When Ray Vinopal thinks about taking the field for Pitt's season opener this fall, a wide smile breaks across his face.
The safety, who will be a junior next season, got a taste of running out of the Heinz Field tunnel last year, but did so in a track suit not a football uniform. Vinopal transferred to Pitt from Michigan in 2011 and had to sit out the season under NCAA rules.
This year, he will suit up in full pads and, more than likely, play a significant role in the defensive backfield.
"I think he's a guy that, starting to get to know him, it's important to him," coach Paul Chryst said.
"He's got enough talent. I think there's a lot of guys that have enough talent; now what are you going to do with that talent?"
Vinopal has shown the coaching staff enough on film and in winter workouts that he is practicing with the defensive first team this spring.
The Panthers practiced Sunday for the third time and first in full pads.
Of course, the season opener against Youngstown State is still more than five months away, so it's premature to be calling anyone a "starter."
"I don't try to focus on the depth chart," Vinopal said. "I mean, every athlete will tell you that, even though it's in the back of our mind all the time. But spring is just a chance to work and show them that you're in the group of guys that they can rely on out of the field."
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Vinopal on the first string come September.
As a freshman with the Wolverines, he played in all 13 games and started six.
He racked up 33 tackles and one interception.
After the season, Vinopal left Michigan because of family reasons and transferred to Pitt.
One reason the Youngstown, Ohio, native chose the Panthers was his connection with secondary coach Tony Gibson, who coached Vinopal at Michigan his freshman year before joining Todd Graham's staff at Pitt.
Gibson, however, left when Graham accepted the head coaching job at Arizona State and now is the secondary coach at Arizona.
Vinopal said the transition to Chryst's staff has been smooth.
"I love [coach Gibson] and I wish him all the success," he said. "[Pitt secondary] coach [Matt] House is with me now, and he's a great coach. I really like him, he's really enthusiastic and knows his stuff. I like the coaching staff and love the intensity of what we're doing."
Even though Vinopal couldn't play last season, he said he learned a great deal from working on the scout team. The biggest bonus, he said, was the extra time he got in the film room and learning how valuable studying video could be.
"This has got to be our second home in here," he said, referring to the team's practice facility. "We've got to know what's coming at us. We've got to be ready for it."
He called the experience of sitting on the sidelines and practicing with the scout team "humbling," as well. But it all will be worth it Sept. 1 when Vinopal runs out of that tunnel with his teammates.
"To be suited up, ready to get after it, running out there at Heinz," he said. "It's going to be awesome."
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.