Since the end of the 2015 season, Pitt has lost over 1,200 pounds of defensive tackle.
K.K. Mosley-Smith and Mark Scarpinato have both graduated, with the former joining the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this week.
With injuries across the offensive line this spring, redshirt sophomore Connor Dintino was moved to center, and has done well enough to have landed himself on the second team.
Finally, redshirt junior and two-year letterman Justin Moody found out earlier this month that his career will end prematurely with a non-football cervical spine injury.
Moody has remained with the team as he settles into a student assistant role. His biggest job so far has been as the team’s DJ for training camp, and he’s also remained involved with freshmen Zack Gilbert and George Hill, who also will not play this season. Moody says he feels fine physically, but is taking the prospect of life after football day-by-day.
“Your heart breaks for him because he’s a good kid and to lose him is disappointing,” said defensive line coach Tom Sims. “He’s a good kid. He worked hard. He was coming on in the spring. He made some plays and was doing some good things for us. It is a loss. You just feel for him because he’s worked so hard.”
The starters for the 2016 season are relatively set, with Shakir Soto moving inside to tackle from defensive end to line up next to returning co-starter Tyrique Jarrett on the nose. They should get the lion’s share of snaps.
“Our seniors have to lead,” Sims said. “They have to be the bell cows. That’s what we expect them to do.”
But with any group of players, there needs to be depth, and that’s especially key at defensive tackle, where 300-pound men are the norm. It took the Panthers five players to get through the 2015 season, but have just one experienced depth player — redshirt junior Jeremiah Taleni — behind Jarrett and Soto. Beyond that, the Panthers are looking to use training camp to build some depth from their younger players.
“[Redshirt sophomore] Shane Roy has had a good offseason and we expect him to continue to develop and grow,” Sims said. “The young guys that are coming in — our freshman — it’s a lot to ask of a young guy to come in and contribute right away, but we’re very pleased with the skill set they bring. As they develop, we hope we can get some of them to a point where they can contribute.”
Notable among the efforts of the team’s first-year players have been Keyshon Camp, Amir Watts and Rashard Wheeler.
“The freshmen have been playing well,” said Soto. “They’re all looking pretty good, honestly. I’m excited to see how that’s going to play out, especially during the season. Whoever the coaches pick, I’ll be confident in that decision because they’re all adjusting fast.”
Soto hopes as a senior, he’s able to impart some wisdom on the young players coming in to one day fill his role.
“I’ve been working on becoming a better leader by example,” he said. “It hasn’t been hard. They’re really smart and take everything in. They just want to learn more every day. They take what you say and they use it when they play.”
Sims admitted that his interior depth is still a work in progress, but doesn’t feel that the open competition is a bad thing.
“There are very few [coaches] out there right now saying ‘we’re great,’” he said. “Hopefully, when the time comes, we’re to a point where we have adequate depth. Competition is always a good thing and that’s what this is about. Nobody around here can rest on their laurels. It’s about getting better and improving each and every day.”
If you’re looking for Jarrett on the field come September, you may do a double-take. The 335-pounder has a svelte new uniform number: six.
“It’s something different,” Jarrett said. “You go to any other team and you see guys with high numbers. Who do you really see that has six? Not too many people. I just want to be different and do something different.”
With his beard, dreadlocks and now distinctive uniform number — not to mention his size — Jarrett certainly will stand out. He hopes he’ll stand out as one of those “bell cows” Sims referred to, as well. One of the ways he’s challenged himself this year is to be in better shape and stay on the field longer.
“I’d like to be on the field as much as possible,” he said. “That’ll be a challenge for myself. I didn’t play as much as I think I could have. … I believe that a lot of teams are going to come at us with tempo. There’s less pro-style teams. We focus on a lot on the tempo, working a lot harder, at a faster pace and getting off the ball a lot faster.”
As a unit, Jarrett hopes this year’s defensive line will be able to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and increase penetration with non-blitz defenses.
Soto was listed at 265 pounds as a defensive end in 2015. Since moving to tackle in the spring, he’s been involved in a rigorous strength and conditioning program that has allowed him to add over 25 pounds to his frame. He also got plenty of reps at his new position, which has allowed him to spend training camp focusing on personal improvement instead of learning his new job.
“I had to play a lot of catch-up in the spring, but I feel like I adjusted fast,” Soto said. “I feel very comfortable with the position. Now, it’s a regular camp.”
Soto feels that he’s been able to maintain the same high level of fitness that allowed him to play most of the snaps at end in 2015, and he’s ready for an even bigger role inside.
“I feel like as a smaller guy, I’m really in shape for [a tackle],” he said.
To help with depth on the line, redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Mike Herndon has been moved over to nose tackle.
“He brought a great attitude,” Sims said of Herndon. “He’s working extremely hard. He’s a fast learner. You don’t have to tell him things twice. He just has to keep working hard.”
Herndon played middle linebacker in high school, so he’s used to defense, but this is his first experience on the line.
“I like it a lot. I’m just trying to get used to the basics,” he said. “As long as I can help the team out, that’s all.”
It’s come with an added benefit, as well. Herndon has been able to tee off against his former mates on the offensive line in practice.
“It’s always fun,” he said. “It’s nice to have competition and get that aggression out.”