Pittsburgh defensive end Greg Romeus entered his senior season with high expectations for both his Panthers team and his own NFL draft stock. Projected to be a first-round selection in 2011 after deciding to return to Pitt for his senior season, Romeus was looking to add to an already impressive collegiate résumé that saw him compile 135 tackles, 38.5 tackles for loss, 22.5 sacks, 12 passes defensed, four forced fumbles, four blocked kicks and one interception in his first three seasons for the Panthers defense.
But Romeus’ senior season was full of a series of unexpected tragedies that has made his path to the NFL more difficult.
Coming off a junior season in which he had 43 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, five passes defensed, three forced fumbles, one interception and a blocked kick as the Big East’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Romeus suffered a back injury in training camp that would wind up costing him seven of the first eight games in the 2010 season.
“I was actually hurt during the first day of training camp,” Romeus said. “I didn’t do anything for two weeks at camp. I kind of started easing into things a couple of days before that first game. I knew I wasn’t myself, but I was just trying to push it for the season. I was trying to run out there for the Utah game like nothing was wrong, but I knew something was wrong. I never felt pain like that before. I had pain from my first back surgery, but I never had anything like that.
“After the game I went for a second opinion and the doctor said there was like a little piece of bone in my nerve root. That broke off and that’s what was giving me the pain. Immediately after the surgery – it was like night and day. I felt like I could go back out there and play the next day.”
Romeus had his first back surgery following a breakout sophomore campaign in which he had 7.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble in 2008.
“I had surgery in January of 2009 and then I had the more recent, second surgery to clear up problems from the first one,” Romeus said. “My back problems started in December of 2008 right before our bowl game. All they had to do was shave a disc down. After that I was fine up until right before the 2010 season.”
After recording four assisted tackles against Utah in the season opener, Romeus missed the next seven games and learned that his mother tragically passed away in September after a struggle with cancer.
“That was a big blow,” Romeus said. “It was just one thing after another. I was laid back on my bed three days after surgery and I got a call from my dad telling me what had happened. It was tough. I’ve been through a lot of adversity, but it’s made me a stronger person. That’s the positive I take from that situation.”
Because of Romeus’ back surgery he was unable to attend his mother’s funeral service immediately, it was postponed until he healed enough to fly down to Florida.
“For me to sit down on an airplane for two hours after my surgery – I just couldn’t do it,” Romeus said. “It was two weeks later, but it was something that I would never miss.”
Doctors feared that Romeus might lose his entire senior season to back surgery, but the 6-foot-5, 264-pound defensive end was able to return for the game at Connecticut on November 11 – only to have tragedy strike with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee that day after he recorded three tackles. That torn ACL cost him the rest of his senior season.
“The rehab for my back was so intense – it was six or seven weeks of every single day doing core strengthening and running,” Romeus said. “Then I came back and I remember warming up before the UConn game with Jabaal Sheard. We have a little ritual before each game and I told him that I had never felt this great before a game. My back was great. Everything felt great. Then during the game I felt a little pop in my knee and I didn’t think it was bad, but we got the MRI and they said the ligament was torn. It was tough.”
Romeus, who was invited to the combine for medical evaluation purposes, said that his knee is the only issue keeping him out of the first round.
“I loved that I was still invited to the combine so that I could get all of these examinations done,” Romeus said. “I have nothing to hide. Everything is great and once I am cleared to play I’m going to be better than I was before.
“My back is 100 percent – it hasn’t hurt me at all. I do a lot of core strengthening to make sure my spine stays strong. With my knee, I’m about five months out since the injury. I’ve been doing some running and I’m in great shape. I work out three or four hours per day. I’m in the best shape of my life. It’s just a process with the ACL. I realize I can’t rush it, so I have to take it slow. My doctor said I’ll be cleared to do everything by mid-May and I’ll be ready for camp.”
With Romeus being a non-factor in 2010, Pittsburgh fired head coach and Panthers alumni Dave Wannstedt for not living up to preseason expectations, which including winning the Big East and getting a BCS invite, despite finishing the regular season with a 7-5 record.
“I had a great relationship with Coach Wannstedt and I still do,” Romeus said. “Just the fact that he took a chance on me is huge. Coming out of high school I only played in six games at that level. I think I got the last scholarship offered that year at Pitt and he took a chance on me. If somebody believes in me, I’m going to do whatever I have to do to satisfy him. I had a great relationship with Coach Wannstedt at Pitt. He’s a defensive-minded guy. He was patient with me and worked with me. It was really sad to see him go. He loved that job. It wasn’t like he couldn’t be in the NFL. He just would have rather been at Pitt. He loved Pitt so much having gone there as a player. He taught me so many lessons off the field as a man and he’s made me mature. I wish him all the best and appreciate what he did in his five years at Pitt.”
In a display of his true character, Romeus said he felt a degree of personal responsibility over Wannstedt’s firing. Had he been able to contribute during his senior year, Romeus believes the Panthers would have won more games and Wannstedt would still be at the helm.
“I came back to school for my senior year and Coach Wannstedt played a big role in that decision,” Romeus said. “I wanted to help the team because there was going to be a lot of new starters. Just watching on the sidelines, I knew I could have helped the team and maybe saved his job had I been out there. I think I could have helped, and that’s the hardest thing – seeing Coach Wannstedt go out like that when I could have helped him keep his job.”
