Pittsburgh is a team with BCS aspirations that's also loaded with individual talent. But the guy who will be putting the ball in play every snap will likely be a non-scholarship player.
Fifth-year senior Alex Karabin exited the spring as the first-team center, looking to replace Robb Houser as the captain of the offensive line. Karabin knows people are looking at him as a question mark, but he's determined to provide an emphatic answer.
"You don't want to be the one that has the drop-off," he said. "You want to be the one who keeps raising the bar for the next group of kids and continue to get better."
Karabin thought he might be flying planes right now instead of leading one of the Big East's preseason favorites. He was all set to play college football at Air Force and attended Air Force Prep School in Colorado at the urging of the service academy's coaching staff, which can't redshirt players. Karabin planned to become a cargo pilot since he figured his 6-foot-1, 290-pound frame wouldn't fit well crammed inside a fighter jet.
But while he started at guard during his season at prep school, he began to have second thoughts about the long-term commitment required by the Air Force. He didn't think he should take a spot in the academy if his heart truly wasn't into it.
So the Ruffs Dale, Penn., resident had his high school coach call around to other schools. Pitt -- which didn't really recruit Karabin -- offered him a chance to walk on.
During his college career, Karabin has played mostly on field goal units and as a backup. Coaches say he's one of the hardest workers on the team, a discipline he formed during his year at the Air Force prep.
"We were waking up every day at 5:45 a.m., marching to breakfast and to lunch and to dinner," Karabin said. "It was so regimented that it helps you budget your time a lot more effectively when you go to a regular school."
Karabin worked with quarterback Tino Sunseri last year on the second team and has a natural chemistry with this year's starting signal-caller.
"We kind of know what the other one's going to say before he says it," he said.
And Karabin is the team's greybeard, thanks to his year in prep school and a redshirt season. He'll turn 24 this fall.
"I'm pretty sure I'm the oldest guy on the team," he said. "I'm always telling the freshmen and the young guys on the line what they have to do and what's expected."
Karabin is expected to make all the calls and anchor an O-line that was arguably the best in the Big East last year. And to do so while still paying his own tuition. He said earning a scholarship would be great "but that it's more important to win games."
Whether Pitt can win as many games as people expect this year may depend a lot on how their walk-on center performs. Karabin knows one thing: after all this time waiting for a shot to play, he's going to give his best effort.
"I definitely don't want to give it up now," he said. "I will lay it all out on the line to keep my job."