The No. 1 player in New Jersey and sixth-ranked defensive end nationally, T.J. Clemmings was the top player signed by Pittsburgh this year and the ninth from his state secured by Panthers' secondary coach Jeff Hafley, the team's chief recruiter in the Garden State.
"It was about a year's worth of work that flashed before my eyes, and I thought that I'll finally be able to sleep for the first time (Wednesday night),'' Hafley said. "I went in to see Coach (Wannstedt). A couple guys shook my hand, and then I talked to T.J. That was a special moment.''
Hafley recruited New Jersey for five years while he was at Albany State University, and this is his second year as a full-time coach at Pitt after two as a graduate assistant. But he quickly stepped into the big time with Clemmings.
"With T.J., certainly, he was a national recruit,'' Hafley said. "When I went in there, it was Georgia, Miami and Ohio State. So, I kind of said, 'I'll take a swing at him.' We had a good talk, and he really felt at home in Pittsburgh. He felt comfortable with the coaches. He felt comfortable with me and our players.
"And as the recruitment went on, we just got closer and closer. I guess he found the right fit for him, so (the signing) was just a big relief because he's a special player. And even more than that, he's a great kid. ... That was the most that I've gone up against, in terms of schools who were recruiting T.J.
"But I just went after him just like everybody else I had,'' Hafley added, "and tried to earn the kid's trust, sell him on our great University and football program. Coach Wannstedt got involved, Coach Gattuso, Coach Bennett, but I didn't approach him any differently than I approached any other guy.''
Clemmings' first contact with Pitt occurred when he played in an AAU basketball tournament a couple summers ago.
"I got a call from his coach, and he wanted to come by to check out the school and city,'' Hafley said. "The first time I saw him, I saw this giant step out of the car. He looked like Greg Romeus does now, and he was 16 years old.
"He really liked Pittsburgh a lot, the area, the school and football program. But he wasn't the type of kid who wanted to get wrapped up in recruiting, even though up until (Tuesday) he still got calls from coaches. He didn't want that.
"He didn't want people at his basketball games,'' Hafley added. "He didn't want the attention. He's a quiet kid who didn't get caught up in the hoopla of having four hats and picking one on signing day. I believed for a long time that he knew he wanted to come to Pitt, and he held strong with it.''
Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is one of those coaches who got a chance to see Clemmings on the basketball court. He was a highly-rated power forward long before he was a football star.
When he goes to the basket everybody moves out of the way,'' Bennett said. "(And) we think he's going to have an unbelievable future here.''
But Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt was quick to temper enthusiasm about Clemmings, noting that it's not a guarantee that he'll even play this season let alone make a huge impact like many believe.
"Remember, he's only been playing football for two years,'' Wannstedt said. "He's made a vast improvement from his first year playing. If you watch his junior tape and then his senior tape, he doesn't look like the same guy. (But) there's a lot of upside there, and he's a great kid with a good work ethic.''
Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso will work with Clemmings closer than anyone on the Panthers' staff, but he preferred to discuss the entire group he added in this year's recruiting class and not just Clemmings.
"Depth is critical,'' Gattuso said. "We lose two D-tackles who played a lot of football for us in Gus Mustakas and Mick Williams, and we didn't have much depth on the ends behind Romeus and Jabaal Sheard. And they graduate after this season. So, we needed to upgrade our depth on the D-line.''
That's why Pitt signed four recruits at those positions with ends Clemmings and Bryan Murphy and tackles Aaron Donald and K.K. Smith.
"This is the best group of D-linemen that we've brought in since I've been here, but you never know how things are going to play out,'' Gattuso said. "These guys are all physically ready to play, but that's not the issue. There's the mental side of it, so they have a lot to deal with.
"The rigors of camp, everything we do in practice and the off-field stuff like training with Buddy. And just everything that goes into being a college student-athlete. It's not easy. And as far as Clemmings is concerned, don't forget: he's never played against guys like Jason Pinkston and Lucas Nix before.''
Pitt's defensive line was a strength this season, and that shouldn't change this season with the players who are returning and the group just brought in. Gattuso noted that while they'll all be in the mix, especially the ends, he likes who the Panthers have returning on the D-line.
"Shayne Hale had a terrific end of the season,'' Gattuso said. "He got some snaps in the bowl game, and I told him if he kept working hard he'll be right there. But it was a tougher transition for him than it was for Brandon Lindsey, because Brandon played end before.
"Shayne was always a linebacker. (And) I think he's an end. That's where he belongs right now, and he'll be competing with Brandon for the third end spot. The tackles, Myles definitely earned one spot with the way he played last year, but Chas Alecxih still has some work to do.
"And Justin Hargrove, if he can stay healthy, will be inside with them,'' Gattuso added. "But he's capable of playing outside, too. So, we have a good group returning and a good group coming in, and as the guy coaching those players I have to be pretty happy with our D-line situation right now.''
And it appears that the future of the defensive line is bright as well for Pitt.
Pitt's D-Line Depth Bolstered With 2010 Class
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