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Armed Forces Bowl Game (Pitt vs. Houston): Panthers' seniors deserve career-ending win more than most

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Bowl games always give teams a chance to send their seniors out on top. However, Pitt's senior class this year is a little special.

Seniors on the Pitt team have absolutely been put through the ringer as far as coaching changes go. Guys like offensive lineman Matt Rotheram were recruited by Dave Wannstedt, waited while Mike Haywood was hired then fired, played their first season under Todd Graham after redshirting, were there through the Paul Chryst era, and now are leaving under yet another coaching change coming far too soon. Rotheram, and others who redshirted in 2010, have been a part of Pitt teams that will have played in five bowl games after today ... under four different head coaches.

A few have been through even more changes.

The Lucky One

After playing two seasons on the defensive line, T.J. Clemmings was moved to the offensive line. In his case, he should actually thank Paul Chryst and company for picking up on his ability there (in part, to be fair, due to blatant need) since he had a huge season and is surely going to be an NFL Draft pick - perhaps as high as the first round. Clemmings had toiled on the defensive line and wasn't living up to his lofty expectations when he came to Pitt but the switch actually created a pro career for him.

Some, though, haven't been so lucky.

The Unlucky One

Consider the case of linebacker Anthony Gonzalez. Gonzo was recruited as a fairly highly-touted quarterback, played at H-back, played a little safety, and finally settled in as a pretty good linebacker. Talk about kids with legitimate gripes, no one could blame Gonzalez for having one. He not only stuck around through all of the coaching changes as Clemings did, but was moved around more than anybody reasonably deserves

His career never really took off and you have to credit him for not only moving around so much, but putting in the work to become a pretty good linebacker when some other kids would have cut their losses and transferred. He'll have a chance to play in the NFL, but it will likely come as a very late pick or via free agency.

The Unnoticed One

Another guy that's been moved around much more, but on a far lower profile, is Adam Lazenga. Lazenga joined Pitt as a walk-on and redshirted his first year under Wannstedt. The following season under Graham, he played at linebacker, but didn't get into any games. The past two years he played on special teams and this year, was moved to fullback. Lazenga has moved around just as much as Gonzalez has, but hasn't gotten nearly the same spotlight.

The Redeemed One

There are also stories of redemption to be found and it would be unfair to leave out the guys who transferred into this mess. Safety Ray Vinopal came to Pitt after playing at Michigan, starting half of his freshman year. After Rich Rodriguez was fired, Vinopal came to the Pitt program to play under Graham. But after sitting out in 2011, he really had no other choice but to play for Chryst or transfer and sit out yet another season (I add, parenthetically, one of the wildly unfair rules in college football). Vinopal chose to stay but was a fan punching bag until turning things around later in 2013. He leaves as a solid safety, but suffered quite a bit along the way.

Those are just a handful of guys. Players such as Isaac Bennett that just missed the Wannstedt era and played as true freshmen deserve just as much credit - as do the other seniors leaving the program. This is simply a special, special class.

The talk of the Pitt team focuses so much on the younger players because that's where the future is. And underclassmen such as James Conner and Tyler Boyd may legitimately be the Panthers' best players. It's important, however, to remember a senior class that has had about as much turmoil in a college football season as is humanly possible.

Just get these guys a win.

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