PITTSBURGH — Football depth charts are typically an orderly construct.
There’s the first team, which is comprised of the players that are expected to start. Then there’s the second team, which is backups and part-time contributors. All the rest fall behind those two groups.
That’s the way it goes for most teams and that’s the way it goes for Pitt, at least at most positions. But during this year’s training camp, the safety position has been anything but orderly.
Pitt entered the offseason with the co-starters at the field safety position, Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb, graduating. Jordan Whitehead, one of two returning starters in the secondary, spent the spring learning the field safety position after spending two years starting at boundary safety.
Highly regarded prospect Damar Hamlin was moved from corner to safety over the offseason and incoming freshman Paris Ford was expected to slot into that group as well, giving Pitt an embarrassment of riches at the spot.
Instead, Whitehead will be suspended for the first three games of the season for an undisclosed off-the-field violation of team rules, Ford has yet to get himself academically eligible and Hamlin has been limited throughout training camp as he recovers from offseason surgery that also cost him the entire spring practice session.
In place of big names like Hamlin, Ford and Whitehead, Pitt has had to fill the depth chart in the secondary with Dennis Briggs, Phil Campbell and Jazzee Stocker.
So far, Briggs has had the majority of the reps at the boundary safety, with Campbell and Stocker splitting time at the field position.
The boundary safety position is Pitt’s eighth man in the box for running plays and typically is responsible for a back or tight end in pass coverage. Whitehead used that spot to rack up a team-high 109 tackles in 2015 before losing playing time to an injury in 2016.
That’s a solid fit for Briggs, who is physical enough to have played linebacker in the team’s third-down package the last two seasons. He’s also an experienced, heady player in a position that requires a good deal of reading the offensive. On any given play, he could be responsible for busting up a screen pass in the backfield or running down the seam with a tight end on a deep route.
“I’m just trying to be a guy that can read opposing offenses and try to get from knowing our playbook to really trying to study opposing offense week-to-week,” Briggs said. “I’m big on being able to play both in the box and we’re facing a lot of slot receivers and tight ends that can catch.”
With Briggs’ third-down experience, he’s the players with the most reps amongst the currently practicing and eligible safeties, so the duties of making play calls on the back end of the defense have fallen to him. Briggs is well-spoken and intelligent, but being vocal on the field has been something of an adjustment from his usually quiet nature.
“I’m generally a quiet guy, but on the field is where I think I come out,” Briggs said. “The guys will say that I’ve been pretty loud out there and it’s been fun.”
At the other safety position, athleticism is key. In Pitt’s cover-four defense, the corners are matched up with the outside receives in press coverage. They have the advantage of using their jam and positioning at the line of scrimmage to limit the number of potential routes that a receiver can successfully run against them.
The field safety doesn’t have that advantage, as the slot receiver is behind the line of the scrimmage and the safety lines up about eight yards off the ball, giving players like former North Carolina receive Ryan Switzer plenty of time to make underneath catches and make moves in open space.
That’s why Pitt had elite athletes like Hamlin and Ford ticketed for the position. Instead, Garner and Stocker are still battling it out deep into camp. Stocker has an experience advantage, playing in 11 games a year ago.
“The competition between me and Bricen is real good,” Stocker said. “We’ve been working all summer, getting in with (strength and conditioning) coach (Dave) Andrews, trying to get faster and stronger.”
After the team’s second scrimmage on Saturday, head coach Pat Narduzzi threw a wild-card name into the mix as well: redshirt freshman Henry Miller. Miller was a corner last season, but has been moved to the safety spot, playing at both the field and boundary positions, and has opened some eyes so far this camp.
“Henry Miller has been like, the lights turned on and they’re bright and they’re fluorescent and there’s a lot of them,” Narduzzi lauded. “Henry has gotten himself into the mix.”
So for the time being, it seems that Briggs has the inside edge on one starting spot and Stocker the other, with Garner, Miller and Phil Campbell not that far behind.
But all of that could be upset at any moment. Hamlin could return to action. Ford could arrive at practice. One day soon, Whitehead will have a starting spot nearly assured. That leaves Pitt with plenty of options at safety going forward, but a very unsettled situation for the early part of the season.