PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s season-long injury bug continues to bother the team, and the latest victim is defensive end Rori Blair, who is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game in Miami against the Hurricanes.
Blair, a junior, has spent most of the last two years dealing with nagging injuries and it appears that’s the case here again. He came out of Pitt’s game against Virginia Tech on Thursday night with a lower-body injury, but was able to return. That’s been the case several times this season for Blair, but this is the first time he’s found himself on the team’s weekly injury report.
Blair is officially listed as questionable, along with cornerback Avonte Maddox (elbow) and linebacker Bam Bradley (upper body), who both missed the Virginia Tech game. With starting defense end Dewayne Hendrix out for the season, Pat Narduzzi will need to reach down into his depth chart for a starter Saturday if Blair is unable to go.
Allen Edwards and James Folston would be the most likely candidates to replace him. Blair has started seven consecutive games and has 21 tackles, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Edwards and Folston have combined for just three tackles this season.
The news comes at an especially bad time for Pitt’s defensive line, which Narduzzi suggested on Monday needs to be more productive with its four-man pass rush.
“If you went and tracked down how many sacks we’ve got on the year, I know we got quite a few, but I would say, if I had to guess, if we had 20 sacks, I’d say three of them are from four-man pressures,” Narduzzi said at his weekly press conference. “That’s not enough. We’re not getting four-man pressure.”
The Panthers have 28 sacks on the season. Senior Ejuan Price — the opposite starting defensive end — is responsible for nine of them. But Price has been the victim of more-frequent double teams lately, making it more difficult for him to get to the quarterback.
“We’ve been facing a lot of gap protection lately where some people are getting a fullback and a running back or a guard and a tackle,” Price said. “Whoever gets that one-on-one just has to be a playmaker and take advantage of it.”
Beyond Price, the rest of the line hasn’t been getting home much. After Blair’s 3.5, defensive tackle Shakir Soto has 2.5 sacks and nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett has one. That’s seven total compared to Price’s nine and it doesn’t stop there. Price also leads the team with nine hurries on the season. No one else has more than two.
Edwards comes with a pass-rushing pedigree. At Dean (Mass.) College in 2014, he led his team with eight sacks. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Folston is more of a run-stopper in Blair’s mold. He led his Cocoa High School team in tackles as a senior in 2013. Folston redshirted in 2014 and played sparingly last year. Edwards redshirted in 2015 — his first season at Pitt.
Beyond the two young ends, there’s also the possibility of increasing running back James Conner’s role on defense. Conner, who was recruited as a defensive end has been used sparingly in that role throughout his career but just once this season — at the end of Pitt’s win at Virginia Oct. 15.
“I’m ready to rush the quarterback,” Conner said. “I’m ready for whenever the coach gives me the nod. We’ll see what happens.”
In addition to finding an answer at the opposite side, Price is hopeful he’ll have more success against the double-team. He’s seeing a lot more of them this season than he has in the past and he’s learning what works and what doesn’t work when going up against multiple blockers.
“Sometimes, I make an inside move and there’s already help there. If I try to push-and-pull, there’s a running back on the outside already. I get my opportunities when they come. I just have to keep playing hard,” he said. “I’m not mad about it. That’s kind of a compliment.”
OTHER INJURY NOTES
Cornerback Phillipie Motley (left leg) is listed as out. Motley was injured in the first half against Virginia Tech and was seen wearing a full-leg brace and using crutches on the sideline in the second half.
Outside linebacker Elijah Zeise (left ankle) is still listed as out, but returned to the practice field with the team this week. Zeise could potentially return for a bowl game.
Wide receiver Zach Challingsworth (upper body) is also listed as out and will miss his fifth consecutive game.