As the Pitt Panthers and the team’s fans count down the days to the 2018 Blue-Gold Game at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh Sports Now will break down the most important things to watch this Saturday.
PITTSBURGH — The highest-profile injury for Pitt during the 2017 season was almost undoubtedly quarterback Max Browne, whose season-ending shoulder injury during Week 6 sent the Panthers season into a spin.
But Browne wasn’t the only Pitt injury that played a part in the 2017 season’s 5-7 finish, and while Browne won’t be returning for 2018 after graduating, three Pitt players that missed that the entire year in 2017 will be.
Fullback George Aston, wide receiver Tre Tipton and middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis are all expected to make big contributions this coming season after returning from injury. Depending on the injury and the circumstances, recovering from an injury can be tough work — even tougher than the everyday job of a Division I football player.
For Wirginis, what was supposed to be his senior season was first marred by a suspension and then an off-the-field injury that cost him the remainder of the year. So to get back to football this spring was a weight lifted off his shoulders.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Wirginis said. “I learned a lot this past year but I’m just excited to be back. It’s the time of my life. I’m like a little kid again playing. I love it. I love being with the guys. I just love being a part of this.”
Wirginis feels that the time off has given him some perspective on the game that he loves so much.
“I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason,” Wirginis said. “At the time, I was really upset about it because it was my senior year, but I’ve looked at in a positive way, and a way for me to grow physically, spiritually and mentally. I think I have over this past year.”
At this time last season, Wirginis was in pencil to take over the middle linebacker spot vacated by the graduation of current Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Matt Galambos. It appears that if anything, the year off has put Wirginis in a better position to lock down that role.
“He’s just a difference-maker,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “He’s a different guy in there. I love Saleem Brightwell and Saleem is going to be another good linebacker for us, but Saleem is fighting right now to be a one right now, but Wirginis is a different guy. He really is. He’s special. He can play at the next level. So, we’ve got a middle linebacker that I think, if he stays healthy, which has been a little bit of a problem, that can be really special.”
With Wirginis and Brightwell joined by Seun Idowu and Elijah Zeise, Pitt will have four experienced linebackers for the first time in recent memory.
All spring, those backers have been taking physical abuse from No. 35 on the other side of the ball. Aston, Pitt’s starting fullback and allegedly the toughest guy on the team, makes his presence felt each and every time he steps on the field. It’s an edge that the Panthers missed while he sat out almost all of 2017 with a pair of ankle injuries.
“George is the energy; he’s the energy bus,” Narduzzi said. “Besides being a good football player and those things and being tough, I think he brings people together, so having him in that huddle means there is a lot of things we can do offensively. He’s a difference-maker.”
That’s nothing new to Aston, who started his career at Pitt as a walk-on linebacker, but has tried from Day One to set the tone with hard work and physicality.
“I have always tried to lead by example, do the right things and work as hard as possible,” he said. “We have a great group of guys that are always working hard.”
When Pitt travels to away games, there are only so many seats on the Panthers’ charter jet. There’s the travel roster of players that are expected to play in the games, and there are usually a few seats left for some younger players to get a taste of life on the road. Last season, Pitt used those spots to take Aston and Tipton with them, even though they were out for the year, because of their status as emotional leaders.
“I love football,” Aston said. “Even though I wasn’t practicing, it really wasn’t that hard to be engaged. Tre is the same. He loves football. Being around the coaches and players made it a lot easier for us not being out there.”
Of the three, Tipton still has the most rehab to do, less than a year after going through knee surgery for a torn ACL injury suffered in a bicycle accident. But he’s still been out there practicing with his teammates and doing as much as he can.
“They even tell me that they’re surprised how hard I’m able to go with what I’ve been through,” Tipton said. “It’s to the point where I expect a lot more out of myself. It’s OK to say that you’re injured and you’re doing well, but when you’re an athlete, you’re born to compete. For me, I just don’t want to be average.”
Tipton was certainly missed in a possession role in 2017, and he’ll be able to bring that to the table to complement Rafael Araujo-Lopes on the inside. But the area he feels he’ll be able to contribute the most will be off the field.
“I feel like I can bring leadership to the table,” Tipton said. “I’m a little bit older than I was. I had a lot of time to study film, be able to study defense and I feel like I bring a lot of knowledge to the game. I just plan on being able to help the team the best as I possibly can and help the room.
Injuries are a part of the game, and no team will get through a season without suffering a significant one, but in Aston, Tipton and Wirginis, Pitt has three players coming back that could go a long way to reversing the fortunes of the 2017 season.