If Cory Sanders’ iPhone buzzes late at night, he hopes it’s from one of his players.
Sanders, Pitt’s safeties coach, loves to hear from his players at any hour — even if it’s well into the night. Asking questions, asking intelligent questions that further the conversation especially, is never frowned upon. It’s become the pillar of the room.
“You love it as a coach if you get a text at night asking a question about practice, or when they come into the meeting with questions prepared,” Sanders said Tuesday. “Even the conversations, like, we’ll have a certain thing playing a cover four and they get to a certain check, and that’s not what we talked about that morning, but they’re doing it because of what they’re expected. It’s good to be able to talk ball and situational football with those guys.”
With younger players like P.J. O’Brien, Khalil Anderson, Javon McIntyre and Stephon Hall — all second year players in the system — and older players like Brandon Hill, Erick Hallett and Judson Tallandier, it’s a healthy mix of youth and experience. But Sanders has found that the younger players are asking those thought-provoking questions, displaying maturity uncommon in players their age.
There’s an added level of comfortability in the room this season, and Sanders feels like the unit — which can run three deep at both the field and boundary safety spots — is capable of taking on more and more as additional comfortability is achieved.
“We’re not shy to experience new things,” Sanders said. “Certain things upstairs, seeing certain things, it’s not like, ‘Ah, can we handle it?’ Right now it’s, ‘Let’s put it on them and see what they can handle and what they can’t.’ And see what we can do during game week. But I think they’ve taken on all the challenges from a playbook standpoint and throwing things on them very well in these first two weeks of camp.”
However, while it’s clear that the players have found that level of comfortability and confidence, Hallett feels like it goes both ways. With Sanders and secondary coach Archie Collins both arriving in 2018, now in their fifth seasons at the helm of Pitt’s secondary, he feels like the coaching staff is able to fully exact the secondary it wants.
“I think a couple of years ago, they were also just getting here,” Hallett said. “So, I think the more years they’ve gotten in the system, the more years they’ve gotten comfortable in the system, the more they’ve been able to implement — maybe stuff that they wanted to put in our defense. And also, we have different personnel than we did two, three years ago.”
Hallett, a redshirt senior with 36 games in the system (19 starts, including every game last season), is the field safety. He really came into his own down the stretch, picking off Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman twice in the ACC championship game to earn MVP honors, and it’s been his consistency this summer that’s impressed not only Sanders but head coach Pat Narduzzi.
“He’s the same guy every day,” Sanders said. “I think he’s a very mature young man. When he steps foot on this field, you can tell — it’s football. He’s not bringing any other baggage, anything else from the outside. He’s just focused and locked in, focused on the details, his technique, his fundamentals and just getting better each and every day.”
It wasn’t always easy for Hallett in 2021, his first season as a Day 1 starter in the secondary, but Sanders feels like Hallett has come into his own. Hallett works every day, and as he’s gotten more and more reps, he’s grown more comfortable in himself and in the defense. In fact, Hallett’s second interception of the ACC championship game came courtesy of his anticipation. He actually broke on the ball before the Wake Forest wide receiver did. How?
“Practice,” Hallett chuckled. “We work on the hot drills every day, every other day. So, I’m practicing that all the time and it really just paid off.”
Through repetition day in and day out, it almost becomes muscle memory. But it’s also come as a result of hard work. Hallett has certainly had areas where he’s emphasized this offseason, and throughout last season.
“Probably my two biggest things are my eyes, my eyes in transition, and probably just attacking the ball,” Hallett said. “I think we were second or third in interceptions last year, we’re definitely trying to be top in the nation.”
Hallett and Hill both return as last season’s starters, and while Sanders won’t say that the pair enters this season as starters, it’s almost a certainty. The duo played in all 14 games together, starting all but one game together, and that experience is key. There wasn’t a whole lot of experience entering the 2021 season, but Sanders can see the camaraderie not just between Hallett and Hill but with cornerbacks in M.J. Devonshire, Rashad Battle, Marquis Williams and A.J. Woods. It’s the key in a secondary that asks so much of each and every member.
“I think building off of last year, we can kinda build off that chemistry,” Hallett said. “Playing together for that whole year allowed us to feel our weaknesses, feel our strengths and complement each other. Now we really know each other, know, ‘Okay, I know where he’s going to be on this certain play, I know where I’m going to be on a certain play. Now we can play off each other.'”
The first chance to test that level of comfortability and camaraderie came during Saturday’s scrimmage, and while Sanders was pleased with what he saw, there are still areas to be improved — as there are at every level.
“I think Saturday you saw guys flying around,” Sanders said. “The big thing I see for us is pre-snap and post-snap. You see guys just doing a good job of communicating out there within the play as things are happening, pointing out things and knowing what’s going on.”
There’s an added emphasis on getting hands-on footballs, catching footballs to force turnovers especially, and working the angles on a football field — in getting finding the right angles when targeting the reception area and ball carrier in the run game. Hallett’s takeaway from the scrimmage is consistency. Start fast and bring that energy. It’s an energetic unit, and he wants to let that bleed into every level of the defense.
It helps when those other levels include a defensive front that’s led college football in sacks over the last three seasons and a linebacking corps with boundless athleticism. With quarterbacks always on the run, as Hallett said, it helps the secondary. But he also said that good coverage helps the defensive line in the same way. It’s a little bit of give and take.
It’s an interesting dynamic in the age of NIL taking over college football, but Sanders feels like Pitt has a group of players who are focused on football first and foremost. There are distractions every step of the way, on and off the field, but he sees a good, mature group of players with a mindset that puts the team first. It speaks to commitment when half of the team returns to the facility to study film on any given night. Hallett himself loves the behind-the-scenes work.
“I love coming out here to get better,” Hallett said. “It don’t matter who I go against, who I’m with, coming out here and working on your craft is a release. It’s my escape.”
With the highs and lows of last season, winning the ACC championship in the same season as a loss to Western Michigan, Hallett said there’s a fine line to walk in not reliving the past while still learning from what happened.
“I think it’s a happy balance of trying not to relive the past,” Hallett said. “I think from lessons like those you just kinda learn, and a lot of us were young last year coming into the season was our first time starting for a lot of us. Those were lessons that we had to go through, lessons that we had to learn, losses that we had to go through.”
With the veterans having suffered those losses, having learned from those losses, Hallett said it’ll be their jobs to make sure the younger players don’t have to do so. The future is now, the older guys in the room can be the teachers and the ultimate goal of a national championship can be pursued day by day.
And if anyone, young or old, has questions, Sanders is only a text away.