PITTSBURGH — At the beginning of this season Pitt linebacker coach Rob Harley had a plan. With three seniors to lead the way, Pitt was going to use its depth at the linebackers position to inject athleticism to the current group of players while building depth for this season and beyond.
Harley wanted to take a page from hockey and create a “line change” group — a second set of starters that could come in at any time to give the regulars a breather. Elijah Zeise, Quinten Wirginis and Bam Bradley were expected to be the second wave, following starters Seun Idowu, Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara.
But then injuries started to mount. Zeise was lost, likely for the season, with an ankle injury in the first quarter of the opener. Then, Bradley and Caprara went down with ailments following the loss to Oklahoma State.
That left the duties at the “Money” position to redshirt freshman Saleem Brightwell. Brightwell, a redshirt freshman from Paterson, N.J., saw the field for the first time in his Pitt career in mop-up duty against Villanova.
Against North Carolina, he was forced to start and play most of the snaps without Caprara available and with Bradley very limited.
That’s when a funny thing happened. Brightwell, who wasn’t even in the second group of linebackers when the season began, played outstanding. He finished the game fourth on the team and first amongst linebackers with five tackles and also had two splash plays: a fumble recovery and a big sack of quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The patchwork Pitt linebacking corps held the UNC ground game to just 18 yards.
“Rushing yards, turnovers and sacks were a positive for us,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said in his weekly press conference. “Saleem Brightwell played an incredible game, really. Now I have faith and trust that guy can step up in a big football game. It increased our depth greatly.”
Brightwell said that Caprara helped him prepare for the game throughout the week by watching extra film with him and was in his ear all day long on the sidelines Saturday, helping every way he could.
“Because Cap, wasn’t playing, I assumed a was going to play a little bit,” Brightwell said. “He prepared me really well for the game. … I was nervous the first quarter and then I got used to it and just started playing football.”
Narduzzi said that he expects Caprara to return to action the Saturday against Marshall, but the experience that Brightwell gained and the talent he showed when he got an opportunity will likely mean he’ll have a continued role moving forward.
“Now we know we have a backup [in Brightwell] that can really go in and chase the ball,” Narduzzi said.
The confidence gained wasn’t just from Narduzzi’s end, either.
“I [hadn’t] really played a college game,” Brightwell said. “I feel like I know what I can do now. I feel a little bit more confident.”
While Brightwell replaced Caprara on first and second downs, Narduzzi didn’t want to saddle Brightwell with third-down duties, as well. Idowu had been coming off the field for third downs thus far this season, but he was tasked with picking up the slack on the team’s “Delta” package. The results weren’t quite as good as Brightwell’s, as Idowu had a tough day with North Carolina’s extremely talented slot receiver, Ryan Switzer.
“I think it watered [Idowu] down a little bit,” Narduzzi said. “He just earned a scholarship a few weeks ago and now all of a sudden he isn’t coming off the field at all. That’s a lot to put on his plate. Was he a little exhausted? Maybe. But he’s played every play. Usually he isn’t in there on third downs.”
Idowu admitted that the heavier workload was a factor, but refused to use it an excuse for his play, which he characterized as “needing some touching up”
“It’s something we’re expected to do,” he said. “You have to be ready for situations like that and train for it. It was more time than I was used, but it shouldn’t really affect anything.”
Idowu started the season as the young buck of the linebacking corps and the only underclassman getting significant playing time. Being able to look across the formation and seeing Brightwell, a player he had shared scout team duties with a year ago was rewarding.
“We were making fun of him — jokes like stop shaking and don’t be nervous,” Idowu said with his trademarked ear-to-ear smile. “He got through it and had a pretty good game. … I think everyone’s proud of him. I know I’m proud of him.”