PITTSBURGH — Coming into the 2016 season, the defensive line looked like one of the strengths of Pitt’s team. With three seniors, several experienced underclassmen and a boatload of talented true freshmen, the unit looked not just strong, but extremely deep.
Now, that depth has been tested.
Defensive end Dewayne Hendrix is out for the season. His backup, Rori Blair, missed the game against Miami. During that game, nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett and defensive tackle Shakir Soto both went down with ankle injuries.
They’ve called on a number of young players to fill in, and they’ve performed well. Allen Edwards, James Folston, Jeremiah Taleni and Amir Watts all got significant playing time against the Hurricanes, and while Pitt expects to get at least some of those injured linemen back, the experienced gained by the next generation was invaluable.
“They’ve really done a lot, to be honest with you,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said on his ACC conference call Wednesday. “We’ve wanted to play them all along. We planned on playing Watts all year. You get into battles, sometimes they don’t get as many reps as possible.”
Watts played in garbage time in the season opener against Villanova but got only sporadic work after that, leading some to question the wisdom of taking the redshirt off the talented Chicagoan. But Narduzzi was steadfast in his faith for the youngster.
“Amir got as many reps last week as he has really combined the entire year on defense. It was great to see.When you put the tape on, he’s playing against I think a very good, experienced offensive line in Miami last week, really doing a great job.”
“I’m just always focused on getting better,” Watts said, and he thought he handled the increase responsibility well. “To be honest, it was easier than practice.”
The emergence of Watts and fellow backup Jeremiah Taleni has given Narduzzi a reason to think he can limit the workload of Jarrett and Soto, even if they return. That was a luxury he didn’t have at the beginning of the season.
“I’m glad those guys are in there,” Narduzzi said. “I want Jeremiah, Amir to be playing a lot more inside. Soto and Tyrique Jarrett are two great players. To go in there and take every snap, take 64, 85, 79 plays a game is hard. It’s great that those guys have stepped up.”
With Jarrett and Soto both potentially out this week against Clemson, Watts may be asked to do even more. He doesn’t seem daunted by the task of going into Death Valley to face the No. 2 team in the country.
“They put on their pants just like I put on mine,” Watts said. “It’s a challenge. It’s going to definitely put us on the map. But I’m ready.”
Edwards and Folston have gotten significant reps at defensive end all season, and although the numbers haven’t been spectacular, Narduzzi is impressed with the growth throughout the season.
“I’m happy, again, with where they are,” he said. “They’ve been there all year. You’d like to be able to rotate those guys more. They’re waiting their turn to get in there when we need them. They’ve stepped up and given us the best they can.”
The performance of the youngsters has all involved feeling good about the future at the position.
“I feel like the more reps we get the more experienced and the more of a rhythm we can get into,” Folston said.