PITTSBURGH — As has been the case for the last few years under head coach Pat Narduzzi, the last piece of his signing class might end up being the most impactful.
Just after noon on Wednesday, Pitt secured a commitment and received a letter of intent from four-star Washington, D.C. running back Mychale Salahuddin.
Salahuddin is the highest-rated player in Pitt’s class and the only consensus four-star recruit for the Panthers. Narduzzi credited the new signing process for allowing Pitt to land Salahuddin, a former Southern California commit who chose Pitt over Syracuse on signing day and had almost 20 other major offers.
Pitt had 17 commits in the fold before Narduzzi and the Panthers’ coaches turned their attention to Salahuddin, a running back they had been recruiting all along but really turned up the heat on after he remained unsigned after the early signing period.
“It was really nice to sign 16 great players in December and then have the month of January to really narrow our focus on what our needs are, who we want, and go after those guys as well as look into the future as far as what ‘19s and ‘20s hold,” Narduzzi said. “You kind of evaluate what you have and then you go out and get a couple more.”
Pitt had a need at running back, especially with offseason transfer of Chawntez Moss, but the Panthers do return both starters from last season in Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison along with fullback George Aston. With A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley waiting in the wings, it was a position of luxury, not necessity. They were able to find a high-level one in Salahuddin.
“We wanted a tailback, but we just weren’t going to take any tailback,” Narduzzi said. “Mychale was a guy that we wanted bad and we didn’t think we were going to get him. … We might not have taken one. If we didn’t get Mychale, we weren’t going to take one.”
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That type of positional flexibility is one of the advantages of the new system. But that’s an advantage for everyone else, too. Pitt still had to go out and land Salahuddin. Despite not being confident they were always in the lead, running backs coach Andre Powell said that he thought the Panthers’ relationships at H.D. Woodson, where he’s recruited for years and Pitt just landed defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman last class. That, and Pitt’s willingness to run the football more than other offenses was a difference-maker in the end.
“Recruiting is all relationships,” Powell said. “Between (receivers coach Kevin) Sherman and I, we’ve been through that school a lot. We’ve been around those coaches a lot. … I think those kids look up look to Jaylen. And then we run it. I mean, we run it. We’re not Georgia Tech, but we run the football and if you’re a running back, you want to go somewhere where they run the football.”
In the big picture, Salahuddin’s addition gave the Panthers the No. 46 recruiting class in the country according to 247Sports. Rivals was more kind, ranking Pitt No. 36.
In the running backs room, adding a back in this class moves the Panthers toward a bit of normalcy in spreading their classes out. They’ll have three seniors in 2018, but then a sophomore, redshirt freshman and a freshman.
When it comes to the player, Salahuddin got his Pitt career started with a juke. When announcing his decision at the signing day event at H.D. Woodson High School, he first donned a Syracuse cap before removing it and a USC sweatshirt to reveal at Pitt t-shirt underneath.
So while he’s certainly proved himself to be elusive, the thing that stands out when watching Salahuddin on film is his speed.
Of course, that speed is a part of Salahuddin’s four-star ranking, but it also makes him a rarer commodity on the open market. Especially when combined with his willingness to absorb and even seek out contact.
“No one goes out looking for a slow tailback,” Powell said. “If everything is equal and you get a chance to take a bigger guy or a faster guy, we’re taking the bigger guy.”
Powell went on to note that there are backs that are both big and fast, but joked that they’re in places like Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Speed is the one skill that is essentially developed when a player comes out of high-school. The adage is that it can’t be taught. While that’s probably not completely true, it’s certainly easier to envision a high school player adding muscle, gaining weight, getting quicker in and out of his cuts, or better at reading a defense.
So when teams see speed, they line up for it. The value of a home-run hitting back is hard to overstate, especially for a team that likes to run the ball. The ability to turn any play into a big play is a rare skill and the Panthers