Through 15 spring practices and a week-and-a-half of training camp, Pitt's defense is starting to take shape. Their transition back to a 4-3 scheme has been a smooth one. This might come as no surprise to Pitt fans. After all, the veterans on this defense are accustomed to a 4-3 system, having played in one for the majority of their careers. However, this defense is poised to have a different look than those of years past.
It all starts with personnel. The hallmark of Pitt defenses in recent years has been talent and depth on the defensive line. This year's defense is essentially the inverse, with depth and talent stockpiled in the secondary, particularly at the safety spot. There's certainly talent up front, don't get me wrong. Aaron Donald would easily start and stand out on any of the defensive lines of the last five years. (Could you imagine a defensive line with Greg Romeus, Aaron Donald, Mick Williams and Jabaal Sheard? Wow.) Nevertheless, defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable has clearly been dealt a different deck of cards.
Let's first look at the secondary. There are four legitimate starters at safety - Jarred Holley, Jason Hendricks, Andrew Taglianetti and Ray Vinopal. This group will anchor Pitt's defense. Hendricks and Holley are great "center fielders" - they have great vision, they are rangy and each has a keen ability to break on the football. Vinopal and Taglianetti are more physical, offering great run support and good underneath coverage skills. Together, this safety unit is as good as any you will find in college football.
What the corner position lacks in experience, it makes up for in talent. K'Waun Williams is a seasoned vet, starting 14 consecutive games and is the leader of the group. Coming off a redshirt year, Lafayette Pitts has had an outstanding training camp, seemingly seizing the spot opposite Williams. Cullen Christian and Lloyd Carrington will provide excellent competition and depth at both spots. All of Pitt's corners have good height, excellent cover skills and are solid tacklers. Each of them has shown they are capable, and enjoy being in one-on-one coverage situations. "Man (to man) is fun," said Pitts. "You get to compete, get up in the receiver's face."
The ability and willingness to put corners and safeties in one-on-one situations will allow this defense to do different things with their front seven, ultimately taking advantage of their strengths and improving their weaknesses. The Panthers have a relatively young, but extremely athletic corps of linebackers. Bringing a safety like Taglianetti or Vinopal down to help in run support will help those young linebackers and support a defensive line that is somewhat short on depth. It will also allow them to blitz those athletic linebackers more frequently, with less fear of getting beat on the perimeter. With the departure of Chas Alecxih and Brandon Lindsey, the Panthers will need to utilize the pass rushing abilities of linebackers like Todd Thomas and Shane Gordon. Doing so will also lessen the chances of Aaron Donald getting double teamed. An offense only has so many blockers, so if they decide to double team him at all costs, they'll likely let someone go free.
Pitt defenses of old were so good up front that they didn't need to blitz or commit an eight man to the box. They could get after the quarterback and stop the run sufficiently with their front four and an experienced group of linebackers. That enabled them to play more zone coverage in the secondary. This year's defense sets up differently. Their strength is in the secondary. They have young, athletic linebackers and their defensive line is good but lacks depth. The recipe is a little bit different. Still, I believe this group has a chance to be every bit as good as Pitt's recent strong defenses. The differences in the look and feel, however, will be evident.
Pat Bostick: A Different Look
Former Pitt quarterback and current Panther radio analyst, Pat Bostick, will offer a weekly column on Pitt Live Wire throughout the football season. This week, Pat gives us insight on the changing look of Pitt's 4-3 defense.
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