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Quarterbacking the Defense: SirVocea Dennis Wants to be the Perfect Teammate

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The quarterback competition between Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti has been the subject of heavy interest this offseason, but according to the actual starter, the highly contested battle is just to determine a sparsely used backup.

“I didn’t tell you guys. You didn’t hear? I’m the quarterback,” SirVocea Dennis said in August at Pitt Media Day. “I’ve been relieved from my duties on defense. I don’t really see myself having a backup. I see myself coming in, starting and getting the job done. So, those guys, that’s on them, I’m worried about me getting under center.”

Dennis isn’t worried about who will be backing him up — just about lining up under center himself this season. He’s, of course, spoken extensively with Kenny Pickett about the ins and outs of playing quarterback, and he’s already found his top-secret favorite target.

But then offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. came in, and with the winner of Slovis and Patti starting at quarterback, now Dennis will have to just settle for being the quarterback of the defense. An area he’s already excelled in.

It’s a good thing Dennis is able to serve as the quarterback of the defense, lining up as the Mike linebacker right in the heart of the defense. With three starters and a handful of depth options exiting via graduation, the transfer portal and the NFL, Pitt’s linebacking corps this season is young and inexperienced, but it’s also loaded with potential — and it’s all led by Dennis.

The veterans in Pitt’s linebacking corps, not counting transfers in Shayne Simon and Tylar Wiltz, are Dennis and Brandon George. Both play at Mike linebacker, and only Dennis has actual starting experience. After watching someone like Cam Bright lead the room last season, the natural leadership ability that Dennis possesses is able to shine through. There’s no pressure to step into Bright’s shoes, just excitement.

“Once I figure out the right way to do something, I want to get it done every time,” Dennis said last Monday. “And I want everyone else to be on the same page as well. So, when we’re as linebackers, defending the run or running a certain blitz, I want to make sure I tell them before coach (Ryan Manalac) does, like, ‘Listen, this is what coach Manny does, this is what needs to get done and this is how you fix it.’ And to be honest, I think players or teammates take that from a player better than a coach.”

However, that doesn’t mean Dennis wants to be that player coach hybrid he’s been characterized as. While he may educate and correct where needed, he’s not a coach, he’s a teammate. A teammate who wants to help the unit grow together.

There’s a fine line to walk in stepping up on the sideline and running through a sequence with a teammate or correcting alignment and positioning on the field pre-snap. Dennis doesn’t want to overwhelm with information or overstep the coaching staff, as he wants to let Manalac run the unit, but he wants to help whoever with whatever he can.

Both Solomon DeShields, a junior with little in-game experience, and Tylar Wiltz, the sixth-year FCS All-American transfer, have spoken to Dennis’s effectiveness as a teacher. He’s a coach on the field in both of their eyes, and head coach Pat Narduzzi’s eyes, and it’s come from his readiness and eagerness to immediately call a player over, diagnose the situation and find a way to better attack the situation.

Calijah Kancey (8) SirVocea Dennis (7) during the ACC Championship Game – December 4, 2021 David Hague/PSN

When it comes to where Dennis himself wants to play on the field this season, while he admitted that he actually loves playing at either outside linebacker spot, he wants to be wherever Manalac and the coaching staff need him. If it helps the team win games, he’ll do anything. And he’s a pretty damn good Mike linebacker at 6-foot-1, 230 pounds.

As a junior in 2021, Dennis earned second-team All-ACC honors courtesy of a season with a team-high 87 tackles (40 solo), 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, an interception returned for a touchdown, a fumble recovery and a blocked field goal. In two seasons of play, he’s racked up 138 tackles (75 solo), 24 tackles for loss, eight sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery.

With about equal reps at all three linebacker spots so far this summer, Dennis has done it all. Manalac has praised the versatility that he offers on the field. 

There’s been a focus on “cross-training” Pitt’s linebacking corps this season, with players like DeShields, Bangally Kamara, Shayne Simon and Aydin Henningham learning to play multiple linebacking positions in the defense — all three in some cases. It’s an area that Dennis said Manalac has pushed for further versatility in the room. And with a scrimmage over the weekend, Dennis wanted to use it as a way to see how he best fits into the new-look linebacking corps in the defense.

“I hope to get a lot of reps (Saturday) and a lot of reps with a lot of different guys and a lot of combinations with at a lot of different positions,” Dennis said. “I just want to see where I fit the best and where other guys fit with me.”

When it comes to Dennis actually stepping onto the field, the fun-loving, jolly personality that he exudes melts away. He’s a different beast on the football field, and while he doesn’t want to lose the level of fun that football brings, he doesn’t want to lose either.

“Football is a fun game, I’ve played this since I was like four or five years old,” Dennis said. “So, I try to have fun on the field in between those white lines. But the mindset definitely changes, like when I’m around the guys, it’s all fun and games. But when I’m between those white lines, I have a purpose and it’s really to win.”

The relatively new linebacking corps isn’t lacking a hunger to win. Manalac praised the entire unit’s desire to get better every day. There’s accountability in growing together as a unit, watching more film and spending more time on the practice field. And it all starts with Dennis. He’s the heart and soul of Pitt’s linebacking corps and Pitt’s defense as a whole.

The defense, with the ability to get after the opposing quarterback, stop the run and force turnovers — especially for Dennis, who is emphasizing a nose for the ball and forcing turnovers — is going to be the difference between a good and great season in 2022.

“The previous years, we always broke down on ‘ACC champs.’ ACC champs, ACC champs, even though we had a 6-6 or a 7-5 season, so we believe we can get there, it’s just, we have to get the job done,” Dennis said. “With the details, with focusing and just doing everything on the field and winning games.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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SRS
SRS
1 month ago

Thou Shall Not ShovelPASS the SirVocea… written on a stone tablet in Anderson South Carolina circa Fall 2021

Dukes

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