Going back to July, it's been a rough stretch for Pitt's defensive line, a position that is considered the heart and soul of the Pitt defense. With the news Tuesday that Greg Romeus would be having surgery Thursday to repair a disk in his back, it was the latest and arguably the biggest setback for the defensive line.
All the other setbacks the defensive line incurred so far didn't seem to impact the position as much as this one. On July 19, when Jabaal Sheard was suspended indefinitely due to an off-field altercation, his status with the team remained questionable up until August 4, when he was reinstated to the team.
With him and Romeus back, starting together for the third season, it looked like everything could go on as planned for Pitt's defensive line, and more importantly, for Pitt's season.
That lasted until just the second day of training camp, where Greg Romeus was injured, and would not practice in full pads for another week. He was able to take one practice in full pads, before sitting out on.
At the end of that first week of training camp, Pitt held its first scrimmage. Bryan Murphy, a talented and highly-regarded freshman coming in to camp, went down with a broken foot. Murphy finished with six tackles in that first scrimmage. He would have surgery, and be out for six weeks. Had Murphy not gotten hurt then, think of the opportunity he'd have now.
There was still one more road block for the defensive line. Khaynin Mosley-Smith, a freshman out of Woodland Hills, had an online class that was not cleared through the NCAA Clearinghouse. Despite going through all the rigors of training camp, on the eve of the team's last practice of training camp, Mosley-Smith was declared ineligible. He has since enrolled at Milford Prep.
Romeus was held out of the remainder of training camp, but as a precautionary measure. He played the full game at Utah, but was a non-factor. The injury appeared to still be bothering him. Head coach Dave Wannstedt and defensive line coach Greg Gattuso, even admitted after the game, they may have played him too much. However, based on the fact Pitt was down for most of the game, they wanted Romeus out there the whole time, because he is one of Pitt's best players.
Then comes the news Tuesday, that Romeus would have surgery. It's not proclaimed as season-ending surgery, as Dave Wannstedt expects to have him back for the end of the season.
"Our top priority is doing what is best for Greg," Wannstedt said. "After consulting with him, his family and our medical staff, it was determined that immediate surgery is the best option for Greg both personally and athletically. We expect him to have a full recovery and return for the conclusion of the season."
A medical redshirt makes no sense. Regardless of whether this injury hurts Romeus' draft-stock, it is in his best interest to go for the NFL after the conclusion of this season, regardless of how many games he plays in. Him coming back for a sixth year doesn't help Pitt, but it also further risks him having another setback.
If he is to come back for the end of the season, a good showing in one of the last games might keep his draft status on track. There are a number of factors that could happen at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, such as team physicals. A number of teams, if not all, have their training staffs inspect a player's medical history. If Romeus were to come back and show no signs of being hobbled from his back injury, there's nothing at that point that would hinder his draft stock.
This is not the first time a Pitt senior has had to overcome an injury sustained in the early part of the season. After rushing for 251 yards in a season-opener to Texas in 1994, Curtis Martin was bothered by an ankle. He played sparingly the next week against Ohio, but did not return the rest of the season. Though he could have been eligible for a medical redshirt, he went on to the NFL, drafted in the third round by the New England Patriots in 1995. Interestingly, Martin came up as a first-year eligible candidate, this week, for the 2011 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Already Pitt has lost three defensive linemen, including two ends (Murphy and Romeus), yet they were still able to use nine defensive linemen in its win over New Hampshire on Saturday. It's hard to imagine anything worse happening to Pitt's defensive line at this point. This position has flexed its muscle for how deep it is over the last couple of years. Now, that depth is going to be counted on as a saving grace of this season. Even from his initial comments about Romeus having surgery, there's still a confidence from Wannstedt that this season can still be a special one.
There's two reasons that will determine that. One, will be how the players respond. Romeus was a guy a lot of players looked up to. They'll still look up to him as he goes through his rehab. Keeping everyone focused will fall on the shoulders of the rest of the seniors, who will each have to chip in and fill the void of Romeus‘ leadership, on the field.
If there's one player that bears more pressure than anyone else, it will be Brandon Lindsey. The weight on his shoulders is insurmountable. It also speaks of a tremendous opportunity for Lindsey. His play, which ever direction it goes, is going to be huge. If he fails to provide a high-caliber of play, Pitt's season will be in jeopardy. If he comes out and plays to a level where Pitt's defense doesn't miss a beat without Romeus, not only will Pitt be on track with all of its preseason expectations, but Lindsey will be setting himself up for personal accolades, as well as a good look from NFL scouts. So far, Lindsey hasn't done anything to say he can‘t fill the spot. He's been the most consistent performer on the defensive line through both games, and finished with two sacks in his first career start, Saturday.
As Romeus recovers from this surgery, there's optimism that he will be back for the conclusion of Pitt's season. What if Lindsey goes on to have a spectacular season? Does Wannstedt pull Lindsey, and say, ‘Hey, thanks for being such a valuable part of our defense, and putting us in contention to play for a BCS bowl, but Greg is starting today.' Pitt is still going to have to play a majority of a season without Romeus. If anything, this looks like a situation for Romeus to prove that his back is okay, and that he's ready for an NFL career. For his own health, that is all that really matters at this point. Between now, and whatever game that is, Pitt has to play without Romeus. How they choose to react to losing Romeus is now on them.