PITTSBURGH — This week against No. 5 Notre Dame, Pitt’s defense is going to have a hole in the middle.
Middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis will miss the game and the rest of the year for the Panthers after suffering a season-ending injury in practice on Tuesday.
The loss will be felt all the more because of the way Wirginis was injured. It was the kind of play that takes your breath away as a football fan or as someone that’s a part of the game. A generic practice rep of an individual drill that Wirginis has probably done 1,000 times ended with him laying in a heap in the turf end zone of Pitt’s South Side practice facility.
“You expect a guy to get hurt in a team period, not in an individual period,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said on Thursday. “When those happen, it’s kind of a fluke. I had to look up and see if it was a full moon that day. Crazy things happen.”
Pitt did not release Wirginis’ diagnosis, but it was the kind of play that commonly results in an ACL injury, which would not only end Wirginis’ 2018 season with the Panthers and his Pitt career, but put in jeopardy a future professional career.
“Quintin was playing well,” Narduzzi said. “He’s really the heartbeat of our defense. He’s smart. He gets it all done. … I’m sad for him and his family. He’s had a great year.”
But of course, the Fighting Irish aren’t going to take it easy on the Panthers just because Pitt will be without its most productive defensive player. The Panthers only had two days of practice to get their defensive unit into shape without No. 58.
“We can’t sit there and worry about it,” Narduzzi said. “Quintin knows that. Elias Reynolds and Chase Pine will take over. We’ll find out who is going to be the dude at that position and go from there.”
Reynolds and Pine are redshirt sophomores that both got experience down the stretch in 2017 and have been playing as understudies behind the three senior starters at linebacker this season. Reynolds beat out Pine as Wirginis’ primary backup in training camp and has gotten most of the rest of the reps at “Mike” so far this season while Pine has bounced between the linebacker positions and defensive end.
Saleem Brightwell started at middle linebacker in 2017 while Wirginis was out with a suspension and another season-ending injury, but for now, Narduzzi plans on him staying at “Money” outside linebacker, where he’s gotten a significant share of the playing time alongside Elijah Zeise.
“Those guys have taken significant reps in the last few weeks,” Narduzzi said. “They’ve been in the game. Those guys weren’t ready a year ago, so that’s why we went with Saleem. But they’re ready now. they’re ready for that role. If crazy things happen, Saleem could go in there as well.”
Reynolds has gotten praise for his play in recent weeks. In last Saturday’s game against Syracuse, Reynolds was on the field and made a crucial call at the last moment to put defensive tackle Amir Watts in position to make an interception in the second quarter.
“Shout out to my man ‘E’ for putting me where I was supposed to be,” Watts said Tuesday. “He made it at the last second. Probably even after the ball was snapped.”
Meanwhile, many of the rest of the Panthers are dealing with Wirginis’ loss off the field as much as they will be on it. A senior leader, and one of the team’s captains, Wirginis holds as large of an off-the-field role as he does on the field.
Many players posted on social media on Thursday that they’ll be dedicating the fourth quarter “4Q” to Wirginis, who is called “Q” by his teammates.
While they’ll certainly feel Wirginis’ loss, Narduzzi said the Panthers are more focused on the task at hand in the No. 5 team in the country.
“That’s part of the game of football,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to be healthy, really, most of the season. Sooner or later, the injury bug is going to hit you. The last couple of weeks, it’s hit us a little bit. Quintin is just the next one.”
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Taysir Mack (right foot/ankle) is also questionable for the game. Mack was injured in Pitt’s Week 5 loss at UCF and did not play against Syracuse.
The Panther will also be without starting tight end Tyler Sear, who left the team this week for what the team called “personal reasons.” Pittsburgh Sports Now reported that Sear left practice on Tuesday after a verbal argument about the role of tight ends in the offense.
Redshirt junior graduate transfer Will Gragg is expected to start, with redshirt freshman Grant Carrigan and former walk-on Jim Medure also getting playing time.
“We’ve got three tight ends and we’ll be fine there,” Narduzzi said.
The tight end room has a total of just six catches on the season, with two them Sear’s. Gragg has three catches for 21 yards and Medure one for 15. Narduzzi didn’t mince words when asked what his tight ends need to do to get more involved in the passing game.
“Maybe ability to make a play, catch the ball, whatever it may be,” he said. “If you’ve got a big dude you can get the ball to, it makes a difference.”