As the Pitt Panthers and the team’s fans count down the days to the 2018 Blue-Gold Game at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh Sports Now will break down the most important things to watch this Saturday.
PITTSBURGH — Almost no college football team is comfortable with its depth at this time of the year.
First of all, there’s just a sheer numbers game, with last years seniors, transfers and early departures for the NFL gone, but next year’s freshmen not yet arrived.
Then there’s the fact that most of spring is dedicated to establishing the pecking order on a club’s first team, let alone what happens behind that.
But Pitt’s defense is feeling pretty good about its depth going into the Blue-Gold game on Saturday. At linebacker, the Panthers have been buoyed by the return of Quintin Wirginis, which gives them four experienced starters ahead of promising players like Elias Reynolds and Chase Pine.
Pine and Reynolds are part of the 12 players on Pitt’s defense that came in together in the Class of 2016. That group, now juniors and redshirt sophomores, is what’s driving Pitt’s good feelings about depth on defense.
On Wednesday, those good feelings were on display, as the annual Blue-Gold draft tilted quickly to the offense — a sign of the defense’s depth, according to head coach Pat Narduzzi.
“I think the key to a good draft in the spring game is knowing where your depth is,” Narduzzi said. “You saw a lot of the offensive guys get drafted. Maybe that’s because there’s a difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 at the position — more of a drop-off. There’s depth there.”
The first defensive player taken was redshirt sophomore defensive end Rashad Weaver. Weaver seems poised to push if not outright unseat one of Pitt’s two seniors at defensive end in Dewayne Hendrix and James Folston, thanks to a strong spring camp that’s turned many heads.
“He’s come a long way in a couple of years,” Narduzzi said. “It comes down to confidence and knowing what you’re doing. You sit in meetings and you feel like you know what you’re doing. But every year, there’s a reason we practice and meet and focus on the details. He has more knowledge of what he’s really doing and how it works, and obviously, he’s bigger and faster and stronger, but he’s more confident and more mature. Confidence is big. … Sometimes there’s a difference between knowing what you’re doing and being able to do it really fast. He’s now playing really fast. There’s not big questions about, ‘I thought I was supposed to be here.’”
Now that Weaver has a bit more experience, he’s been given more freedom to operate as a playmaker in Pitt’s defense.
“As a freshman, you have a little less leeway with what you do because you don’t know,” he said. “When you do something that’s not directly planned by the coaches, it add a risk to every other player on the defense that can affect everyone. … I know different type of actions have different risks and consequences and I’ve learned how to fix them. They trust me to do that and make plays with it, which allows you to make more plays. You have more free will.”
Behind that group is Patrick Jones, who earned some playing time as a redshirt freshman and has put himself in good position to be a part of the regular rotation.
“Of all of them, (Jones) might have made the biggest jump so far this spring,” defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said.
Inside, Amir Watts seems to have locked down a starting job at defensive tackle, but will be challenged in the summer by Keyshon Camp, who missed most of the spring with an undisclosed injury. Those two third-year players are joined at that spot by Rashad Wheeler, giving Pitt three third-year players to turn to at tackle.
“Wheeler, his game continues to get better,” Partridge said. “He’s still working on consistently playing at a high level. Amir Watts, same thing. There’s great competition at the defensive tackle position.”
In the secondary, Damar Hamlin looks to start at field safety, with Therran Coleman backing him up and playing nickel corner. Phil Campbell is pushing redshirt senior Dennis Briggs at boundary safety, while Bricen Garner will provide depth at both safety spots.
“When my class came in, we came in real tight-knit,” Garner said. “We came in close. We bonded easily. So, it’s just been real fun being out there being on the field with them finally, flying around. It’s just a good feeling being on the field with people that you bonded well with.”
That large group of defensive backs has given Pitt the depth to play more nickel and the ability to rotate players at a level that hasn’t been seen yet under Narduzzi.
“We’ve got more people in the system that have been in it longer, so everyone’s coming back, just coming into the same system, running the same scheme, so people have become more comfortable, it’s becoming more natural for everybody,” Garner said.
With 12 players looking like they all could be solid contributors to the defense — in addition to offensive threats like Maurice Ffrench and Aaron Mathews — Narduzzi’s first full recruiting class is finally paying dividends for the Panthers.