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Running The Risk

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Greg Romeus spent most of Pitt’s training camp on the sideline, attempting to recover from an injury first described as back spasms and later as lower back stiffness. Most assumed that he would be healthy for the first game of the season.

But in Pitt’s season opener at Utah, Romeus struggled. The senior defensive end looked tentative and sluggish — two qualities not often associated with the 2009 Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year.

A few days later, Pitt revealed that the premier defensive player in the Big East would undergo back surgery to repair a herniated disc in his lower back, sidelining Romeus for at six to eight weeks.

Suddenly, Romeus’s future with the Panthers and with the NFL was in jeopardy.

He considered entering the NFL draft after his junior year, projecting as late second or third round pick. But Romeus, who only started playing football during his senior year in high school, decided to return in order to improve his stock.

“He’s a guy that’s a great leader and the kids really respect him,” Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said. “He kind of sets the tone for our defensive line and how we play. He’s probably been our best player over the past three years.”

Gattuso said the Panthers really looked to Romeus for leadership, especially the defensive line, and loss of the senior this season weighs on the team.

“It’s a big hit when you lose a player of his caliber,” Gattuso acknowledged. “He wants to get back with his teammates and he wants to play, it’s just a matter of when he’s ready.”

ESPN Scouts, Inc. draft analyst Kevin Weidl projected Romeus as a mid-second round pick heading into the season, although ESPN’s Todd McShay predicted Romeus as a late first round pick in a mock draft compiled prior to his injury.

Entering this season, Weidl said he liked Romeus’s physical measurables, but said the senior needed to work on his ability as a pass rusher.

“I wanted to see more of him as a finisher,” Weidl said. “He had some poor film against Rutgers, going up against (current NFL tackle) Anthony Davis. I thought he needed another year and it’s unfortunate he suffered the injury.”

Weidl said the injury is concerning because he won’t get to review Romeus again if he doesn’t return to the field. He added that the decision to return is one Romeus has to make on his own.

“It would be good for him to get more film, but he risks coming back at 80 percent,” he said. “The main thing is for him to be healthy coming into pro day and the combine. If something would happen and he got injured again, he might fail some team physicals and then he’d really be in trouble.”

Weidl compared Romeus’s situation to Arizona’s Rob Gronkowski’s injury last season. Gronkowski, a tight end from Woodland Hills, missed his entire junior season due to a back injury, but turned in solid pro day and combine performances. The New England Patriots drafted him in the second round.

Dan Shonka, a national scout for Orlads Scouting Service, also likened Romeus to Gronkowski. He said Gronkowski was projected as a first round pick before his injury.

“When we evaluated Gronkowski, we evaluated off the tape previous to his injury,” Shonka said. “Greg actually has three years of tape that you can look at. He’s played with a lot of success the past few years so that’s probably going to be good enough.”

Romeus’s situation also compares to the plight of former Pitt great Curtis Martin, who injured his ankle as a senior in 1995 and didn’t return for the rest of the year. He showed up healthy to pro days and the combine, impressing scouts, and he was eventually picked in the third round by the New England Patriots.

He was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL, rushing for 1,487 yards and 14 touchdowns. Martin finished his career as a five-time Pro-Bowler and is eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.

Craig Wolfley, a former Steelers offensive lineman and current Steelers broadcaster, played college football at Syracuse. Wolfley said that as a player, your only thought is returning to the field with your teammates.

“The worst thing you can do is be a non-participant whether the season is going good or bad,” he said. “Larger and better trained minds might say it’s time to make sure your back is fine and dandy for the combine… it depends on whether he follows his heart or listens to the voices around him.”

Players can perform well at the combine, Wolfley said, but the biggest indicator of ability is what an athlete produces on tapes.

“You can go out there and look terrific at the combine, but can you play?” he said.

As for returning to the field this season, Wolfley said the most important factor is whether not Romeus can make plays. If he can’t, returning to the field could do his stock more harm than good.

“It’s important to show you recovered from an injury, but you can show that at the combine,” he said. “If he’s not able to make plays that he can make otherwise, he shouldn’t be there. He needs to be 100 percent.”

Former Pitt and NFL linebacker Tom Tumulty agreed, saying that Romeus should let his body be his guide.

“Know the difference between being tough and being stupid,” Tumulty said. “Let your body tell you when it hurts too much and settle down.”

Tumulty said that if put in Romeus’s shoes, he wouldn’t rush to return to the field. He said NFL teams have medical professionals and technology in order to evaluate whether or not he’s healthy. They won’t necessarily need to see him play again this season.

“But if he were able to get on the field and he was healthy enough, that would just be icing on the cake,” Tumulty said.

Ultimately, though, Tumulty said that if Romeus gets clearance and the Panthers are in a position to win the Big East, the defensive end is going to want to return to the field with his teammates.

“Of course he’s going to want to be beside his brothers… he’s going to want to share those moments with his teammates,” Tumulty said. “College is a special time and playing for Pitt is a special thing.”

At the same time, Tumulty said Romeus has to make sure NFL coaches see him at his best. If he returns to the field too early, Tumulty said, they could see him perform under 100 percent or he could re-injure his back.

As October came to an end and the Panthers were 2-0 in the Big East, Romeus was almost seven weeks removed from his surgery. He had not returned to practice, although Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said he was close to that point.

As Tumulty indicated, Romeus may be very close to returning as the Pitt season hits the home stretch.

If so, he'll have a decision to make. His long-term future, and the immediate fortunes of his football team, will both likely play a large part.

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