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PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s defensive depth chart heading into the 2017 season doesn’t feature many players with the word “senior” next to their name.
In fact, there are just three: defensive end Allen Edwards, cornerback Avonte Maddox and linebacker Quintin Wirginis.
Wirginis is suspended for the first three games of the season and might have to battle Saleem Brightwell to get his job as middle linebacker back after that. Edwards will enter the season as a starter at defensive end for the first time in his career as the defensive line replaces all four starters from a season ago.
That leaves Maddox, a three-year returning starter, as the unquestioned leader of the defense.
“Avonte is the guy right now, that steps up in that leadership role,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said on Monday.
It’s not exactly a difficult transition for Maddox, who has gained something of a reputation as one of the biggest talkers in the ACC. But usually, his on-the-field chatter has been directed at those across the line of scrimmage.
As one of the leaders of the team, he’ll now be tasked with talking to the younger players on his side of the ball. Maddox doesn’t think that will be an issue.
“Last year, I was talking to some of the teammates,” he said. “This year, I feel like it’s a bigger role personally. As a program, we have to talk to all the guys now. It’s a bigger role and I’m willing to take it for the team.”
When it comes to who to talk to, Maddox will have no shortage of options. The defensive backfield is full of talented young players that seem eager to take a step forward this season.
Phil Campbell, Therran Coleman, Bricen Garner and Henry Miller all redshirted in 2016, while Damar Hamlin (injuries) and Maurice Ffrench (two-way player) saw limited time on defense. Maddox has seen a big change as they start their second training camp.
“They’re much better. Way better. Totally different players,” he said. “They come out and work hard every day and it’s amazing to see when they get better. It’s a good thing. When I watch them, they’re always willing to work, they’re always asking questions, always willing to learn things. It’s a good feeling to see them come out, play hard and play fast.”
Then there’s incoming freshmen Damarri Mathis and Jason Pinnock, who have already shown Maddox that they’re capable of pushing for playing time. With Pinnock at 6-foot and Mathis at 5-foot-11, they’ll also have an easier time adjusting to the man-press defense that Pitt plays under Narduzzi than the 5-foot-9 Maddox did.
“J.P. (Pinnock) is a big kid and he has long arms,” Maddox said. “When he gets his hands on you, it’s almost a stand-up. That’s a good, physical body on him and he plays well at the line. He’s got some things to work on, as everyone does, of course. But they’re getting better. Damarri, he’s good out of his breaks. He’s smaller, but he’s physical, as well. He’ll never quit. He’s always diving on the ground and diving making plays. I like that from him.”
With so much of his time dedicated to talking to his teammates, will Maddox still be able to find time to have his customary conversations with the other side? Count on it.
“Oh yeah,” he said, smiling. “Always.”