Being a walk-on at a major college football program is not without its hardships. Walk-ons pay their way through school and oftentimes have to go the extra mile to get noticed. Pitt fifth-year senior walk-on Alex Karabin, for instance, has watched three others ascend to the starting center position during his first four years with the team.
And this spring, when it seemed as if it finally was his turn to become the starter at center, the coaching staff moved Jack Lippert over from the defensive line to challenge him for the job. Karabin did not blink. And now, after rising to the challenge with a solid showing this spring, he has established himself as the odds-on favorite to be the starting center in the fall.
"It's nice to finally get up in the top spot," said Karabin, a 6-foot-1, 290-pound graduate of Greensburg Central Catholic.
Karabin, who originally signed with Air Force out of high school and spent a year at Air Force Prep, learned behind former Pitt centers Joe Villani, Chris Vangas and Robb Houser. Villani walked on at Pitt after starting his career at Bucknell and was a two-year starter for the Panthers. Seeing Villani earn a starting job after walking on the team inspired Karabin.
"That was a nice thing to see," Karabin said. "You see him do it and you think, 'I can do it, too.' "
Karabin spent the past two seasons behind Houser. The coaching staff knew Karabin was a solid player, but he has impressed the staff this spring with his consistency and knowledge of the offense.
"Alex is one of those guys you probably take for granted," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He's very consistent. He knows his strengths and weaknesses. ... He continues to get better."
Lippert, a redshirt freshman, might be the center of the future, but Wannstedt said he is lagging behind Karabin after making the transition from defense.
"Jack Lippert, every day is a new adventure," Wannstedt said. "He's not ready to line up and play center and win for us yet. Might he be in September or October? I hope. I'm very pleased with the progress he has made, but he has a long way to go."
That leaves Karabin as the starter entering camp in August. Even if he does earn the job, he might not get a scholarship. Last season, Wannstedt gave scholarships to three former walk-ons -- kicker Dan Hutchins, reserve quarterback Andrew Janocko and defensive lineman Chas Alecxih.
"If we have one, nothing would make me happier than to give one to Alex," Wannstedt said. "He's deserving."
Karabin would like it, too, to take some of the financial burden off his parents.
"I left Air Force, where my parents weren't paying anything," he said. "It was hard to tell them I was going to Pitt. ... That's why I would like to get one for the last year."
NOTES -- Junior cornerback Aundre Wright had a major knee injury in practice Tuesday and will have surgery next week. Wright, from Perry Traditional Academy, had made the transition from receiver to defensive back this spring. "We were trying to find a place for him," Wannstedt said. "It's unfortunate. He was willing to try any position to get on the field."... Senior receiver Greg Cross has a turf toe injury that limited him at practice Thursday, but Wannstedt expects him to participate in the Saturday scrimmage. ... Todd Thomas, a member of the 2009 signing class who attended Milford Academy, was at practice Thursday. He is expected to enroll at Pitt next month.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com or 412-263-1230.