Several Recruits Could Make Immediate Impact

Just how successful was the Pitt football team on National Recruiting Letter-Of-Intent Day Wednesday?

The Panthers were ranked 25th nationally by, but they were first in the Big East with three five-star recruits, four with four-star ratings and nine three-star players among their 19 signings.

The three top players who signed with Pittsburgh are its three U.S. Army Game All-Americans: wideout Jonathan Baldwin, middle linebacker Shayne Hale and offensive tackle Lucas Nix. These three players could make an immediate impact for the Panthers this season.

"When you look at our depth chart, I don't know if there's one player where you can say that this guy has to be on the field on opening day or that we're not going to have a chance to win a game,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We've closed that gap, but some of these kids have a chance.

"Talking with our coaches and primarily Greg Gattuso, who recruits Western Pa. when you look at the kids that we've signed from Western Pennsylvania, but they could've signed anywhere in the country. ... So, other people appreciate the talent here the way that we do.''

Baldwin is a tremendous offensive weapon for Pitt, because he combines good speed with his size and athleticism. He has excellent hands and leaping ability, as shown on the basketball court, and toughness. His size (6-foot-5 and 220 pounds) will make him a formidable blocker and difficult to tackle.

Baldwin will certainly need to work with the Pitt coaches to hone his game, but he should play this season despite Pitt's depth at receiver with Derek Kinder returning, along with starters Oderick Turner and T.J. Porter, backups Maurice Williams and Cedric McGee and redshirt freshman Aundre Wright.

Hale has good speed and is athletic, despite being 6-4 and 240 pounds, and this makes him an excellent linebacker even though many believed he would be a better defensive end. While he could eventually grow into one, Wannstedt recruited Hale as a middle linebacker. He will battle for playing time behind All-American Scott McKillop, who will be a senior this fall.

Dan Loheyde and Steve Dell were backups in the middle last season, and freshman hit-man Max Gruder was redshirted. So, the competition will be stiff, but Hale has the talent to be a future star and should play a lot early on.

The 6-6, 300-pound Nix reportedly has had some academic problems in high school and could use a season to improve his conditioning as well, but with Pitt being thin at tackle he might have to play right away and could be a starter with sophomore Jason Pinkston. He returns after shoulder surgery forced him to miss the final nine games last season.

Pinkston started three games at right tackle, but he could move to the left side. Chase Clowser, who will be a senior, and redshirt junior John Bachman are the only other tackles with experience. Jordan Gibbs and Dan Matha were redshirted last fall, but should battle for time this year.

The four-star recruits include tailback Chris Burns, quarterback Greg Cross, wideout and special teams ace Cameron Saddler and cornerback Antwuan Reed. Burns is the only running back in the class and is a tough runner with decent speed. However, he is a redshirt candidate because Pitt is extremely deep with starter LeSean McCoy and backup LaRod Stephens-Howling, who will be a senior.

Three backups were redshirted last season. Sophomore Kevin Collier was injured near the end of training camp and missed the entire year, while frosh Greg Williams and Shariff Harris spent the season on the scout team.

Cross has decent size at 6-2, 215 pounds, but he's extremely mobile and gives the Panthers something they haven't had in years at the quarterback position. As a junior-college transfer, he already enrolled at Pitt in January and will compete immediately for the starting job with junior Bill Stull, who was redshirted after injuring his thumb in the season-opener; Pat Bostick, who ended the season as the starter as a freshman last fall; and Kevan Smith, who Bostick replaced as a starter after a few games as a redshirt freshman.

Saddler is listed as a wideout as well, but at 5-7 and 170 pounds with blazing speed, his biggest contribution initially should be as a return man. And this is an area where he excels. He could turn into a good slot receiver, but Saddler will be a game-changer as a kick returner.

Saddler returned seven kickoffs for touchdowns the past two seasons in high school, including two last year to go with two punt returns for scores. He averaged more than 25 yards per punt return and nearly 31 on kickoffs even though most teams kicked away from him.

Reed has put up some big numbers as a running back with more than 4,000 rushing yards (8.5 per carry) and 55 touchdowns, but Pitt recruited him as a cornerback. He might not have ideal size at 5-10, 180 pounds, but he's fast and tough and could use a season to mature.

Starter Aaron Berry and backups Jovani Chappel and Ricky Gary are the only Panthers with experience at cornerback. However, Buddy Jackson and Sherod Murdock were redshirted as freshmen last fall.

There are nine three-star players with cornerback Jarred Holley, tight end Mike Cruz, center Robb Houser, quarterback Tino Sunseri, wideout Michael Shanahan, place-kicker Kevin Harper, defensive back Ronald Hobby, offensive tackle Ryan Turnley and linebacker Manny Williams. The two-star players are cornerback Andrew Taglianetti, linebacker Joe Trebitz and tight end Justin Virbitsky.

Houser is the closest thing to a sure bet to start this year. He is a junior-college transfer and is already enrolled at Pitt. He is expected to step in as Chris Vangas' replacement immediately this spring, and it will be a disappointment if he doesn't because the Panthers are thin in the middle on the O-line.

Harper will back up starter Conor Lee for his final season and should redshirt, unless he takes over the kickoff duties like Adam Graessle did as a freshman. Pitt has been inconsistent in that area, so Harper's strong leg could help out.

Cruz is huge (6-5, 270) and is an intriguing tight end prospect who could provide immediate depth behind starter Nate Byham and backup John Pelusi if Dorin Dickerson doesn't work out after moving there this spring. Cruz has good hands, is athletic and a solid blocker, which could get him on the field early.

All the remaining recruits are excellent redshirt candidates, while Taglianetti is expected to grayshirt unless something changes by this summer.

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