Lamont Wade still remembers sitting in his yellow seat at Heinz Field two years ago, surrounded by Pitt commits as they celebrated Penn State’s crushing 42-39 loss to the Panthers.
Wade — at the time a five-star recruit from Clairton, a half hour away from Art Rooney Avenue — had yet to commit to a program. Wade held offers from Penn State, Pitt and 20 other schools, and Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi was pushing hard for the hometown corner.
But the blue-chip prospect’s decision wasn’t made on Sept. 10, 2016. Wade wasn’t swayed by that three-point outcome, nor the palpable buzz around Heinz Field that came with defeating a hated rival. He was always thinking about the big picture.
“I mean, at the time, I was like, ‘Oh gosh, Pitt won this game,’” Wade said with a shrug Tuesday. “But that’s not the end-all, be-all for me. It was a process. So I realized that. You see where I’m at today.”
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Wade is in Happy Valley, and on Saturday, he will return home with nothing in-mind but beating Pitt and growing into his new role.
Wade, the headliner of Penn State’s 2017 recruiting class, has room to improve. One of three true freshmen to play last season, Wade was a special teams ace and made the move from cornerback to safety in February. That transition is a trying one, and Wade is still adjusting as he sits second on the depth chart behind redshirt junior Garrett Taylor. He played against Appalachian State, but like the rest of the secondary, didn’t necessarily impress.
When asked Wednesday about what he’s seen from Wade on film, Narduzzi said, “You don’t see him a lot.” Whether that was a veiled shot at a hometown recruit who spurned Pitt or just an honest assessment, who knows?
But Narduzzi and the Panthers will see the safety this weekend. Wade — who played in WPIAL high school playoff games at Heinz Field — will have the chance to develop in a relatively new position at a place he knows so well.
“The first game of playing safety was big for him, and there were some things he would love to have an opportunity to do better,” Penn State safeties coach Tim Banks said Thursday. “The good news is, he will. He’ll get that opportunity this weekend to correct some things.”
Wade and Banks are on the same page with what the defensive back needs to improve upon. At safety, there are added responsibilities — giving corners direction, communicating with linebackers, knowing where and when to pick up wideouts in zone coverage. Banks believes safety is the quarterback of the defense. And so Wade, in his own words, has to transition from a cornerback mindset of being “isolated, just doing your job, worrying about you” to understanding the defense as a collective unit.
He has the athleticism. In that regard, no one questions Wade, who set a WPIAL record for career touchdowns with 117 and had pick-sixes in three consecutive games to lead Clairton to the 2016 championship.
But learning the ins and outs at safety will take time for the former five-star recruit. And in James Franklin’s eyes, that’s OK.
“What I try to tell our guys is, everybody’s journey is different,” Franklin said when asked about Wade’s development. “Everybody looks at Saquon Barkley. He shows up, plays as a true freshman in the first game, started in Game 4, drafted No. 2 overall. Not everybody’s journey is going to go that way. That doesn’t mean everybody’s journey can’t end up like that at some point. ... You have to embrace your path and maximize each day and stay positive and see where it takes you.”
That being said, Franklin knows Wade wants his role to be more prominent. “And I think it will be,” the coach added. “I think he’s going to end up being a big-time player for us.”
Will that success come Saturday? Will Wade take a seismic leap in his second game at safety? Maybe. Maybe not.
At the very least, Wade has an opportunity ahead of him. Two years removed from watching Pitt beat Penn State at Heinz Field, Wade won’t be helplessly sitting in a yellow seat. He’ll be flying around on the grass he dominated as a high school phenom, trying to push Penn State past the Panthers. Maybe then Narduzzi will take notice.
“It was a real good environment, a real loud environment,” Wade said, thinking back on Sept. 10, 2016. “It’s good to actually be playing in it now.”