Pittsburgh Panthers Report

Despite a Continental Bowl berth and a strong 2003 season, Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris was one of the big losers on national signing day.<br><br> Oh sure, the Panthers inked 22 new recruits in what still might be the best recruiting class of the remaining Big East teams, but the 2004 recruiting class will always be remembered for the five defectors -- namely the five recruits that broke verbal commitments to Pitt at the last minute to go elsewhere.

Making matters worse is that three of the five 11th-hour defectors -- Penn Hills (Pa.) High School quarterback Anthony Morelli, North Hills tailback Andrew Johnson, and Reading (Pa.) linebacker James Bryant --- were considered the cornerstones of Pitt's 2004 recruiting class. Instead, Morelli signed with Penn State and Johnson and Bryant chose Miami. If that weren't painful enough, receiver Johnny Peyton (South Florida signee) and cornerback Alphonso Smith (Wake Forest) made stunning last-minute decisions at their national signing day press conferences.

The question is: Why did Pitt lose these five players at the last minute? Opposing recruiters apparently hammered away at the fact that Pittsburgh would be playing in a watered-down Big East (with the defections of Miami and Virginia Tech this fall and Boston College in 2005) and that Harris, a hot coaching property, might not be in the Steel City for the high schoolers' entire careers. The loss of running backs coach Dino Babers to UCLA in late January was also a bit of unfortunate timing, especially in Johnson's case.

QB Darrell Strong -- With Anthony Morelli, one of the top quarterback prospects in the land, breaking the hearts of Pitt's coaches on signing day, the 6-5, 245-pound Strong from Plantation, Fla., will get a chance to play quarterback at Pitt. In fact, Strong chose the Panthers over Auburn, because the Tigers wanted him to play tight end. Strong could be in the battle to back up projected 2004 starter Tyler Palko.

DB Darrelle Revis -- Not every highly decorated Pennsylvania football star broke their verbal commitment to Pittsburgh in early February. Revis, the 2003 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Player of the Year, could see time on the corner or on special teams as a true freshman, if he qualifies academically.

LB Vernon Smith -- With prep All-American linebacker James Bryant changing his mind on signing day, Smith, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., becomes Pitt's top linebacker recruit. Given Pitt's success at finding top-shelf defenders in the Sunshine State (i.e. defensive end Claude Harriott and linebacker H.B. Blades), look for Smith to get on the field early.

Glance at 2004
Making the 2004 signing day losses -- particularly losing a potential franchise quarterback in Anthony Morelli and a big-time tailback prospect in Andrew Johnson -- even harder to take is that Pittsburgh has some holes to fill on offense. Gone are a number of key weapons, ultra-accurate quarterback Rod Rutherford, rugged between-the-tackles runner Brandon Miree and one of the nation's most feared tight ends Kris Wilson. And, oh yeah, star sophomore receiver Larry Fitzgerald was cleared for the NFL draft.

The good news is that head coach Walt Harris has an outstanding offensive mind, Tyler Palko is a promising quarterback, and two of the Big East's fastest and best defenses (Miami and Virginia Tech) will be in the ACC this fall. Expect Harris to come up with enough answers to compete for another bowl berth in the watered-down Big East.

Quote to Note
"I'm in favor of an early signing period. The thing that disappoints me is the negativity that goes on with recruiting. Some of the kids who originally committed to us were totally abused by other schools." -- Head coach Walt Harris on losing five of his top recruits at the last minute.

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