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Pitt's defense warms to challenge

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Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Pitt linebacker Shane Gordon said he can see the Panthers using as many as 20 players on defense during their opener against Florida State.

Safeties first

Safeties Jason Hendricks and Jarred Holley finished last season as Pitt's leading tacklers, but the hope is that the front seven will make more stops this season. Here are the six leading tacklers from last season:

Name Pos. Tackles

Jason Hendricks S 90

Jarred Holley* S 75

Aaron Donald DT 64

Todd Thomas# OLB 59

Eric Williams* OLB 52

Shane Gordon MLB 48

*—No longer on team

#—Listed as backup on 2013 depth chart

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, 11:16 p.m.
 

The combination of high humidity and Florida State's speed could lead Pitt's defense straight into a dark state it hopes to avoid: Exhaustion.

Fortunately, defensive coordinator Matt House decided to do something about it in the cold days of winter when he was hired. House said he needed to develop depth, and because of that, fatigue may not be a great factor in Pitt's ACC opener Monday night at Heinz Field.

“I can see playing with 20 guys on defense,” senior middle linebacker Shane Gordon said. “If guys are tired, we are going to have guys who are ready to go.”

Pitt's two-deep defensive depth chart looks like an interesting combination of seniors (six) and freshmen (eight, including redshirts). Mix in pass-rush specialist Ejuan Price at defensive end and former safeties Anthony Gonzalez and Bam Bradley at linebacker, and Pitt might have some players to counter Florida State's speed.

“We have some guys we feel can run pretty well,” coach Paul Chryst said.

Seven starters return, plus junior outside linebacker Todd Thomas, who is Gonzalez's backup after starting 13 games over the past two seasons.

The secondary has experience at cornerback — senior K'Waun Williams and sophomore Lafayette Pitts — and safety, with senior Jason Hendricks and junior Ray Vinopal. Four of their backups — freshmen Trenton Coles, Titus Howard, Terrish Webb and Jevonte Pitts — played on championship teams at Clairton and Woodland Hills.

The player who turns on the switch is senior tackle Aaron Donald, a two-time All-Big East performer who led the conference in tackles for a loss (18 12) last season. Chryst said Donald's best days might be ahead of him.

“In your senior year, you should play the best football of your career,” he said. “If we are going to be successful, he is going to play well.”

That's also true of Gordon, a senior who missed three games last season with ankle and neck injuries. Gordon finished sixth in tackles playing in the middle of the defense, and the last line of defense — safeties Jason Hendricks and Jarred Holley — led the team.

“It should be someone up front,” Gordon said. “It should be different this year.”

With seniors making up nearly half of the starting defense, Gordon said the team is better equipped for an opener than it was a year ago in a 31-17 loss to Youngstown State.

“Last year at this point, I feel like some guys still didn't know their roles or know what's going on in the playbook,” he said. “(This year), I feel like everyone from top to the bottom is locked in ready to go.

“This is my last go-round. I've been taking it more serious, just focused on what I have to do.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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