PITTSBURGH — After being burned by running backs on the wheel route several times over the last few years, it appears Pitt has put an emphasis on trying to stop that heading into the 2019 season.
Pitt’s inability to cover the running back out of the backfield on wheel routes started in 2017 against Youngstown State. Pitt was torched by the Penguins running backs over and over throughout the contest and Pitt could never seem to make any adjustments. Here you will be able to see on a couple of different occasions how Pitt linebacker Elijah Zeise was not able to react fast enough, allowing the running back to get loose on the wheel route.
The following week against Penn State, things did not get any easier as running back Saquon Barkley hurt Pitt on the same exact wheel route. Yes, Barkley hurt a lot of teams throughout his career at Penn State, but still, the Panthers struggled with covering running back’s out of the backfield, especially on wheel routes.
The struggles continued into the 2018 season and one game in particular where the linebackers got beaten by the running backs happened against the UCF Knights. Running back Adrian Killins Jr. got loose many times against the Pitt linebackers unit. Pitt linebackers, Quintin Wirginis, Seun Idowu, and Elijah Zeise had no answer for the speedy running back. Once again, you are able to see how the Pitt linebacker’s are too slow to react to Killins out of the backfield.
Heading into the 2019 season it appears as if Pitt will look to limit the running back from beating them out of the backfield and on the wheel routes in particular. At spring practice, the Pitt linebackers were seen working with linebackers coach, Rob Harley on communication and being able to recognize and cover the running back coming out of the backfield.
The 2019 Pitt linebacker unit knows that they need to improve in defending the pass and being able to cover running backs coming out of the backfield. Redshirt senior, Saleem Brightwell feels that having a great running back group on the other side of the ball has helped them prepare for the talented running backs they will face in the 2019 season.
“I feel like we have been working on a lot of open field tackling drills and our running backs, we have a great group of running backs,” Saleem Brightwell said after Thursday’s practice. “Just doing one on ones with the running backs has really helped us because of the talent we got back there. The speed we got and the talent we got at running back has been helping us throughout practice.”
For the 2019 season, Pitt will need to replace all three linebackers from last years team as they lost Idowu, Wirginis and Zeise to graduation. As of right now, this seems to be a position with the most uncertainty and most competition.
“I feel like the past years since I have been here, at certain positions, we had guys that had their position solidified, but I feel like now it’s open for whomever, whoever wants it can get it,” Brightwell said. “Everybody is just working and trying to get better and there is a competition through all three positions. That is the biggest difference since I have been here, everybody is competing for a job, nobody is solidified.”
Whoever is slotted into these three linebacker positions, they have to be able to account for the running back coming out of the backfield more so than the linebackers who have come before them. Pat Narduzzi’s confidence seems to be growing with newly converted outside linebacker Phil Campbell, who Narduzzi believes could fill either of the outside linebacker positions.
“Phil Campbell is working into the boundary a little bit as well as to the field, which is amazing,” Narduzzi said after Thursday’s practice. “I didn’t know if he would be physical enough to do it. Not only is he physical, but he is tough and he knows how to leverage his body and play with leverage.”
The Pitt offense also seems to be taking a page out of some of these other teams notebook, as they have been seen in spring practice using the running backs on pass plays out to the flat on a consistent basis. They might be looking to give some of their opponents a taste of their own medicine by activating the running backs in more than just the running game. With the addition of V’Lique Carter to the running back room this year, his speed could be used as an advantage in the passing game, similar to that of Killins from UCF.