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Building a Pipeline

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Pitt football coach Pat Narduzzi is working on a pipeline from Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School directly to the University of Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh Central Catholic has quite the reputation for pumping out high-end Division 1 talent in football.

Dan Marino (Class of 1979) went on to become one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. Marc Bulger (Class of 1996) was a two-time Pro-Bowler in his tenure with the St. Louis Rams. Jeff Dugan (Class of 2000) played five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, while Stefen Wiseniewski (Class of 2007) is the starting center for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Vikings classes of 2016 and 2017 just may be following in those large footsteps.

The class of 2016 features five Division 1 signees: defensive backs Damar Hamlin and Bricen Garner (Pitt), defensive tackle Rashad Wheeler (Pitt), linebacker Ron George (Western Michigan) and running back Ronnie Jones (Toledo).

Next year’s class may be even better, as linebacker David Adams and offensive lineman C.J. Thorpe are both four-star prospects according to Rivals.com and already fielding offers from many of the top programs in the country, while defensive tackle Kurt Hinish is a three-star prospect with a dozen scholarship offers as well. Pitt has offered all three 2017 prospects.

The most coveted prospect among this wave of players is Hamlin, the 6-2, 190-pound defensive back coming off a superb senior season in 2015. Hamlin’s play was so good, in fact, that he was named to MaxPreps’ 2015 All-American First-Team, a list containing some of the best blue-chip prospects across the United States.

Hamlin was not only the lone player from the WPIAL on the MaxPreps first team, but the only player in entire state of Pennsylvania to get the coveted nod.

“He’s a good hitter, downhill, where he’ll come up and tackle people hard, rolling his hips and driving through people,” said Joe Butler of Metro Index Scouting. “And he has ball skills, so he can play corner or safety. He could go a long way.”

While his Central Catholic teammates Wheeler and Garner committed to Pitt very early in the process, Hamlin waited to decide where he would be taking his talents this fall.

The versatile athlete received scholarship offers from Pitt, Penn State, Ohio State and 30 other power conference schools, although he ultimately narrowed his choices to the Panthers, Nittany Lions and Buckeyes.

His decision came via a televised segment on Pittsburgh’s KDKA-TV just 48 hours before signing day, which resulted in Hamlin dawning a scripted Pitt hat and drawing many cheers from his family behind him. Soon after, a video of Pitt’s coaching staff erupting in glee at Hamin’s decision began circulating around social media.

“I felt like I could accomplish everything I want to accomplish academically,” Hamlin said at his decision day press conference. “I can be the businessman I want to be, and athletically I bought into coach [Pat] Narduzzi’s plan. I wanted to get my city back to where it should be. I turned down some great universities, some special opportunities that a lot of people don’t get, and I’m just dedicated to it.”

Central Catholic head coach Terry Totten has high praises for Pitt’s Narduzzi.

“He built a great relationship with everybody here, including (the three seniors),” Totten said. “He built a long-lasting (relationship) of trust, and that’s what he’s all about.”

Wheeler also had nice things to say about the reason why he chose Pitt.

“My relationship with coach is great,” Wheeler said. “The coaches were the biggest reason I picked Pitt. I think coach Narduzzi looks at us as more than just football players. You can tell he cares.”

Hamlin is part of a top 30 recruiting class at Pitt, the Panthers’ highest-rated class in eight years. Narduzzi’s first full recruiting season delivered the fifth-best class in the Atlantic Coast Conference, signing a slew of prospects ranging from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Citra, Fla.

“We think we got an incredible, incredible class,” Narduzzi said. “The most important part is to recruit our own backyard, and I think we’ve successfully done that. It proved that this Pittsburgh WPIAL area is important to us.”

Narduzzi added seven players from the WPIAL, including another four-start prospect in Aliquippa linebacker Kaezon Pugh.

Looking ahead to 2017, it is obviously too early to speculate where these players—currently high school juniors—are going to commit. However, it is not too soon to judge the caliber of players they are and could turn out to be.Pitttsburgh Central Catholic

“(Adams, Hinish and Thorpe) understand the game of football thoroughly,” said Butler. “They’ve got the bodies to play in Division 1, they play with a high sense of urgency, and they’re guys that can come in and help college football programs win.”

With three highly rated players already on the horizon, there’s no overstating the impact of Pitt signing Garner, Wheeler and Hamlin. That trio of Vikings may have begun to construct a pipeline from Central Catholic to Pitt.

“It’s a possibility,” Butler said. “Pitt’s an ACC school that is five miles away from their homes, right around the corner. So, if that’s what they want, parents and relatives and friends to come watch them play, it works out. Some kids don’t mind going away.”

Perhaps some kids don’t mind, but it’s clear that Pitt’s Narduzzi certainly does.

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