PITTSBURGH — On Dec. 31, 2018, Pitt played the Stanford Cardinal in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
The game was fairly forgettable, with an injury to star Pitt running back Qadree Ollison stymying the Panthers offense and Pitt eventually losing, 14-13.
It was a pretty pedestrian game for Pitt defensive end Rashad Weaver, by his standards. Weaver had two tackles, one sack and a quarterback hurry — a solid stat line for most, but just another day at the office for the proficient pass-rusher that finished 2018 with 31 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
A redshirt sophomore, Weaver’s strong season set him up to be a potential impact player for the Panthers in 2019 and a high pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Of course, that did not come to pass. A knee injury during training camp cost Weaver his entire 2019 season. The the COVID-19 pandemic threatened his 2020 season and kept Weaver, who had a positive test early in the week, out of Pitt’s season opener against Austin Peay.
Saturday, the Pitt defensive end got back to doing what he does best, 627 long days after that Sun Bowl appearance. Weaver didn’t miss a beat. He had seven tackles in Pitt’s win over Syracuse, three tackles for a loss and two quarterback sacks while leading the Panthers defense that dominated the Orange all afternoon.
Weaver was awarded the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week on Sunday, but just getting to suit up in Blue and Gold again was enough reward for the redshirt senior.
“I felt like a little kid on Christmas,” Weaver said. “[Friday] night, I was sitting with my eyes closed for like 30 minutes, trying to fall asleep and I couldn’t. I did finally fall asleep and woke up at like 3:40 in the morning, energized, checking my phone, hoping it was seven o’clock. I was very eager. I tried to control it as best as I could, but I couldn’t.”
Weaver drew praise not just from those outside the program, but from those inside it, for his play on Saturday after such a long layoff.
“I thought he looked outstanding,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “He’s so smart and made a lot of plays.”
“I love playing with Weave,” added safety Damar Hamlin. “It’s just like a different confidence just having him out there. He’s a game changer. … He’s just a force and a presence and I just I can’t wait to keep playing with him.”
Weaver was a bit more critical in his own self-evaluation, feeling that a version of himself that hadn’t just taken 627 days off between games might have performed a little bit better.
“Games will never be the same as practice,” Weaver said. “You try to go full speed and practice, but when there’s there’s plays out there on the line and the lights are on, you go a little harder and you have to do it every play. You can’t kind of take a play off like you can in practice. I think I left a lot of plays out there and I’ll be better next week. That’s the biggest way I feel coming out of this game.”
That’s a scary thought for ACC offenses. Though Weaver missed his shot at the 2020 NFL Draft, he remains a viable candidate for next spring’s selection and if he can continue the torrid pass-rushing pace he established Saturday, let alone improve upon it, he’ll be a sure-fire top pick.
But Weaver isn’t looking any farther ahead than his treatment protocol this week. After all, it’s been a while since he’s done this.
“[I feel] like an old man,” he joked after the game. “I’m going to get in the ice tub. I feel like I just got beat up by eight people at the same time, if I’m being honest. Not a bad beat up. I just played a full football game.”
That in itself made it a good day.