit their system. Traditionally, states such as Florida and Texas have been referred to as "speed states." Fittingly, Pitt signed two defensive backs from Texas, one from Florida, one from Georgia and two from right here in Pittsburgh.
Forget the rankings, as Pitt feels they have found six players who match what they are looking for out of defensive backs. What's even more interesting, is that there are more than a few tendencies the staff looks for.
"If a kid fits our system, what we want, how he plays that we like, and he's a good character kid, then we're going to go after him," defensive backs coach Tony Gibson said. "We could care less as a staff if he's a two-star, five-star, whatever. If he fits what we do, we're going to go after him."
One player, whose name was brought up several times by head coach Todd Graham and by Gibson, is Jason Frimpong. Frimpong played receiver, running back and quarterback at Irving (TX) MacArthur High School. He was a first-team all-conference selection at receiver, who also caught 33 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns. He also carried the ball 64 times for 298 yards (4.7 avg) and five touchdowns. Through the air, he completed just 5-of-7 passes for 52 yards. Judging by what he did on the ground and as a receiver, it's hard to ask him to do much more at quarterback. Frimpong did complete 51-of-106 passes for 654 yards and seven touchdown passes as a junior.
Recruiting a player like Frimpong is one example of what this coaching staff likes in a corner. Speed, and being able to keep up with a receiver is one thing. Under the direction of Todd Graham, and more specifically co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, this is going to be a defense that will rely on producing turnovers. Gibson knows enough that he needs corners and safeties who aren't just going to keep up with the opposing offense, but players who are going to get the ball. Listening to his fellow offensive coaches in their respective meetings, he's thinking of what the opponent is going to want to go after.
"That's one thing our offensive guys look at is who can't catch back there, who has poor ball skills," Gibson said. "They're going to attack that guy, whether he's a corner or a safety. The chances of him catching it aren't very good, so go ahead and take your chances down the field."
Basically, seeing a player like Frimpong, who touched the ball virtually every time in his high school's offense, is going to translate well into him being a corner. As an all-conference receiver in Texas, he's used to being the go-to guy in his offense. As a corner, he'll treat that "give me the ball" mentality as a way of going up for interceptions.
The coaching staff also saw the same thing in safety Stephen Williams, out of Calvary Day School in Savannah, Georgia. Williams, at 6-2, 200 pounds, took an official visit to Pitt, was offered on his official visit last weekend, then committed. Williams racked up 1,691 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior. He averaged 10.8 yards on 156 carries. Obviously, Williams was the go-to guy in his offense, touching the ball nearly every time. With him at safety, and being used to touching the ball every play, he is expected to carry that nose for wanting the ball to defense.
"He's a 6-2 kid, very physical kid, touched the ball every play," Gibson said of Williams. "You want guys on the football field that can make the play downfield. With a kid like him, that touched the ball every play in high school, did all those things with the ball in his hand and was a physical DB. That's the kind of guy we need. You can never go wrong recruiting high school quarterbacks and running backs."
If you think that's all this coaching staff is looking at, as they placed a great deal of emphasis and thought on the safety position in this recruiting class, take a look at Roderick Ryles. Ryles, at 6-1, 185 played safety in high school, and developed a reputation as one of the best coming out of Florida this year.
"We've been recruiting him, and had a relationship with his school," Gibson said. "He's great football player, and can do a lot of things for us."
Recruiting him was one thing, but Gibson and others felt Ryles was a priority. He finished his senior season with 103 tackles and 15 career interceptions—seven each as a junior and senior. Those 15 career interceptions are a school-record at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando. Ryles, they felt, was almost too ideal as a safety, because he wasn't a good tackler with okay ball skills, or a ballhawk that could maybe hit people. Ryles was the total package in their eyes.
"Roderick Ryles is a kid who is very physical, has good ball skills and can cover half the field, a third of the field, whatever it may be," Gibson said. "You have to get guys like that. Just in the past, defenses who can't tackle or have trouble in tackling, that all starts in recruiting."
In recent years, Pitt has had problems recruiting safeties like that. They've had to take a fifth corner—as is the case with a Jarred Holley, and move him to safety, which has worked out well. Holley became a starter as a redshirt freshman, and earned all-conference honors this past season after tying for the team-lead with five interceptions. Same thing with Dom DeCicco, as he came to Pitt as a receiver, then was quickly moved to backup free safety as a true freshman. DeCicco ended up being the first player in school history to tie for or finish with the team lead in interceptions three years in a row. Injuries and other things have come up as players like Kolby Gray and Todd Thomas were moved to safety.
One thing that is evident with this new coaching staff, is that there is a great deal of emphasis on the defensive backs. Gone are the days of Pitt having to move players around to fill spots on the depth chart. This coaching staff already has an idea of what they want in a safety, and it looks like they've gotten off to the right start.
"If you get a corner that's been a cover guy, and you say, ‘We can move him,' that's hard," Gibson added. "I understand they're great athletes to do some things, but you better get guys that are safeties that can run the alleys and put their face on you. We wanted to get a couple big safeties like that.
"We're going to lock up one side of the field with a kid, and use the other 10 guys to defend the other two-thirds of the field. It's a thing where we've got big physical corners. We need them. We got some little guys right now which is okay, but you don't want too many little guys. Every wideout; X, Z or Y receiver is 6-4 or 6-5. We better have some guys that can max out the challenge."