Former Pitt teammates reunited in NFL

Former Pitt teammates reunited in NFL

By Dan Sostek / Staff Writer

Jabaal Sheard has had his fair share of memorable NFL experiences in his four seasons with the Cleveland Browns. He has been named to the All-Rookie team, sacked Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks and recorded 22 sacks in 46 career games from the 2011 season until now.

Still, there is one aspect of being in the NFL that Sheard hasn’t totally adjusted to: playing at Heinz Field. After four years of calling the turf his home as a linebacker for the Pitt Panthers and graduated in 2010, fans now view Sheard as the enemy when he enters the stadium, suiting up in Pittsburgh annually for a divisional matchup.

Sheard was confronted with this task once again this past weekend, as his Browns took on the Steelers at Heinz Field to open the season. And, after a day of revisiting some of his favorite college hangouts — he cited Uncle Sam’s Subs and Savoy as his two preferred establishments — Sheard woke up on Sunday feeling a bit out of place.

“I definitely woke up [on Sunday] and looked out the window and realized, with all the yellow bridges, that I’m back in Pittsburgh, and I’m on the away team,” said Sheard, who has led the Browns in sacks in each of his first three seasons. “It’s still weird, being the guy in the visiting locker room. Getting booed and not getting cheered and not having that walk out onto the field. It’s weird.”

While this was Sheard’s fourth go-around playing in the Steel City as a visitor, another former Panther on Cleveland, undrafted rookie cornerback K’Waun Williams, would be making his NFL debut at his former stomping grounds after graduating last year.

Williams started last year for Pitt, performing as Pitt’s most consistent cornerback out of a weak defensive backs group. After going unselected in May’s NFL draft, Williams was able to land a tryout with Cleveland and was signed.

After a solid preseason, he surprised many by making the Browns’ 53-man roster. Williams said he went into training camp with no expectations of making the team.

“I just tried to go out there and make plays,” Williams said. “Just prove that I can do what I’ve been doing my whole life, going out there and playing football.”

Still, when it came to coming out as a visitor at Heinz Field, Williams echoed Sheard’s sentiment.

“It was definitely weird, especially being on a different sideline,” said Williams. “But it was thrilling being out there being on the field. Different team, but still fun.”

While the young corner only saw the field for six snaps, he was able to make the most of the limited playing time, notching two tackles in his debut.

Even though it seemed like a long shot for Williams to even play in an NFL regular season game, his college defensive coordinator, Matt House, isn’t surprised in the slightest.

“I always thought K’Waun had a redeeming quality,” said House, who is currently in his second season as Pitt’s defensive coordinator. “He just has some qualities that make him different. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a long career for him.”

Sheard, who was a senior at Pitt when Williams came in as a freshman, was impressed by the hard work his fellow Panther put in.

“He’s been getting active. He’s hungry,” Sheard, who tallied a sack in the Browns’ 30-27 loss to the Steelers on Sunday, said. “He’s ready to hit and he wants to play. He’s been impressing coaches, and I hope it continues.”

At one point in the preseason, the Browns had five former Panthers on the roster, with cornerback Aaron Berry, offensive tackle Jason Pinkston and running back Dion Lewis rounding out the group, although now only Williams and Sheard remain. 

Three coaches on the Browns — head coach Mike Pettine, linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach and secondary coach Jeff Hafley — have all spent time on Pitt’s coaching staff as well. 

Hafley was the coach who originally recruited Williams to Pitt and coached him during his freshman year.

Both Williams and Sheard cited this familiarity as a huge positive.

“Those guys all helped me out, kind of guided me through the ropes,” Williams said. “Jabaal and all those guys did a real good job.”

Sheard summed it up, saying, “It’s just nice to have someone who can relate to you.”

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