Four years into his college career, Ray Vinopal is still in the midst of many beginning stages of his development..
This season marks the 5-foot-10, 200-pound free safety’s first full campaign as a starter, and it just so happens that Pitt’s defensive coordinator and safeties coach, Matt House, is midway through his first year as well.
Vinopal, a redshirt junior, is regularly spotted chasing down opposing running backs and receivers who burst into the open field, and has been seen as the defense’s scapegoat during multiple games this season.
During Saturday’s 28-21 win against Notre Dame, he was the subject of heavy scrutiny in the first half of play, particularly after getting beat down the field on a 38-yard pass play from Tommy Rees to tight end Ben Koyack, the cornerstone play in Notre Dame’s second touchdown-scoring drive.
On the play, the Fighting Irish fooled Pitt’s secondary with a play-action fake. While Vinopal took off for running back George Atkinson III, Koyack continued toward him.
Once Vinopal realized Rees still had the ball, it was too late.
“I thought I had to fill in the run gap,” Vinopal said. “It wasn’t very good eye discipline. I tried to recover, and he made a play.”
Like any athlete faced with adversity in the early minutes of a game, Vinopal stressed the importance of resilience.
“Forget it and move on,” he said. “That play’s not going to help us win the game anymore.”
At the time of the touchdown, Vinopal was unsure of how short – or long – it would be until this resilience would pay dividends. It took hours until the third play of the fourth quarter, when the Irish had threatened to regain the lead.
Facing a second-and-goal at Pitt’s 4-yard line, Rees dropped back to pass and scrambled to his right. Vinopal, who began the play lined up with Pitt’s core of linebackers in a 4-4 defense, raced to the back of the end zone once he saw Rees leave the pocket.
Rees lofted a pass intended for receiver Chris Brown, who may have caught the pass for a touchdown had Vinopal not snagged it in midair.
“Our linebacker, Shane Gordon, did an awesome job of getting under [Rees]. The idea is that the linebackers hold off the middle throw so that the quarterback has to put air under the ball. It gives the safeties time to get there,” said Vinopal, who only needed three seconds from the time of the snap to claim the ball.
Nonetheless, the play was unable to spark the Panthers’ offense toward much yardage, and Pitt punter Matt Yoklic was brought back to the field for the eighth time.
Yoklic skied a punt that went out of bounds at Notre Dame’s 24-yard line, where Rees again set up shop.
Two plays later, at the 10-minute mark, Rees stepped back to pass on second-and-10. While being hit by cornerback Lafayette Pitts, Rees heaved a pass over the middle that was too high for his slot receiver and out of reach of his wide out. It instead landed in the hands of Vinopal, who weaved in and out of the Notre Dame offense, returning the pass to the Notre Dame 5-yard line.
“I’m not the biggest guy, so if you cut back to the middle of the field, you might get something that you want,” said Vinopal. “I was just focused on keeping the ball tight and getting down there and letting the offense cap it off.”
During the play, teammate Aaron Donald rushed to help pave way for a pick-six, although he admitted to resisting the temptation to put blocks on players for fear that he might pick up a clipping penalty.
“I just thanked him and gave him a hug,” said Donald of Vinopal’s second interception.
The play marked the first time any Pitt player collected two interceptions in one game since strong safety Jason Hendricks accomplished the feat last year against Virginia Tech.
“He played a great game. I’m proud of him,” Hendricks said of Vinopal. “He keeps everything levelheaded. He hears [the scrutiny], but he doesn’t pay any attention to it. It doesn’t affect any of his game or the way he plays.”
The Panthers scored two plays later, grabbing a 28-21 lead they would refuse to give back.
Vinopal finished the game tied for the team-lead in tackles with seven. In the first half, Vinopal also caused a fumble when he stripped Notre Dame’s leading receiver, TJ Jones, of the ball and a potential touchdown-scoring reception.
For Vinopal, the criticism he receives within the locker room is the only criticism that he takes to mind.
“The coaches put me on the field. They’re my critics, and I’m my critic,” Vinopal said. “I’m not going to go look for it elsewhere.”