In the final stretch of the courting process, Pitt head football coach Pat Narduzzi fed his recruits to the Zoo.
Pitt invited a group of football recruits to watch the Virginia Tech game Sunday as members of the Oakland Zoo. With National Signing Day on Wednesday, the new Panthers head coach showed his plan to promote the culture of #PittIsIt. And with his first full recruiting class nearly finalized, Narduzzi has displayed a knack for bringing in — and retaining — talent that Pitt has desparately lacked.
The group included Damar Hamlin and Michigan commit Khaleke Hudson, as well as Pitt commits George Hill and Brandon Ford. Various targets for Pitt’s 2017 recruiting class, such as Paris Ford and C.J. Thorpe, also attended the game.
New Pitt recruit Hamlin was the standout visitor this weekend. Hamlin — a 6-foot-1, 179-pound wide receiver and defensive back out of Pittsburgh Central Catholic — is a four-star recruit according to Rivals, among four other four-star Pitt commits.
Hamlin visited Ohio State and Penn State before making his way to Pitt on Sunday, and he announced his commitment to the Panthers Monday evening. After losing wide receiver Tyler Boyd to the NFL Draft, Narduzzi wants his program to benefit from the talent-filled pipeline of Pittsburgh high schools.
During halftime Sunday evening, Pitt recognized football standouts Qadree Ollison and Jordan Whitehead for their ACC Rookie of the Year honors — likely a strategic power move by Narduzzi to instill a sense of confidence in his commits.
Schools make similar hard pushes at recruiting non-committed players, while also trying to flip committed players. But with cases such as Shawn Curtis last year and Robert Foster two years ago, Pitt has more often than not seen their prior commits flips. It’s a refreshing change to see Narduzzi put the Panthers on the offensive.
As Pitt and longtime rival Penn State prepare to face off in September at Heinz Field, the Nittany Lions have reportedly attempted to flip multiple committed Pitt recruits to Penn State, according to Mike Vukovcan of Pittsburgh Sports Now. They have been unsuccessful so far — with likely little luck in the future.
While it’s not particularly rare for recruits to de-commit, Pitt has only had one recent recruit, Coffeyville Community College wide receiver Juwann Winfree, do so. But unlike in years past, Narduzzi has been able to make some last-second moves, replacing Winfree with former Penn State commit Aaron Mathews, who switched to Pitt after they offered him a chance to play wideout.
While Narduzzi successfully tempted a Nittany Lion player to switch allegiances, Penn State head coach James Franklin hasn’t had similar luck. Despite Franklin’s penning of the hashtag #DominateTheState, the Panthers have been able to fend off and fight back many of Penn State’s advances.
Vukovcan reported Jan. 26, Penn State at least approached Pitt commits, wide receiver Maurice Ffrench and cornerback Therran Coleman, to try and pull them in for an official campus visit.
According to Vukovcan, the prospects did not accept those invitations.
Shortly after word broke of Penn State’s advances toward Pitt’s commits, Narduzzi, who uses Twitter and #PittIsIt as an under-the-radar way to announce new commits, tweeted “Relationships are everything ! ! Hail to Pitt!! #412crew.”
While the recruiting rivalry is clearly sizzling heading into the 2016 season, the Sept. 10 matchup this year will be fans’ most anticipated game of the year — after a whole season battling for players on the recruitment trail, Narduzzi and Franklin can finally meet on the gridiron.
On the field, the Panthers need fresh faces at wide receiver, defensive tackle and cornerback, among other positions, following departures of Boyd, Lafayette Pitts, Darryl Render and J.P. Holtz.
Narduzzi has thrived establishing a recruiting presence for Pitt and has revitalized the culture at Pitt after some sedative seasons under former head coach Paul Chryst.
Narduzzi’s use of social media has connected Pitt to recruits and a younger generation of players — something the Panthers program noticeably lacked prior to his hiring in December 2014.
Narduzzi and his staff will try to keep the buzz palpating as they prepare for another haul in 2017, which is off to a strong start already with commitments from defensive backs Exree Loe and Paris Ford.
The coach is trying to make Pitt “it,” and by the looks of his first offseason of recruiting, that goal is in reach.