Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Dave Wannstedt likes to remind his team about the career path of Tiki Barber. He was viewed as mostly a third-down back early in his pro days but when injuries opened up an opportunity, Barber ran with it into a potential Hall of Fame career with the New York Giants.
Maybe some players listen to the story, maybe some tune it out. Austin Ransom embraced it. The Pittsburgh senior followed that example and is perhaps the most unlikely starting linebacker in the Big East.
Ransom made the team through tryouts as a walk-on wide receiver when he arrived on campus. He'd had no Division I offers out of high school.
He gradually worked his way onto the field as a special teams grinder. As a junior, he played on punt return and kickoff and punt coverage units, and earned an award as the Panthers' most improved special teams player. He even got put on scholarship.
"They saw my physicalness and that I liked going out there delivering the hit instead of taking the hit at receiver," Ransom said. "As I got older, I kept putting on weight, and my body size didn't fit for the receiver position any more."
So Ransom asked to switch to defensive back this offseason and spent the spring working out at safety. By August, injuries had started to thin out Pitt's linebacking group, so the coaches told him to take some snaps at outside linebacker during the final week of training camp.
"I was happy to help out any way the team needed me," Ransom said. "If anything, I just figured it would help me out on my special teams play."
But Ransom played well at his new spot, and returning starter Shane Murray's preseason knee injury was slow to heal. Strongside linebacker Adam Gunn suffered a season-ending neck injury in the opener against Bowling Green. So Ransom has started the Panthers' first three games at will linebacker.
"It's actually kind of crazy," he said. "I can't believe how blessed I am."
Ransom said he's still learning every week, which is no surprise since he'd never played the position before last month. Last Saturday, much of Iowa's game plan revolved around getting on the perimeter and attacking Ransom and freshman Greg Williams, both of whom are new to the starting outside linebacker spots. The Hawkeyes had some success doing that, but Ransom held his own, particularly late in the game. He's second on the team with 23 tackles and has an interception.
Ransom came to Pittsburgh to follow his older brother, Zach. He said Zach was always the real athlete in the family, a star running back in high school who likely would have played major college ball. But in the homecoming game of his senior year, Zach tore the ACL, MCL and the meniscus in his left knee, effectively ending his football career.
So Ransom knows how precious this opportunity is. He's already earned his undergraduate degree in communications and rhetoric and is now pursuing a masters in profit and non-profit management.
Murray is on his way back from the knee injury and may eventually supplant Ransom in the starting lineup. But Ransom will have a cool moment tomorrow at Syracuse. He's from Williamsville, N.Y., which is just outside of Buffalo, and spent two years of his childhood living in the Syracuse suburbs. He remembers playing his Pop Warner championship games at the Carrier Dome. Dozens of friends and family members will be in the stands tomorrow to cheer him on.
And they'll see him starting at linebacker, a most unlikely occurrence. But Ransom believed in that tale about Barber, and now he's got a pretty good one of his own to tell.
"The thing I like about my story is the perseverance," he said. "I hope my story lives on with the team and helps to motivate players to always try their best. Because you never know when things are going to work out in your benefit."