Pitt S Ray Vinopal stands out this spring

Pitt safety Ray Vinopal is on his third coaching staff in three years, yet somehow he keeps finding his way around the football this spring.

In nearly every practice report, Vinopal is mentioned, with either an interception, forced fumble or some other big play.

It is safe to say he has been one of the standout performers for the Panthers as they head into their spring game Saturday, and seems to be penciled in as the starter opposite all-conference performer Jarred Holley.

The biggest goal Vinopal had for the spring was to make an impression on the staff. After all, Vinopal transferred to Pitt from Michigan in part because of former Panthers secondary coach Tony Gibson -- who has since gone with Todd Graham to Arizona State.

"Right now, I feel they're selecting their group of guys they feel are going to be contributors this fall," Vinopal said in a recent phone interview. "I want to show them I'm in that group of contributors, and I'll do what I'm coached to do. I'll play hard, and I want to be on the field."

Vinopal already has game experience, having appeared in every game for the Wolverines as a true freshman in 2010. But he made the decision to transfer after the semester ended, in part because he was unhappy with the coaching staff. Gibson had recruited Vinopal to Michigan but left for Pitt after the 2010 season.

Vinopal also said Michigan was too far from his family home in Ohio, and he just did not feel he fit in on campus.

"It wasn't my ideal place," Vinopal said. "Football was going great, but I didn't feel Ann Arbor was a place I wanted to live the next three, four years of my life. I talked to my parents, and they agreed that was a pretty big aspect. You've got to love where you are in college."

Pitt never offered him a scholarship out of high school, but with Gibson in place, he had a natural connection and decided to transfer to the Panthers. Vinopal sat out the required one-year waiting period because of NCAA rules, and used that time to improve his strength, quickness and physical training, while becoming more well-versed on how to play the game.

Sitting out was frustrating. Then Gibson and Graham went on their way in December. Though Vinopal could have had a "here we go again moment," he did have connections with new coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. The two were part of the staff that recruited him to Wisconsin.

But a transition is a transition. The Panthers are now back to running a 4-3 base defense, after transitioning to the 3-4 last season. When you count his time at Michigan, Vinopal has had to learn three different playbooks.

"Not many people are too well-versed on playbooks. They are no easy task to learn," Vinopal said. "They take a lot of time and commitment to study and know what's going on. Having three different ones go in and out my head, sometimes stuff gets jumbled up. It is a challenge that demands more time and preparing and studying your playbook."

Whatever Vinopal has done to study this new one is clearly paying off this spring. The Panthers' secondary was already going to be a strength for the team this fall. His addition solidifies that group.

"I'm just excited to be back out there on the field," Vinopal said. "I've gotten a good taste of game situations, and have loved the competition in the spring. That's what every player will tell you they play for. I just love to compete."