It takes a very, very confident player to come into Pitt and choose to play on an island. It translates to NFL readiness, as evidenced by Jason Pinnock, Avante Maddox, K’Waun Williams, Dane Jackson and Damarri Mathis, but the adjustment isn’t always fun.
Just ask Archie Collins, Pitt’s secondary coach since 2018. He’s helped the likes of Pinnock, Jackson, Mathis and Damar Hamlin reach the NFL, but it takes an adjustment period to play college football out of high school, let alone play in Pitt’s defense. You’ve gotta be able to see a little, to see a lot, Collins says.
“In high school, you get a lot of interceptions based on having bad eyes and things of that nature,” Collins said Monday. “When you get to this level, obviously that ball is going to be there. So, the moment you look back to the quarterback and you’re not in phase on the receiver, the ball is gonna be a little bit sooner and more accurate than in high school.”
Collins estimated that at the high school level, just throwing a number out there, there can be 10 to 15 defensive schemes for a team. Pitt has that many or more checks in just one defensive scheme. It’s a whole new ball game, and in learning new formations, motions and checks, a cornerback still has to be able to study and recognize who the outside receiver is, the inside receiver, the tight end, which running backs to shadow. It’s intensive. The little details add up. Corners have to be able to see those details, Collins said, and be able to make it all make sense in their heads.
It’s the sort of adjustment that someone like Khalil Anderson is still undergoing in Pitt’s defense. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound redshirt freshman earned a comparison to Hamlin from Pat Narduzzi over the spring, and while he’s physically ready to make an impact, the mental aspect is constantly evolving. As it is for all of Pitt’s defensive backs.
“Khalil’s gotta continue to keep on working, trying to see a little to see a lot,” Collins said. “But athletically, he’s doing really well right now. He’s just got to continue to put it all together. Obviously, it’s a lot different coming from high school corner and then getting over to safety, so as he gets more developed and more repetition, he’ll be able to get better and better and better.”
Anderson arrived at Pitt as a cornerback, but he’s made that transition to safety. And he’s continuing to adapt to the defensive scheme. Someone who has continued to adapt to Pitt’s defense for four seasons now is Marquis Williams, and he’s hoping to be the next Pitt defensive back in the NFL, but he’s also focused on stepping up in 2022.
“Damarri was a big loss for us, he was a big brother for everyone in the room, like previous years you had Jason Pinnock, Dane Jackson, you had a lot of greats that came and left each and every year, so like coach Narduzzi always preaches, ‘Next man up.’ Be ready to adapt whenever and when needed,” Williams said Monday.
Williams started all 14 games at field corner last season, racking up 32 tackles (28 solo), two tackles for loss, one interception and three pass breakups, so he has that experience. He’s made 22 starts at Pitt, and the leadership aspect of the job comes naturally. Even with Mathis around, Williams was a vocal leader, on- and off-the-field, and it comes down to experience — and confidence.
“(Williams’s) already been there, so he can kinda talk to them,” Collins said. “It’s always great to have a player-led team, and those guys get to talk with each other. He does an unbelievable job because he knows, he’s made a lot of mistakes during the game, he’s got a lot of game reps right now. So, he understands the sense of urgency, all those things we talked about earlier.”
Williams has the field corner role locked down, but it comes down to replacing Mathis at boundary cornerback. And while names like M.J. Devonshire, A.J. Woods and Rashad Battle will play a lot in 2022, it appears that Woods may be destined to replace Mathis.
Woods, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior, played in 13 games last season — starting the Peach Bowl against Michigan State and returning an interception 73 yards against Wake Forest in the ACC championship game. He’s reportedly run a 4.31 40-yard dash, which would be even faster than Mathis’s blazing NFL Combine time.
Longest INT return (73 yards) in the history of the @ACCFootball Champ! 🏆
HUGE play by @AjWoods09 💨
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) December 5, 2021
“Hopefully I can be able to fill those shoes this year, but it’s always a constant competition in our room,” Woods said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can play.”
Woods spoke with Mathis over the phone last week, sharing a good conversation about the Denver Broncos’ camp going on, and the two share a strong relationship. But that’s largely the result of a seriously strong bond throughout the entire defensive backs room.
“It’s a big brotherhood, all of us hang together off the field and on the field,” Williams said. “We do activities together, we’re always in the chat texting each other. It’s a big bind that nobody can break, and I think that’s why we were so successful last year.”
“We’re always coming up to watch film after hours, I go to M.J.’s house all the time, me and Marquis were just training down in Florida together, me and B-Hill have always talked about playing the same side since we came in the same class together,” Woods said. “It’s a very surreal moment, and I can’t wait to see what this group does.”
It’s a unit with the likes of Williams, Woods, Devonshire, Battle, Ryland Gandy, Jahvonte Royal and Noah Biglow, at just cornerback, and when you add in the likes of Brandon Hill, Erick Hallett, P.J. O’Brien, Anderson, Jahvon McIntryre, Judson Tallandier and Steph Hall at safety, it’s a deep, talented defensive backs room.
The cornerbacks especially though have the unique challenge of playing alone in the defense. They’re physical and aggressive and if a mistake is made, it’s obvious. But that’s the challenge of playing as a cornerback in Pitt’s defense. And Collins feels there’s still another level of speed to be reached.
“We’ve got a lot of good speed, we’ve gotta play fast and physical,” Collins said. “That’s we’re going to hone in, being more physical, because we do have good speed. These guys can run.”