Rutgers had scored big in winning some recruiting battles with Pitt—especially in 2009. In 2010, Pitt landed a big commitment from New Jersey that was the one that opened several doors in the Garden State.
That was five-star defensive lineman T.J. Clemmings who committed to the Panthers following an unofficial visit in June of 2009. The Panthers landed another four commitments over the next six days. Three of them were from New Jersey, including K'Waun Williams, Brandon Sacco and Bryan Murphy.
Clemmings played as a reserve last year, appearing in eight games as a true freshman. He has yet to see the field this year. Sacco left the program over the summer after redshirting in 2010. He started off the spring as the first-team center. Murphy was declared academically ineligible for the season on Pitt's first day of practice this year. Murphy did return from a fracture in his right foot in last year's training camp, and still played in six games.
Of those four, Williams was recruited the least coming out of high schools, yet he's had the most distinguished career. He earned his first career start in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Kentucky, where he finished with a team-high nine tackles. He played in 10 games as a true freshman, then started his sophomore season as Pitt's No. 1 corner and has made all five starts this season. He's second on the team with 35 tackles, and is tied for the team-lead with two forced fumbles. He came to Pitt as the nation's No. 100 corner.
Pitt carried over that momentum established in New Jersey to the 2011 class, where they secured commits from several of the state's top prospects. Among them were Winslow Township athlete Bill Belton, Timber Creek linebacker Quinton Alston, and another top Don Bosco prospect Gary Nova—one of Pitt's early commits in May of 2010. Alston stayed committed to the Panthers after the first coaching change with Michael Haywood. After Haywood was dismissed, Alston decided to re-open his recruitment where he decided on the Iowa Hawkeyes. Just this week, Alston has been elevated to second-team middle linebacker, and is in good shape to see the field this year.
Once Frank Cignetti took over as offensive coordinator at Rutgers, Nova made his switch to Rutgers. He had a good relationship with Cignetti while being recruited by the Panthers. That was a big factor in him initially choosing Pitt. He has been part of one of the biggest story lines heading into this week's game—whether or not he will start Saturday. Nova helped lead the Scarlet Knights in their comeback win at Syracuse, and has appeared in three of the four games this season.
Defensive linemen Max Issaka and Marquise Wright switched from their initial Pitt commitments, to stay in-state and go to Rutgers. The coaching change was a major factor in all them switching their commitments as well. The Scarlet Knights were also the longtime favorites for defensive back Miles Shuler, running back Savon Huggins and offensive lineman Keith Lumpkin. Huggins took an unofficial visit to Pitt during the summer, and kept the Panthers around for awhile. It wasn't too long after that, that it was apparent that Huggins had his sights set on staying close to home—regardless of the coaching situation at Pitt.
Rutgers also made an attempt at local prospect Lafayette Pitts—who also committed to the Panthers during the summer of 2010. Pitts took an official visit to Rutgers in January, where he temporarily switched his commitment to the Scarlet Knights. On signing day, he returned to his initial commitment, signing with the Panthers. He has yet to play in a game this season, despite a good training camp. He was moved to safety in the first week of the season.
So far, Nova made a nice stake at getting the start against Pitt this week by leading the Scarlet Knights to a come-from-behind win over Syracuse on Saturday. At the very least, it gives us in the media the daily opportunity to ask Greg Schiano on a daily basis if he's decided on a starter--something that probably won't be determined until later in the week.
"I haven't made a decision about that. I didn't change it because I haven't made a decision," Schiano said. "I'll make a decision when I'm ready to make it. I don't know when that's going to be."
It's also something to leave the Pitt coaching staff preparing for. Todd Graham said Monday whether its Nova or Dodd, you have to just prepare for their system.
"I don't think it changes how we prepare," Graham said. "They are a run, play-action, pass football team. Whether they have Chas in or Gary, it is still going to be the same offense. Our focus has to be on stopping the run and not giving up big plays."
Huggins' numbers don't look like that of a five-star prospect at first look. However, he has been used in mostly goal line situations, and has responded with a team-best three rushing touchdowns. His role has increased as the season has gone along, and is expected to increase more—especially with running back De'Antwan Williams leaving the program after two games. Wright and Issaka have yet to play this season.
Gary Nova: 3 games, 21-of-44 passes completed, 238 yards, 2 TD 0 INT
Savon Huggins: 4 games, 26 carries, 47 yards, 3 TD
K'Waun Williams: 15 games (6 starts), 49 tackles, 5 PBU
Bryan Murphy: 6 games, 1 tackle (BBVA Compass Bowl vs. Kentucky)
T.J. Clemmings: 8 games, 3 tackles