When looking at Pitt’s linebacker situation for the upcoming season, there’s both good news and bad news.
The bad news is that the defense will be relying on its younger players to replace three seniors. The good news is that the players next in line are fast, athletic and very talented.
If some of these young players can play to potential, that’ll be a shot in the arm for a unit that struggled with giving up a lot of yards and points last season.
The local media had a chance to talk with linebacker coach Rob Harley to get his thoughts on his crew for the 2017 season.
How do you feel about the guys that are stepping in to try and replace all the experience that you lost?
“There’s obviously been a standard set and how lucky are we to have that standard that the older guys set the last 2 years. We’re lucky to have that standard to live up to and they just have to live up to it. They were here with those guys and they understand what those guys set. These guys just have to play their game, they have to understand what the standard is but be who they are. With more athletic I’d say and that’s not a cut on those other guys. I’d just say we’re more athletic as a group and those guys have to play to their strengths. There’s a lot to replace but we still have a lot on the shelf and I’m looking forward to it.”
How excited are you to have Saleem potentially in the lineup for a whole season?
“It’ll be good. I think what we’re doing now is cross training a lot of these guys. Because they’re so athletic they can play multiple positions and how critical is that in this day and age especially in the ACC with it being like hockey and it’s like a line change. You have guys coming off so fast and offenses going so fast, we have to have guys that can play multiple positions and be cross trained. I’m happy with Saleem specifically to have him learn all three positions so we can put him where he’s most deadly and make the most plays. So I couldn’t be more happy to have him.
How do you like him in the middle?
“Really well. He gives you, when you think of a middle linebacker, you think of that’s able to run sideline to sideline from the middle of the field and he gives you that. You go back and think about the Clemson pick, none of us knew he was that fast I think. He gives you a lot of range in there and right now he’s getting the nuts and bolts of running the defense. He’s active and emotional. What more could you want out of a middle linebacker than emotional and intense and that’s what he brings. He’s learning right now so that’s awesome. He’s going to be a heck of a player for us I think.”
The speed of this group is that a perfect thing for the scheme of this defense and the things you want the linebackers to do?
“Obviously everyone wants speed but I think so. I think you have to think about your opponent. You think of the ACC and the game is on the edge. Teams are throwing the ball 55-60 times on us and we’ve got to be able to stop the run but we’ve also got to be able to get out there and make plays in space. Speed is very valuable to us and these guys , this group gives us that asset so it’s good.”
What kind of a player are you getting in Chase Pine and how excited are to you to be able to use him this year?
“You talk about athleticism and that guy is almost 250 and he can run. He’s a big, big athlete that can move. You start thinking about him and using him in the blitz game, taking a gap and someone trying to block him. It is a bear. Right now, he’s just a young player but we’re getting a lot of athleticism and also some youthful mistakes. Sometimes he’s running around chasing the wrong things but if we can get him zeroed in, they’re going to have their hands full trying to block a 248 pound athlete.”
Name me a player that’s an under the radar guy that maybe you and the coaches are excited about that might have a chance to surprise some people?
“I think Elijah Zeise. He’s one of those guys that came over from wideout, he’s put on a bunch of weight he’s up to 230’s now and he got hurt in our first games last year and was our starter. He earned that job coming from wide receiver and was out for the season. He just became a forgotten guy. So, I put a lot on his shoulders and say, listen you earned a spot last year now you have to come back and earn it all over again. He’s playing well, put some size on so he’s a true linebacker right now. I think he’s a guy that can flash for us if given the chance.”
Last year the run defense performed well but the secondary struggled, what can your unit do to help out to get the defense back on track?
“In the blitz game or whatever we’re doing we can get home. Some many times, everyone points the finger at the db’s but we have seven other guys pass rushing. So what’s taking so long? We have seven other guys that need to get after the quarterback and not let him have eight seconds back there and stand there and pat the ball and let it loose. So our guys have to be faster with what they’re doing, get hands on wide receivers and if given the opportunity to get after the quarterback, we have to take him down.”
Do you think your guys have a chip on their shoulders like some of the defensive backs do?
“Oh, yeah. We’ve stressed it and I think all the positions have talked about it to those guys and said we’re in this too. Our guys want to be good a defense. I don’t want someone to stamp us and say they’re just good against the run. We’d want to be good against everything.”