Year One of the Paul Chryst era has seen the debut for several players.
True freshmen Rushel Shell, J.P. Holtz, Darryl Render and Jahmahl Pardner got on the field as freshmen. That's been typical of the last few years of the number of true freshmen to see the field right away. We've also seen the transformation of other long-time reserves such as Cory King, Ryan Schlieper, Matt Rotheram, Tyrone Ezell, Bryan Murphy and Eric Williams into full-time starters.
Now, there's another transformation not often seen. Saturday's game will mark the first career start for a third fifth-year senior on this year's team. Though Manny Williams is lost for the season with a torn ACL, the fifth-year senior from Clairton did work his way into the starting lineup against Virginia Tech. Last week, it was Shayne Hale breaking in to the starting lineup. This week, it will be Joe Trebitz making his first career start at middle linebacker.
"My opportunity has come up again," Trebitz said. "I've waited my whole life for this. I couldn't be more excited."
It's not as if Trebitz has never seen the field before. The fifth-year senior from Boca Raton, Fla., has played in 35 career games, mostly on special teams. There is some level-headedness that comes with being a fifth-year senior. Also the fact that he has played in several games shouldn't make him too green heading into Saturday's game. Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable has said this week that no player has been in his office this week more than Trebitz.
"He's been living in my office, and I know he's really eager to play," Huxtable said. "Joe is spending a lot of extra time. He's been a guy that's putting in the overtime by himself; watching film, studying film, coming into his office and asking me questions."
There's also a certain maturity level that comes with it. Trebitz says he doesn't feel the need to hype himself up, nor does he feel the need for any added motivation. He feels the stage is set.
"It's a dream come true," Trebitz said. "I've waited my whole life for this. It's kind of like a storybook. It's No. 3 Notre Dame. I couldn't be more excited for it. I think I'm going to be more in check and keep my emotions in."
The story of Trebitz and Hale can also be a motivating lesson for any player on the current team, or a prospective recruit--at any school, really. Trebitz says he never doubted himself or whether or not Pitt was the right decision. He somehow knew he was going to get his chance one day.
Further proof of Trebitz' desire to stick with the program, and the long road it took, is the number of coaching changes he's had to endure. That's not including Todd Graham, Michael Haywood and Dave Wannstedt. Charlie Partridge was his recruiting coach. Partridge was hired as Wisconsin's defensive line coach after Trebitz signed with Pitt. Then defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who he met on his official visit in December of 2007, also left for Auburn before eventually becoming head coach at Iowa State. Aside from them--the two coaches who made the biggest impact on recruiting him to Pitt--Trebitz has had Joe Tumpkin, Bernard Clark, Keith Patterson, and now Huxtable as his position coaches in five years.
"I kept working at it, kept having confidence in the coaches," Trebitz said. "One man goes down, the next one has to step up. That's the name of the game.
"You have to dig deep, and you know you love the game. You love the university and you love your teammates. That's what you do for your teammates."
Trebitz does feel his experience can be a lesson for someone else somewhere down the road.
"Definitely," Trebitz said. "I think our story is something the younger guys can kind of look up to; go through a hard time, not getting a lot of playing time. Manny and I can talk the same. You have to keep believing in yourself and keep working at it. You can eventually get playing time if you stay."
For Shayne Hale, he too came to Pitt as a part of the 2008 recruiting class. For Hale, the stakes were much tougher as a high-profile local recruit coming out of Monroeville (PA) Gateway.
Interestingly, as Hale gets set to make the second start of his career in his fifth year, its not the first time Hale will be playing on national TV on NBC. In January of 2008, Hale announced his decision to come to Pitt in front of the whole country during the U.S. Army All-American game, choosing to stay home and play for the Panthers over a host of other schools.
Hale was a linebacker in high school, but was moved to defensive end during his true freshman year. He bounced back and forth between the two positions early on, before settling in at defensive end following spring drills in 2009. It looked at the time, that he and Brandon Lindsey would be the next pair of bookends at defensive line, settling in nicely behind then starters Greg Romeus and Brandon Lindsey.
Instead, Hale played in seven games as a reserve oming off that redshirt season. He was named the Defensive Prep Player of the Year in 2008. Once he was eligible to play after that redshirting, he would play in a total of 10 games in three seasons. This despite a brief position switch to 'Panther' backer--the name of the hybrid linebacker/defensive end pass rusher position in Todd Graham's defense. This was also after Graham said he saw a newfound confidence level in Hale in his only spring as head coach. Hale did not stay at that 'Panther' backer position, and only played in one game.
Then came yet another head coaching change for Hale, another move back to the defensive line. Despite a strong spring--one where Hale was named the Conway Award winner for the defense--he remained a reserve to start his fifth and final season. That was until he finally got the call against Temple last week, where he responded with six tackles. His 60th game on the Pitt roster, the former five-star recruit got the call. Never once, did he say that he say he'd ever regretted his decision to come to Pitt, nor did he ever wonder if his time would come.
"You never know," Hale said about waiting his turn. "That's why you have to be ready, to prepare for every game. I was ready when my number was called.
"You make a commitment to a school, you stick it out and your ride it out because things will happen. Everyone has a plan. We just stuck with it, and we're getting our shot. We're working with the best attitude at it, and working hard."
Hale also earned his degree in social sciences this past spring and is now working on a second degree in administration of justice. With his degree in hand, and not much of a playing history, no one could have faulted him for forgoing his final year of eligibility.
Even though Saturday will be just his second career start, there's a level of maturity he can bring to a tough environment such as Notre Dame.
"Just telling guys to go in there and keep their focus," Hale said. "There's going to be a lot of distractions, and a lot of people saying things from the stands. They're going to be right on top of us. Just go down and stay focused, attack the gameplan and play the game the way you know how to; just have fun. Look for your teammates and have advice for that extra push when out feel like you need it."
And who knows. The Pitt Notre Dame game, from the Pitt perspective, has given certain players their time in the limelight for just one day. Mention the names Pat Bostick, Josh Cummings and Conor Lee. You might not remember their entire careers, but any Pitt fan will always remember them for doing something to win at Notre Dame. Hale has a chance to do the same Saturday. Based on the level of competition Saturday, a stellar performance from Hale would prove to be worth the wait.
"Definitely," Hale agreed. "This is going to be a big game and I'm so excited. I'm ready to go. Just have to go in focused and play the game the way it's supposed to be played."