With former scholastic basketball stars like senior left tackle Jeff Otah (6-foot-6, 340 pounds), sophomore tight end Nate Byham (6-3, 245) and redshirt freshman defensive end Greg Romeus (6-5, 250), Pittsburgh could put together a pretty good intramural team.
"We play a little ball in the offseason,'' Romeus said. "We have some fun here playing basketball. Otah, he's a big guy. Nate's a good player, too, but we have a lot of guys who can play.''
Romeus was so skilled in basketball and loved it so much at Coral Glades High School in Florida that he never thought about playing another sport until his school's football coach approached him during basketball season during his junior year. Romeus tried out for the team during spring workouts and was a star defensive end and wide receiver during his senior season.
"My coach thought I would have a good future if I became a football player,'' Romeus said. "So, I tried it after that. I played defensive end, but they put me in as a receiver if they had a play in the end zone and I was needed for my height. But I knew I was playing defensive end when I got here.''
Charlie Partridge, Pitt's primary recruiter in Florida, secured some film on Romeus and saw him play basketball. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt didn't need to see much to know that Romeus was well worth a scholarship. Romeus came to Pitt for a visit, but he didn't attend any camps or anything like that.
"I saw about three plays,'' Wannstedt said. "I saw him run down a quarterback from sideline to sideline, and that's all I needed to see. Then, they said he played basketball, so that was good enough for me. That was kind of like our Leon Lett evaluation.''
Wannstedt compared the Romeus situation to Lett's when the Dallas Cowboys were thinking about drafting the defensive lineman from Emporia State University in Kansas. Dallas didn't have a lot of film on Lett, but Cowboys assistant Butch Davis saw him dribble from end to end and then do a 360-degree spin before dunking the basketball. That sealed the deal for then Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson and his defensive coordinator, Wannstedt.
"Sometimes, you're going to have guys with inexperience like Greg Romeus, but if they're smart and if they're hard workers, you're going to have to take some chances,'' Wannstedt said. "And he was a guy we took a chance on. Rutgers was on him, and he committed verbally to Central Florida. But we got him up here for a visit, and we got him to decommit and come with us.''
That has thrilled defensive line coach Greg Gattuso to no end.
"He's an exciting young player, and he's got a lot of talent,'' Gattuso said. "Greg's just gotten healthy again. He had a broken hand for a couple weeks where he couldn't use it, but last week in practice he knocked two of our offensive linemen on their backs.
"And it's sometimes surprising to him that he has that kind of power. He's got a lot of talent, and he's learning to use it. He's played very well when he's in there, but he's fighting some little mistakes made through lack of experience. And he made a great play on (the Cincinnati) quarterback.
"He probably would've run for 15 yards, but Greg made a tremendous play to get him on the ground,'' Gattuso added. "One play that might have been missed going toward our end zone is when he jumped and made the quarterback throw over him out of bounds. So, he presents different problems out there, and he's getting better every week.''
When asked about playing time, Gattuso noted that Romeus has played the second-most snaps among defensive ends in recent weeks, although he didn't play a great deal against Navy.
"He can make some spectacular plays, but his mistakes can cost us some yardage,'' Gattuso said. "And he's only been in pads for three years, and one of those years was on our scout team. So, he's really learning a lot this year. (But) I feel about Greg like I do about Tommie Duhart and Jabaal Sheard, Myles Caregein, Tony Tucker, they all do neat things at practice.
"You want players where coaching doesn't make them good. We want to fine tune and certainly make them a technician, and Greg's becoming one. That's my job, but we want guys who can go out and feel plays and make plays, and he's shown us that he has those abilities.''
Romeus believed he was playing much better than he was early in the season.
"I think I'm reacting better now, and things are starting to slow down for me,'' Romeus said. "I'm much more comfortable after the first game when I was real nervous. So, I know what my jobs are, and I think I'm executing them. We have a pretty good rotation in there, and I'm getting a lot of snaps.
"We go over a lot every day in practice, and I guess it's starting to show up for me. It was confusing, at first, but it's getting a lot better lately. In practice, Coach Gattuso really helps us out, and I'm learning a lot. I just go out and try to do my assignments. I guess I do surprise myself sometimes, but I really don't think about that too much.
"Things happen so fast, that I just try to do what I need to do to make plays,'' Romeus added. "And everything I do comes from what I've been taught in practice. Every game, I'm just trying to eliminate the little mistakes and help the team as much as possible.''
Romeus ranks among Pitt's top 10 tacklers with 23 stops, including seven behind the line with one sack, two pass breakups and one quarterback hurry.