Former Pitt football coach Walt Harris tried to build a talent pipeline from Woodland Hills High School to Pitt in the late 1990s, and for a few years the Panthers did draw some of the top prospects from that football powerhouse.
Tutu Ferguson and Lousaka Polite joined the Panthers in the 1999 recruiting class, then Shawntae Spencer in 2000 and Tyre Young in '01. They were crucial to the Panthers success in the early part of the decade, though Young's career was cut short by off-field issues.
But that pipeline seemed to dry up in '02 when former Woodland Hills standout receiver Steve Breaston (now with the Kansas City Chiefs) chose Michigan over the Panthers. Breaston was followed to Ann Arbor by future Steelers safety Ryan Mundy. Pitt also missed out on Devon Lyons (Ohio State), Darren Walls (Notre Dame) and Rob Gronkowski (Arizona).
Pitt was able to land Greg Webster in '06 but a medical condition ended his career before it got started. People began to wonder if the Panthers would again be able to tap the rich pool of talent in their backyard.
Todd Graham seemingly has answered that question with a resounding 'yes' in only his first seven months on the job, and the Panthers pipeline from Woodland Hills appears to be gushing again.
Pitt's defense will feature three freshmen from Woodland Hills: nose tackle Khaynin Mosley-Smith (6 feet, 295 pounds), "Panther" linebacker Ejuan Price (6-0, 235) and cornerback Lafayette Pitts (5-11, 180). All three are expected to make contributions this year.
Graham and his staff are not from Western Pennsylvania, and some fans thought they would struggle to recruit local talent. But in their first year they have tapped into one of the most important WPIAL schools in terms of producing talent.
That's especially true considering Graham and company had to win over Mosley-Smith, who had been recruited by the previous Pitt staff and went to prep school and, admittedly, was skeptical of the new regime. Then they lured Pitts from conference rival Rutgers on the eve of signing day and got Price after he already had signed with Ohio State but was allowed to reconsider because of turmoil in that program.
All three said that they think Graham's new offense and defense -- predicated on speed and athleticism -- are an easy sell to players from Woodland Hills.
"It's going to be just like high school," said Mosley-Smith, who is the backup nose tackle and also will play some at both end spots. "It will be me, with Ejuan right next to me and 'Worm' [Pitts] on the outside, especially once we start beating teams like we always did in high school."
Worm, according to Mosley-Smith, is a nickname Pitts has had as long as he can remember, and he swears it is a nickname of affection.
Beyond what they have in common -- they played for George Novak at Woodland Hills and are extremely athletic -- they share this vision: Joining the legion of former Wolverines who have played in the NFL.
Last year Woodland Hills, which has won five WPIAL Class AAAA titles since it opened in 1987, had six former players on NFL rosters -- Breaston, Mundy, Gronkowski (Patriots), Spencer (49ers), Polite (Dolphins) and Jason Taylor (Jets last year, now Dolphins). That was the most NFL players from any high school in the country.
A number of other former Wolverines are in pro camps -- Walls is with the Falcons, Terrence Johnson is with the Colts, Wes Lyons is with the Steelers and Monte Simmons is with the 49ers -- making clear Novak's legacy of talent.
The three current Panthers from Woodland Hills said they want to carry on that tradition and get the pipeline to Pitt running annually.
"You see the names, you know what they've accomplished and you don't want to feel like you let those guys down, there is a tradition to continue," said Pitts, also who will have a chance to return punts and kicks. "And hopefully we can get started on recruiting some of the younger guys to come here; this is Pittsburgh's school, let's try to keep them all home. I can't wait until that first game at Heinz Field. There will be thousands of Pitt fans cheering for us -- and a whole lot of people from back home as well."
Price said: "The work ethic here is a lot like at Woodland Hills. We are all used to paying the price because at Woodland Hills we work a lot harder than other high schools and the results showed as much. We also take a lot of pride in winning and we hate losing, I can tell you that."
Although the three former Wolverines are second on the depth chart at their positions, Pitt defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said all three are going to do big things this year as freshmen and all three have star potential.
And the pipeline to Woodland Hills is clearly one that the new coaching staff is going to work hard to keep open for a long time.
"It doesn't take long to see the history and tradition of the kinds of players that come from that school," Patterson said. "That's very key in recruiting, we want to recruit kids from winning programs because then they expect to win. "
NOTES -- The Pitt-Notre Dame game Sept. 24 at Heinz Field likely will be a noon kickoff. ... Receiver Cam Saddler and corner K'Waun Williams sat out the morning practice Monday with what Graham called being "nicked up." Also, receiver Devin Street was knocked out of practice and carted out of the facility. Graham said it was a "bell-rung deal."
Correction/Clarification: (Published August 17, 2011) Former Woodland Hills High School wide receiver Steve Breaston plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. A story Tuesday listed an incorrect team.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720.