Less than 60 minutes after landing his fifth and final recruit of the day, Pat Narduzzi walked briskly down the hall of Rooney Sports Complex with a university employee before chatting with reporters about the treacherous road conditions around the city.
National Signing Day was coming to an end, but the mood in the building was much more casual than in years past. Pitt signed 16 players in the NCAA's newly-instituted early signing period in December, so what was traditionally the most important day on the recruiting calendar is now one final chance for coaches to fill any remaining holes on the roster.
However, Narduzzi was focused on quality over quantity, using the second singing day to add Stefano Millin, a graduate transfer from Kent State who will start at left tackle for the Panthers, four-star running back Mychale Salahuddin, cornerback Erick Hallet, defensive end Kaymar Mimes and defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado.
"We were able to sign five unbelievable athletes," Narduzzi beamed during his news conference Wednesday.
Despite losing his defensive coordinator and parting ways with an offensive line coach, Narduzzi secured the No. 35-best recruiting class in the country, according to Rivals.com. That's good for seventh of 14 teams in the ACC, ranking higher than Wisconsin, California, Arizona, Iowa and Utah, among others.
The Panthers used the first signing period to secure local products such as Thomas Jefferson High School defensive end Devin Danielson and Belle Vernon offensive tackle Blake Zubovic, as well as highly touted receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis of Fort Myers, Fla., and transfer quarterback Ricky Towns.
It was a well-rounded group that addressed needs both short- and long-term as early departures for the NFL Draft and transfers created significant holes on the roster.
When starting left tackle Brian O'Neill chose to forego his senior season, Narduzzi's staff pursued several graduate transfer offensive tackles. The Panthers have a number of talented young offensive tackles on the roster, but none seemed to be ready to protect Kenny Pickett's blindside next fall.
Additionally, Pitt must fill voids at starting right tackle and left guard with Alex Officer, Jaryd Jones-Smith and Brandon Hodges completing their eligibility.
Former offensive line coach John Peterson, who parted ways with the program last month, made initial contact with Millin, who started 30 games at Kent State, including 27 in a row. But with Peterson gone, it was James Patton, an offensive quality control coach, who helped secure Millin's commitment.
"When Brian left it was just we looked at our depth chart and we know we have some good, young players who are going to develop in Gabe Houy, Carson Van Lynn, Jerry Drake and Carter Warren," Patton said. "They are good players and we’re excited about their future, but to have an older, experienced guy to come in and fill a need."
Narduzzi added: "I think he’s a leader. I think he instantly brings not only his experience but leadership qualities of an older guy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he walks in that o-line meeting room and becomes the dad of the group. Very smart and I think he’s really, really tough. He’s already warned me that, 'Coach, I like to go to the end of the whistle and I like to talk a little bit, too,' so he’s got kind of a nasty streak in him."
Cornerback was less of a need since the Panthers have Dane Jackson, Therran Coleman, Jason Pinnock, Damarri Mathis, Phillipie Motley and Maurice Ffrench returning. Also, they added Judson Tallandier, Marquis Williams and V'lique Carter in the first signing period.
Narduzzi, though, prefers to over-recruit defensive backs with the plan to cross-train them to play either safety or cornerback. When Randy Bates was hired as Pitt's new defensive coordinator, Narduzzi asked if Bates had any cornerbacks available in his recruiting territory of Texas.
The Panthers then began to pursue Hallett, who helped Cy-Fair High School in Cypress, Texas win a state championship last fall. He had 38 tackles, six interceptions and eight passes-defensed as a senior.
Narduzzi also added a pair of intriguing prospects who could play either defensive end or tight end. Baldonado has played only one season of high school football in the United States after moving to Clearwater, Fla. from Rome, Italy.
The 6-foot-5 prospect recorded 30 1/2 sacks with nine forced fumbles and three recoveries last season at Clearwater Academy International. He also caught nine passes for 220 yards. Although defensive line coach Charlie Partridge compared Baldonado's raw skills to those of former Pitt lineman Greg Romeus, he said Baldonado's case is unique in that he didn't begin playing 11-on-11 American football in Italy until his junior year of high school.
"You’re looking at his raw athletic ability," Partridge said of trying to project Baldonado's skills to college football. "You try to find out his level of intelligence, which is extremely high. He wants to become a mechanical engineer and has the aptitude to do that. ... I’m not going to make this comparison but there are similarities between where he’s coming from and Greg Romeus in terms of how long they both have played, their experience at the position. Greg was a receiver, defensive end and only played a few years. ... I’m excited to see what this kid can do."
Mimes, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound athlete from Long Branch, N.J., is the brother of Oakland Raiders defensive end Shalique Calhoun, who played for Narduzzi at Michigan State. Narduzzi said his relationship with Mimes' family secured the commitment.
Mimes recorded 87 tackles, including 10 sacks, and four forced fumbles as a senior at Long Branch High School last season. Like Baldonado, Mimes' position won't be determined until the beginning of fall camp, when Narduzzi's staff puts freshmen through a variety of drills to determine if they should be used on offense or defense.
The Panthers do have a need at tight end after Matt Alaimo, a high school teammate of Pitt early-enrollee freshman quarterback Nick Patti, de-committed and signed with UCLA. The plan was to add a pure tight end, but Narduzzi said there isn't much concern since Baldonado, Mimes and freshman Noah Palmer could play either offense or defense.
The Panthers also have Chris Clark, Tyler Sear, Grant Carrigan and Charles Reeves Jr. returning at the position.
"What we normally do is when we find out when they come into camp, really, what they can do," Narduzzi said. "We’ll go through some big skilled drills. 'Hey, how well do they catch the ball?' They might look good and run well, but if they can’t catch well then they’d probably stay a defensive end. If they can catch it’s kind of like who. We’ll spread those big athletes out and give us a chance to get the best players on the field."
Last February, the Panthers capped National Signing Day by receiving the commitment of four-star running back A.J. Davis, who announced his decision on ESPNU. Although Salahuddin's announcement was not as highly publicized, it generated as much buzz among Pitt's coaching staff.
"Oh, you can bet I'm excited," running backs coach Andre Powell said.
Running back was not viewed as a need for Pitt until Chawntez Moss transferred — a move that did not surprise Powell. But Powell and Narduzzi decided the Panthers weren't going to use a scholarship on his replacement this year unless they could land a tailback that was good enough to compete for the starting job in 2018.
Salahuddin quickly became the top target. He rushed for 1,274 yards and 12 touches for H.D. Woodson High School in Washington, D.C. last season. He was rated by Rivals.com as the city's No. 1 prospect and the No. 5 all-purpose back in the country.
Powell compared Salahuddin to Houston Texans running back Andre Ellington, whom Powell coached at Clemson. Salahuddin is bigger at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, but he has the type of game-changing speed the Panthers have lacked in recent years:
DC ➡️ Pittsburgh
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) February 7, 2018
Pitt will have Davis, Qadree Ollison, Darrin Hall and Todd Sibley back in 2018, but Salahuddin brings a skillset that Powell has coveted for years and it could be particularly useful with the turnover on the offensive line.
"I think he brings more pure speed to the room but a better open-field runner, maybe, and a guy who can create a little more," Powell said. "He can erase bad blocks. He can help save blocks. You don’t have to be so perfect around him. It doesn't have to be as clean. It brings back good memories."
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