Marquan Pope sat down with his family the day after Pat Narduzzi and Ryan Manalac left his Texas home. He had originally planned to stay in his hometown of Denton, Texas to train and prepare for college, but a visit from his college coaches left him wondering.
Narduzzi and Manalac visited on a Monday, discussions in the Pope household began on Tuesday and by Thursday, Pope still wasn’t quite ready to make a decision. He met with his family, his loved ones and those who care about him and finally came to a decision.
Three days after Narduzzi’s visit, Pope decided he would be better served to escape the dry heat of Texas for the cold and snow of Pittsburgh. With the deadline closing in on enrolling early, Pope caught a flight to Pittsburgh, enrolled at the university and joined the football team.
It took six days. From the day Narduzzi and Manalac sat down in the Popes’ living room to Pope himself stepping off the plane and making his way to Pitt’s campus.
“I wasn’t going to go, and then I had a home visit in Texas from coach Narduzzi and coach Manalac, and we had a conversation,” Pope said Wednesday at Pitt’s South Side facility. “It was like the last week I could really enroll here. So, we had a conversation about it and ultimately it was best for me and my family to come up right now.”
Pope, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound safety from Denton Guyer High School in Texas, arrived in Pittsburgh in late January as the unexpected final early enrollee from Pitt’s 2022 recruiting class, but he’s already reaped the rewards of arriving early and beginning the process of transforming from a high school star to college contributor, and it’s all come with a drastic change in environment.
In coming from Texas, Pope said it had been years since he’d last since any sort of snow. With snow squalls and ice storms and lasting snow on the ground over the last month, it’s a completely different atmosphere — literally — from what he’s used to, but the cold and snow provide a sort of mental toughness that he appreciates.
As an All-State safety by trade, the mental and physical toughness that’s required in dropping down into a linebackers’ role requires dedication, and Pope already has a very, very good mentor.
All-ACC linebacker SirVocea Dennis is the lone returning star among Pitt’s 2021 linebackers corps, occupying the Mike role in Pitt’s 4-3 defense, but he’s been a key factor in not only Pope’s personal transition to life in Pittsburgh but his introduction into Pitt’s defense.
“Still, my head spins a little bit when talking to (Dennis) because he speaks really fast and knows exactly what he’s talking about, but I like that because I quiet (down) and write down in my notes what he’s talking about… he’s just been great, he’s helped me so much,” Pope said.
Dennis has been a key mentor in Pope’s transition already, and getting to study alongside a player like Dennis and pick his brain has provided Pope with a strong foundation, but Pitt’s defense is one that’s easy to love. In watching Pitt play all season, he saw the speed and pursuit. And with the linebackers he watched now gone, there is opportunity.
While Pope played safety in high school, he’s already being worked out across all three linebacking positions in Pitt’s defense. However, his likely destination in the future appears to be slotted into fighting for the open Star linebacker position — the one vacated by Cam Bright and John Petrishen exiting the program. The one that’s currently wide open.
Despite Bangally Kamara likely slotting into Pitt’s 2022 lineup as the Star linebacker, with Dennis as the Mike and Notre Dame transfer Shayne Simon likely as the Money linebacker, Pope will be hard-pressed to crack the starting unit as a true freshman, but he’s already learning a lot — and liking what he’s seeing.
“I love how fast we play,” Pope said. “I love how everyone’s like, 11 hats to the ball. Everyone’s just itching to hit somebody. I just love how fast everything is. As a player, that’s fun to be in, it makes football fun when you fly around and hit people.”
And even while Pitt’s linebackers corps is thin, with a mass exodus of talent leaving via the NFL draft, transfer portal and graduation, Pope recognizes the level of talent he’s competing with for a spot in the lineup. He realizes that he has to work for everything in Pitt’s system — part of why he’s arrived early — and he’s excited about the task.
“I’m just looking at it as I’ve got to work harder to get on the field,” Pope said. “Ultimately I’m a freshman, I do have kids that have been here a year longer, two years, three years longer than me. But that’s just how college is.”
While Pope is 1,200 miles from home as he adjusts to college life, he’s had a lot of help. Whenever he texts or calls Dennis, it’s an immediate answer from the veteran star. And Pitt’s entire defense has done a great job in welcoming him to the Pitt family. Pittsburgh already feels like a home away from home.