It's been an up-and-down year for Pitt, as the Panthers head into this regular season finale Saturday against Syracuse. One part of it is they'd just like to survive and finish at .500. Another part is that they'd like a shot at a fourth consecutive bowl game.
Then, there's probably the most important part, and what has been reverberated around the walls of the UPMC South Side Complex this week—just to send this senior class out with a win.
"I don't think reality has set in yet," linebacker Max Gruder said. "But Coach mentioned it after practice. It's definitely a weird, numb feeling right now, but I don't really think it's hit home for the seniors right now. Maybe when that second half winds down Saturday, I guess, that's when the seniors might think about it being their last game college home game, their last game at Heinz Field."
The only true seniors in this class are Lucas Nix and Antwuan Reed. They were two of the four members of the 2008 recruiting class to play as true freshmen. Nix played in six games in 2008, while Reed played in seven, including his debut against a nationally-ranked USF team in Tampa on a Thursday night. The Panthers prevailed over the then No. 10 Bulls, 26-21. Jon Baldwin also played as a true freshman, and became a first-round pick last year. The other—Andrew Taglianetti—was injured in the second game of 2009—and took a redshirt that season.
"My four years, they really went by fast," Reed said. "In a blink of an eye, these four years went by. The seniors, we're all looking to get this ‘W,' and we're going to fight for it until the end."
The other seniors all redshirted as members of the 2007 class. While true freshmen such as Pat Bostick, LeSean McCoy, Dom DeCicco and Jabaal Sheard all played as true freshmen in 2010, the majority of that 2007 class redshirted. Most made their way to the two-deep by the 2008 season, helping Pitt to a 9-4 record that season, and a trip to the Sun Bowl. Gruder was one of them. He recalls learning the ropes from Scott McKilllop that season.
"I remember talking with, I think, Scott my freshman year," Gruder said. "He told me how fast it would go, and I just laughed about it then. I had no idea, but it just whizzes by, the five years. It goes by in a blink of an eye, so I'm going to try to enjoy these last couple days this week and hopefully last couple weeks after that."
One of the great things about the 2007 recruiting class—other than the fact that four members of that class (McCoy, DeCicco, Sheard, Henry Hynoski) are in the NFL—is that there were a lot of linemen brought in with that class. Saturday would have been the final game for Chris Jacobson—the first member of the 2007 class to verbally commit to Pitt. Jacobson was hurt in Week Three at Iowa with a knee injury, and is expected to return to the team next year for a sixth year of eligibility. Also in that class were Greg Gaskins, Jordan Gibbs and Myles Caragein on the defensive side. Though Gaskins and Gibbs had to wait their turn, Caragein has been a valuable member of the defensive line since his redshirt freshman year in 2008. He played in 12 games that year, and recently earned a spot on the Capital One Academic All-District 2 Team. By doing so, Caragein is eligible for Academic All-American status. He's also a three-time All-Big East selection.
One of the most pleasant surprises in the 2007 recruiting class was the addition of then walk-on Chas Alecxih, who worked his way into a scholarship.
While some of these interior linemen contributed sooner than later, and a number of others left the program before their eligibility expired, this group has been a particular focal point in head coach Todd Graham's first year.
As Graham looks back on his first year—despite its struggles—it already sounds like he's got a pretty big memory of this particular senior class, starting with the linemen up front.
"When I first got here I remember talking to Myles Caragein, about what we planned on accomplishing," Graham said. "I have met some of the finest young men that I have been around since I began coaching Greg Williams is a guy that stands out to me. When I first got here he always had a frown on his face and he didn't smile very much. He use to look at the ground most of the time, but now he walks around and he is Mr. Positive and always has a smile on.
"I have been very blessed to share relationships with them Chas Alecxih has been phenomenal in how he has developed and the player he has become. I love being around him on game day. He has a unique passion for this game. I could go through every single one these guys. Greg Gaskins is a tremendous kid and he has worked very hard this year."
Just ask Ryan Turnley—an underclassman—who wants badly to send one of his linemates out with a win.
"It's very important to the underclassmen, because a guy like Lucas Nix, he came in with me," Turnley said. "He means a lot to me, and all those guys do. So, Chas, Myles, you see how hard they've worked, so it means a lot to get them off on a winning note."