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Defensive Touchdowns Have Become the Expectation for Pitt’s Secondary

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Marquis Williams waited his turn. He didn’t play a lot as a freshman in 2018, so he redshirted. He played a bit more the next season, but he had to wait until his third season in the program to make his first start.

Williams had to sit behind future NFL players in Jason Pinnock, Damar Hamlin, Dane Jackson and Damarri Mathis, along with XFL star Paris Ford, but he bided his time and strived to make sure his efforts in the film room, on the practice field and on special teams didn’t go unnoticed.

It took time, a lot of time, before he entered the season as an everyday starter at cornerback. And when Williams shares his wisdom with his fellow cornerbacks, he preaches the importance of patience and keeping your nose to the grindstone.

“We’re always preaching to the young guys like, ‘You never know when your time is gonna be.’ Like me, I know I’m the bell cow in my group, I always preach to them, ‘It took me three years to actually start.’ So, it’s all about timing, it’s always about waiting on your time and when your time is presented, you just take full advantage of it,” Williams said Tuesday.

Williams said his message to his fellow corners is that it’s imperative to make plays that ensure the coaching staff can’t take you off the field. It’s a message he preaches, but he backed it up against Western Michigan Saturday.

In the first quarter against Western Michigan, holding a 3-0 lead with Nate Yarnell making his first college appearance at quarterback, WMU’s offense trotted out onto the field toward the end of the opening frame. And Williams and Erick Hallett quickly realized what play the Broncos were about to run. It wouldn’t have been possible without heavy preparation from Randy Bates, Archie Collins and Cory Sanders.

WMU ran an exact play Williams saw on tape, and in last season’s game, and Williams recognized it. It was a play call that moved WMU’s Corey Crooms across the offense to line up on the hashes in the slot. Williams knew what was happening, communicated with Hallett — who saw it too — and it was easy to pick off and return 22 yards for a touchdown.

“Pre-snap, (WMU was) moving Crooms to the slot a lot of the times, and when they put him on the hash, he scoots in a little bit,” Williams said. “It was a high alert. It was the next series on first down. I knew it was coming, Erick Hallett knew it was coming, so we were ready for it.”

The pick-six, the first of Williams’ career and his fourth career interception, pushed Pitt’s lead to 10 points. It was the sixth Pitt pick-six since the beginning of last season and the fourth time in the last five games dating back to last season that Pitt scored a defensive touchdown. It’s become the standard.

“It’s expected,” Collins said Wednesday. “In every one of our drills, we’ll always have a finish. So, we’re always having simulated individual interceptions to go finish with a touchdown.”

It has translated over the years. Pitt defensive backs expect to find the end zone once the ball is in their hands. Williams has done it. As have Hallett, Brandon Hill and M.J. Devonshire. And A.J. Woods got damn close, returning a Sam Hartman interception 73 yards to set up inside the 5-yard line in the ACC championship game last season.

The pick-six itself, an art that Pitt has seemingly mastered over the last two seasons, has an inexact science behind it. There are three phases, according to Collins. The first phase, the second phase and the contested catch phase. All three need to be combined, and then the real fun begins in returning the football back to the end zone. It’s somewhat luck and somewhat preparation.

“If it’s luck, I love luck,” Collins laughed. “We practice ball drills a lot, over the years you’ve seen us get interceptions. So, we’re going to continue that based on how we practice, what we practice.”

It’s a lot of preparation, knowing what to expect based on what the opponent is showing offensively, and technique, positioning oneself properly and finding the football at its highest point in coverage. Williams knew a defensive touchdown against WMU would be important, but as Collins said, it’s become something Pitt’s defense — the secondary especially — has come to expect.

“It’s a blessing to be able to score on defense,” Williams said. “Everybody in the country’s not scoring on defense; it’s a Pitt type of defense. We want to score on defense, we want to stop the run, we want to stop the pass. So, whatever we can do to accomplish that, we will do it.”

Pitt’s defense has become accustomed to competition. Both in the individual rooms on the defense and outside. Williams said that the defense never wants to go into a game where there isn’t competition — where there isn’t adversity. There’s a lot of adversity in the world, a lot of adversity on the football field, and it builds a team that’s able to compete.

“Each week you prepare for a team, you prepare for what you’re going to do, but not every team does exactly what you’ve seen or what you’ve been practicing. So, like coach Bates says, you gotta adapt to it.”

But while defensive touchdowns have become the standard, what’s expected of a Pitt defense in every game, it’s not the end all, be all. Collins wants defensive touchdowns from his defensive backs, but he wants complete performances more than anything. That’s the goal of the secondary. To contest catches and take the ball away, to stop plays before they happen, and against WMU, he saw some progress. It’s a process. And Williams, while serving as the “bell cow” in the secondary, has been helping bring the other cornerbacks along.

Williams is the wily veteran in the cornerback’s room, according to Collins. That’s who he is. He wants to compete every single play, and while he couldn’t finish the game against WMU, he certainly made an impact until the final whistle. He knows what’s expected from his own experience and film room work, and as he patrolled the sideline in the second half against WMU, he coached up his teammates.

It’s exactly the kind of leadership and development that Collins has preached to every defensive back that’s come through the system since he’s served as the secondary coach.

“We always talk about the process, and we’ve been lucky enough to have good depth and a lot of great talent,” Collins said. “But guys fought each and every year as freshman going into their sophomore year to junior year and all the way to senior year. I think guys buy into the process, understanding that it will be their time one day as long as they continue to practice hard, play with a lot of toughness, give a lot of effort and have a dawg attitude when they come to practice.”

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back M.J. Devonshire (12) September 1, 2022 David Hague PSN

While the secondary features Hallett and Hill at safety and Williams, Devonshire, Woods and Rashad Battle at cornerback, the younger players have been competing through every practice to see the field.

P.J. O’Brien and Javon McIntyre have seen the field in limited roles this season, and Khalil Anderson, Stephon Hall and Ryland Gandy aren’t far behind. If the progression continues every day through practice, their days of riding the pine won’t continue — regardless of opponent.

“As long as they practice hard,” Collins said. “They’ve gotta have really good reps in practice and be able to show that they belong on the field. As soon as they can show that, putting it together on the field, I don’t care what game it is.”

It’s one of the toughest positions to play at Pitt, lining up all alone in the secondary, but it’s also a room of players with the expectation to make an impact on every play — and the expectation to score a defensive touchdown every game.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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