Undersized Araujo-Lopes finds chance at Pitt

By Jeremy Tepper / Staff Writer

At times, it was hard for Rafael Araujo-Lopes to not get stressed. After all, the wide receiver from Winter Park High School in Florida was doing his part.

Playing wide receiver and running back and functioning as his team’s top playmaker, Lopes ran for 1,015 yards, accumulated 511 receiving yards and scored 21 touchdowns as a senior.

Still, Lopes didn’t receive any Division I interest out of high school. At 5 foot 9, Lopes is a short receiver, which he believes hindered his recruitment. Mostly, though, Lopes believes this lack of interest was a result of the flawed recruiting process.

“The recruiting process isn’t perfect,” Lopes said. “There’s not a formula to the recruiting process and I believe there are a whole bunch of athletes across America that get overlooked.”

Presented with limited options, Lopes took a piece of advice from one of his coaches, Sinclair Brown, and chose to go the junior college route and attend Reedley College in Reedley, Calif. Similarly to Lopes, Brown wasn’t recruited much out of high school. After a year at Reedley, Brown was able to attend the University of Central Florida on a football scholarship. 

“He told me if you go to Reedley and if you do what you’ve got to do and you stay focused, then you’ll be all right, things will take care of itself,” Lopes said.

Reedley head coach Randy Whited was more than happy to take Lopes. As a full qualifier out of high school, Whited said he was surprised that a player with Lopes’ abilities could slip through the cracks, though he was pleased to provide Lopes an opportunity to impress college coaches.

“I think he had to come out here and prove to people that he could compete at a high level at his size,” Whited said.

At Reedley, it was familiar territory for Lopes. On the field, Lopes was a standout, catching 74 passes for 1,229 yards and 17 touchdowns. Still, Lopes couldn’t generate much interest from college coaches. Lopes trusted the recruiting process, but it was hard for him to keep faith.

“I’m not going to lie, it was very stressful. I was very stressed at points. I was very impatient at points,” Lopes said.

But on April 25, Lopes received a surprising phone call from Tim Salem, Pitt’s tight ends coach. Salem expressed to Lopes Pitt’s need for another receiver and that he was impressed with his film.

“They said that in my film, I showed that I could get the ball and make an explosive play out of a short route. They liked that I could find the zones in the defense that were open,” Lopes said.

When assessing himself, Lopes said he’s very strong with the football.

“A lot of 5 foot 9 wide receivers are just shifty, but me, I have a balance of shiftiness and football strength. I have a low center of gravity, and my legs are very strong.”

After talking to some of Lopes’ coaches at Winter Park, Lopes said Salem also learned of his high football IQ, another factor in Pitt’s interest.

Two days later, Pitt offered him a scholarship. Lopes didn’t know much about Pitt at the time, but he was extremely interested after talking to Salem, head coach Pat Narduzzi and several other Pitt coaches. 

A little over a week later, Lopes took an official visit to Pitt for the weekend. And on May 9, Lopes committed to Pitt. This was Lopes’ first time in Pittsburgh, and he was impressed with the city and the campus.

“The city of Pittsburgh is beautiful,” Lopes said. “Being on campus, it felt like people loved to be there at the University of Pittsburgh.”

Planning on studying mechanical engineering, Lopes was also impressed with Pitt’s engineering program.

On the football side, Lopes was inspired by Pitt’s coaching staff, of whom he had high praise.

“This coaching staff has got to be one of the best coaching staffs in the country — as people, as well as football-wise. These are truly genuine, good people,” Lopes said. “It really felt like a family. The whole coaching staff just had a really good vibe.”

“They really expressed that they’re trying to change things and trying to light a spark in Pittsburgh,” Lopes added.

Lopes will arrive at Pitt on June 20, and when he gets here, Lopes said Pitt’s staff has given him the inclination that he’ll compete for the third receiver slot and kick and punt returner spots. 

Narduzzi spoke generally in a press release, saying that Lopes “has the ability to make an impact in both the pass and run game” and that he’ll “add depth and competition to our wide receiver position immediately.”

Lopes said learning the playbook and adapting to a pro-style offense will be the biggest adjustment for him, though he said that the increase in speed and size will be a factor as well.

Whited believes Lopes’ competitiveness, attention to detail and strong mentality will help temper the adjustment. 

“He plays on game day just like he practices everyday,” Whited said. “He’s got a tremendous competitive spirit and he does a great job of taking care of himself mentally and physically.”

Whited also pointed to Lopes’ intensity as something that will help him make the leap to college football.

“I don’t think he’ll have any problem handling the intensities because he’s a very intense guy,” Whited said. “He’s intense in the weight room, he’s intense on the practice field, he’s intense on game day, he’s intense in the classroom.”

Making a pit stop at Reedley, Lopes said, improved him “emotionally, mentally and psychologically.” Though Lopes doesn’t think he’s made huge leaps in his play, Whited said the improved level of play at the junior college level will help mitigate the jump to college football.

“One thing I try to make really clear to these young guys, a lot of them come here and think it’s just a lateral move because it’s only a junior college,” Whited said. “But who they play against on Saturdays is everybody’s high school all star team. What they find here is that every time they line up, they’re challenged by the best players.” 

Lopes is unflinchingly confident in his ability to make an impact in the upcoming season, as he said his football IQ will allow him to quickly adjust to the higher level. Lopes carries that same resolute credence in his belief in how Pitt’s football team can perform in the upcoming season.

“If we get the whole University of Pittsburgh and the community of Pittsburgh to buy in to Coach Narduzzi and what the coaching staff want to do, we can win the ACC championship game,” Lopes said.

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