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Erick Hallett, Brandon Hill Leading Pitt’s Secondary By Example

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The duo of Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford didn’t return to Pitt in 2021, with both testing their luck at the NFL following multiple seasons marshaling Pitt’s defense, and head coach Pat Narduzzi turned to Erick Hallett II and Brandon Hill.

Hallett, a junior, and Hill, a sophomore, were expected to not only help fill the production vacated by their predecessors’ exits but provide that veteran presence as leaders on the backend. There were big shoes to fill, high expectations to meet and it wasn’t always easy, but Narduzzi likes the progress made by the duo.

“Those guys just play with a little bit more confidence all the time. … Erick and Brandon have done a great job of really leading the secondary,” Narduzzi said Wednesday. “Those are your two leaders back there. Brandon probably a bit more vocal, and Erick a little bit more by example, I think.

“It’s like having Damar and Paris back again, two experienced guys, we got ‘em for another year,” Narduzzi said.That’s a beauty.”

With star cornerback Damarri Mathis exiting for the NFL, Pitt’s secondary will be adding a new face to the fold. And with the linebacking corps decimated by the transfer portal and graduation, Pitt’s backend will feature a lot of new faces in 2022. Hallett is just grateful to be able to have that foundation in place between himself and Hill.

Brandon Hill (9) – October 30, 2021 David Hague/PSN

“It’s a good feeling, good knowing you don’t have to start back at ground zero,” Hallett said Wednesday. “Me and Brandon, we have a good relationship on and off the field. It’s good knowing we can take that chemistry and continue into the next season.”

With the way Pitt’s defense operates in Narduzzi’s system, defensive backs are left on islands. If the opposing player wins the battle, it usually results in a big, chunk play or a touchdown. Those one-on-one battles on the backend help the defensive line upfront, but it can be a lonely feeling to play in Pitt’s secondary.

Hallett said Pitt’s secondary operates on trust and communication. But it isn’t just the secondary, it’s all phases of the defense that rely on communication and being able to know that a player will be where he’s supposed to be on any given play and make that play. It wasn’t always easy in 2021.

When Pitt played strong passing attack options, like Western Michigan and Miami earlier in the season, Hill and Hallett — and Pitt’s entire defense — suffered. In Pitt’s two losses, the defense allowed 357 yards to WMU’s Kaleb Eleby and 426 yards to Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke.

Aside from Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong carving up Pitt’s defense for 489 yards in a loss, Pitt’s defense clamped down as the season wore on — locking down opposing rushing attacks all season — and the Western Michigan game, in particular, served as a sort of baseline for Pitt to build off.

“It’s building, it’s stepping stones,” Hallett said. “So, we know what didn’t work, we know what worked, we know what could work, but obviously, they’ve seen that in the past, so we know what we need to adjust to, we know what nuances to change up.”

Erick Hallett (31) – September 18, 2021 David Hague/PSN

And in Pitt’s biggest game of the season, after allowing 21 first quarter points to Wake Forest in the ACC championship game, the defense didn’t allow a single point and picked off Sam Hartman four times — including two from Hallett, with one returned for a touchdown.

It was a fitting reversal for Pitt’s defense in 2021, locking down one of the top offenses in college football to cement the best season in decades for the program. It was also a reminder that Pitt’s defense has more to offer.

“Especially in today’s college football, all you hear about is offense this, offense that,” Hallett said. “Nobody ever cares about the defense really, so being able to shutout a team after the first quarter, that’s big. That’s huge.” 

Despite an MVP performance in Pitt’s biggest game in four decades, Hallett said it only took about 24 hours to come down from the high. There was another game to go, and while the Peach Bowl wasn’t a win, the 2022 season is gearing up now as the first week of spring practices is in the books.

Communication will be a key factor once again in 2022, and with the new faces on defense integrating into the lineup, Hallett said the communication coming from the top down is where himself and Hill — or any safety in Pitt’s defense — will be needed.

“I wouldn’t say it’s more important than any of the others, but like I said, a lot of the communication does come from top down,” Hallett said. “So, when we communicate a lot of the coverages, a lot of the blitzes and stuff, so being able to stay on the same page and making sure the defense is on the same page, that’s vital. I think that’s the biggest thing coming from the safety position.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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