His relationship with Wannstedt was one of the reasons why he decided to not leave school for the NFL after his junior year, but he also wanted to become a better player before hitting the professional level.
“After my junior year I got a report from the NFL and it gave me different things that the teams saw on film that I needed to work on to improve,” Romeus said. “I ended up coming into my senior year trying to make a difference. In the offseason, I improved my strength. I became stronger. I improved my technique. There were a lot of expectations and things didn’t go the way I wanted them to, but I have to carry that over to the next season in the NFL.
“Every year I try to get better and try to improve my game, so coming into my junior year I had a lot of high expectations. That year, I started a little slow and I went to ask my defensive line coach what I could do to get better and he said, ‘You are doing well, I just think you need to practice a little harder.’ That week I took it upon myself to practice as hard as I could. I treated each practice like it was a game. That week during the game I had 3.5 sacks [at Louisville]. I took that as a learning lesson and haven’t looked back.”
One thing Romeus admits that he needs to work on is his conditioning. Although never out of shape at Pittsburgh, he said he wants to be in peak physical condition to the point where he never tires during a game.
“I remember the first three years I played, and in 2009 I was running like 80 snaps per game because our coaches didn’t really trust our backups,” Romeus said. “I think I’ve become a great pass rusher, but there are still different moves and different things I need to work on. You can never be too good at using your hands. I think my hands and just finishing plays are some things I can work on. Playing as many snaps as I did without ever coming out of the game, I didn’t play at full speed on all of my snaps. Teams at the NFL level pride themselves on hustle, so I need to get my conditioning to the point where I can go 100 percent every single play for an entire game.”
With all the hype coming into his senior season, Romeus admitted it was tough to see his injuries cause his stock to slip out of the first round. Romeus is hopeful to be selected in the second or third round, but some mock drafts have him falling as low as the fourth round due to his prior back issues and the fact that he is still rehabbing his torn ACL.
“That’s tough because I know I have the talent and the potential of a first-rounder,” Romeus said. “I see these guys that are supposed to be rated really high – and with me being a competitor – I think I am as good or better than these guys. It’s tough, but that’s something that I have to prove. I have been in that situation before coming out of high school where I was off the radar. I stepped up and became one of the elite defensive ends in college. I don’t have any regrets. I went back to school for more reasons than just to get better for the NFL. It’s going to be tougher for me and a longer road to have success in the NFL, but I know with my talent and me getting healthy that I am going to get back to where I was.”
Despite being unable to participate in any of the drills, the ultra-talented defensive end, whose birthday is April 29, which will likely be the day he gets drafted by an NFL team, was still invited to the combine for medical evaluations and interviews with teams.
“I see these other defensive ends and I think I probably had the second-best measurables at the combine,” Romeus said. “Being at the combine was kind of tough because I wasn’t able to compete against them because of the health factor. These are great players and I’m not taking anything away from them, but I think I am just as good if not better than any of the other defensive ends in the draft this year.
“I wanted to work out before the draft to show teams that I am healthy, but the sixth-month mark is what my surgeon has given me, so unfortunately I can’t do any workouts for teams. By May I should be good to go.”
Had Romeus been able to work out at the combine or at Pitt’s pro day, NFL teams that run a 3-4 defensive scheme likely would have put him through outside linebacker drills due to his athleticism and despite the fact that he solely played defensive end in college.
“Some of the 3-4 teams have discussed me playing outside linebacker,” Romeus said. “I don’t think it’s too different. I’ll have to learn different techniques, but I could play it if that’s what was asked of me. At the same time, I played defensive end in a 4-3 defense in college. I’m athletic enough to play either defensive end or linebacker. Whatever comes my way, I’ll take it.”
A team such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which needs both a starting right and left defensive end, would benefit from drafting Romeus because of his versatility.
“I think I can play either end position,” Romeus said. “Whatever my team needs me to do I’ll do. In college, I played right end and rotated a little bit at left end. I’m right-handed, so the left end spot would be naturally easier for me to play. But I played right end for four years and can play that just as well.”
Romeus has already had a pre-draft visit with Detroit and has drawn some interest from the Buccaneers.
“I sat down with Tampa Bay at the combine and had a great interview, but that’s the only contact I’ve had with them so far,” Romeus said.
Hailing from Coral Springs, Fla., Romeus would love the chance to be drafted by a team from his home state, such as the Buccaneers, so that his family could drive just a few hours to watch him play. Interestingly enough, Romeus has never been to an NFL game in person, so the first time he will ever do that will be when he suits up for his first game as a rookie.
“I was a basketball fan growing up and I loved the Miami Heat,” Romeus said. “I never really watched NFL football until I got to college. I’ve actually never even been to an NFL game.
“I was always into basketball and got a late start on football. The football coach in high school saw me playing basketball and asked me to come out for the team because of my size. I did that my last year and it ended up working out for me. I played football growing up on the street, but nothing ever organized until my senior year. I was always just a hooper. I realized playing in college or the NBA at 6-foot-5 was nothing really special. Yet being my size on the football field was definitely more advantageous and benefitting to me.”
And now that he is nearly 100 percent healthy with a year’s worth of tragedy and hardship behind him, Romeus is ready to use his size and skills to an NFL team’s advantage.
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