Paul Chryst may be entering just his second year on the field as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Panthers, but this will be his third, and arguably most critical, recruiting class off the field. So how’s the 2014 recruiting class coming along in the historic football mecca of western Pennsylvania? Not bad.
Don’t get me wrong, not great, but it’s not too bad. They’re not going to finish with a top-10 class, or maybe even a top-30 class, but an archaic ranking doesn’t reveal the true identity of a class. After all, we know it’s not all about the amount of stars behind a players name. If that was the case, Eric Fisher (No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014), Ezekiel Ansah (fifth), Star Lotulelei (14th), Justin Pugh (19th), Bjoern Werner (24th) and Travis Frederick (31st) wouldn’t have been first rounders in this most recent NFL Draft, because they had few (if any) stars coming out of high school.
But the Panthers are doing a fantastic job of addressing their primary needs: offensive line and defensive backs.
Many fans expected Chryst to immediately produce All-American offensive linemen left and right, since that was a byproduct of his considerable success while calling the offensive plays at Wisconsin. But he’ll be the first one to tell you it takes time to build a truly elite line. Patience is necessary while getting the talent, depth and cohesion you need to develop a front wall like Wisconsin’s.
The 2014 group of offensive linemen being assembled is hitting for both depth and talent. Mike Grimm is the headliner of the entire class thus far, and the four-star tackle from Bethel Park, Pa. is choosing the Panthers over a sea of other offers, many from the biggest football programs in the country Grimm certainly looks the part at 6-foot-6, 330 pounds, and could be a heck of a complimentary bookend tackle opposite of incoming mega-recruit, five-star tackle Dorian Johnson. Those two could comfortably lock down the tackle spots for the next few years.
Connor Hayes (Traverse City, Mich.) and Mike Herndon (Staunton, Va.) are both combo guard/tackles. Both have the size (6-foot-4, 280 and 320 pounds, respectively) and feet to play inside or out for the Panthers. You can never have enough versatility on an offensive line, where injuries constantly shake up the rotation, so guys like Hayes and Herndon are always valuable.
Another big need the Panthers had going into this recruiting class was defensive back. Elijah Zeise (Wexford, Pa.) and Jalen Williams (Newburgh, N.Y.) are both big (each are 6-foot 2, 190 pounds) and physical safeties, and both are committed to the Panthers. As we all know, big safeties are all the rage right now, and these two guys can both bring the wood. Fast, strong and instinctive are terms thrown around when discussing Zeise and Williams.
Ideally, the Panthers will snag local star Montae Nicholson from Monroeville, but they’ll have their hands full competing against the likes of Southern Cal and Notre Dame for the standout safety. Dravon Henry (Aliquippa, Pa.) is another highly-recognized local safety, and the Panthers made his final four along with Ohio State, Penn State and West Virginia. Either one would be a huge catch for the Panthers.
Avonte Maddox (Detroit, Mich.) and Patrick Amara (Philadelphia, Pa.) are also on board as cornerback/safety hybrid athletes. Both of them are incredibly underrated as both are electrifying playmakers. These two could be the perfect examples of how inaccurate the star system can be many times.
The 14 current commitments to Chryst’s class, while strong, is still far from complete. There’s still a lot of holes to fill. Another running back will be prioritized moving forward, especially four-star power back Shai McKenzie from nearby Washington, Pa., who’s still on the market. McKenzie would be a tremendous fit in Chryst’s offense, as would Qadree Ollison (Buffalo, N.Y.), likewise still available.
Also look for the Panthers to focus on landing a big and physical wide receiver (looking at you, Jamal Custis), as well as a thumper at outside linebacker (cough, Melvin Keihn, cough).
We’re halfway there until National Signing Day. Something tells me this class will be one to pay attention to throughout this season.