PITTSBURGH — When Quintin Wirginis arrived on Pitt’s campus in 2014, the odds that he would one day become a big loss the Panthers would have to overcome probably seemed a bit absurd.
After all, Wirginis, a Fox Chapel linebacker that committed to Pitt after offers from just Temple, VMI and Robert Morris, was rated as a two-star prospect by 247 Sports.
When Wirginis found his way into the lineup for four games in November as a true freshman, it wasn’t seen as a big deal that the Panthers might’ve used up an extra season of eligibility for a future star.
But when Pat Narduzzi came into the picture in 2015 and changed up the roles of the team’s linebackers, he immediately found one for Wirginis that was paying dividends. While backing up stable vet Matt Galambos, Wirginis played extensively in Pitt’s third-down “Delta package.”
As a junior in 2016, he had four sacks, tops amongst Pitt’s linebackers, and was seen as the heir apparent to the middle linebacker spot that Galambos vacated when he graduated and signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But it wasn’t to be. First, there was a three-game suspension handed down from head coach Pat Narduzzi in July, a disciplinary action unfitting the senior leader that he had hoped to become. Then, a non-football injury ended his season before it ever got started.
The loss was a huge one for Pitt’s linebacker corps. Stripped of their most experienced man in the middle, the Panthers made do with Saleem Brightwell, who did well when called upon, but the depth was never recovered. It wasn’t until near the end of the season, when then-redshirt freshmen Chase Pine and Elias Reynolds started to come on that Pitt linebackers coach Rob Harley had the number of bodies he really needed to have ready to go.
But Wirginis will get a second go-around. Thanks to those four games as a freshman, he had a redshirt year intact, and with Narduzzi’s blessing, took at last season in order to play in 2018 as a fifth-year senior.
That’s given him one more shot at making the kind of impact that he had hinted at during his promising junior season. It’s also given him the chance to be the kind of senior leader that he wasn’t in the lead up to 2017.
“I love being out here with these guys and working every day,” Wirginis said. “I feel like our chemistry is at an all-time high.”
What hasn’t changed is the way Wirginis fits in Narduzzi’s defensive scheme.
“Like a glove — a tight one,” Narduzzi said. “He’s done an amazing job. I can’t say better things about Quintin Wirginis about how he has returned from an injury, returned to really take over as a leader of the defense right now. He’s a guy that you can count on. He’s been consistent when he’s out there.”
Something else happened while Wirginis was out, too. Elijah Zeise and Seun Idowu started every game of 2017 at the outside backer spots, giving Pitt four returning starters for three spots, with Wirginis now flanked by experience on the outside.
“This is really our defense, we’re making it what we want to make it and we’re excited to finally hit somebody else,” Wirginis said.
Additionally, youngsters like Reynolds have pushed the envelope further, to the point that Pine was seen as a luxury at linebacker and moved to defensive end.
“At linebacker, as you know, we have a lot of experienced, fifth-year guys, but those backups are coming along,” defensive coordinator Randy Bates said. “Very pleased with that.”
Bates is new to Pitt this season, and thus, new to Wirginis, but so far, he’s been impressed with what he’s inherited at the middle linebacker position.
“He’s got all the tools to be a great one,” Bates said. “It is a great help to have an older, experienced guy in the middle.”