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Pitt notebook: Pair of sophomores help secondary improve

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, 8:08 p.m.
Pitt's Dane Jackson defends on a pass intended for Virginia's Andre Levrone in the second quarter Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Dane Jackson defends on a pass intended for Virginia's Andre Levrone in the second quarter Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Pitt's Dane Jackson defends on a pass intended for Virginia's Hasise Dubois in the fourth quarter Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Dane Jackson defends on a pass intended for Virginia's Hasise Dubois in the fourth quarter Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 at Heinz Field.

Improvements in Pitt's secondary have coincided with the regular presence of two sophomores — cornerback Dane Jackson and free safety Damar Hamlin — but there remains a lot of work to do.

Jackson has started the entire season and leads the team in pass breakups (eight) and interceptions (two). Hamlin has started the past three games after missing the first two, but he's fifth in tackles (36).

“I think you can certainly take Dane Jackson and say he's one of the most improved players that we had from a year ago,” coach Pat Narduzzi said.

“You look at where our corners were a year ago, and you can say that we've made some major strides in that area for sure.”

Pitt is allowing an average of 69 fewer passing yards but is still last in the ACC (269.3 per game).

Hamlin's progression can be tied to his health after missing most of his freshman season and this year's training camp with an injury.

“He feels much better,” Narduzzi said. “His attitude is much better because he gets to play.

“The product on the field, I think he can still be a lot better, too. Not that he's bad.

“We're going to see, once he gets to practice. He hasn't had a preseason camp yet. He hasn't had a spring ball yet, so he's just playing.”

Hamlin gauged his body as “200 percent better.” He also said he's feeling comfortable in the coverages.

“From the first week I played until now, I don't feel young out there at all,” he said.

Get it to Henderson

Narduzzi recognizes the need to get wide receiver Quadree Henderson more involved in the passing game, but he also doesn't want quarterback Ben DiNucci to force throws his way.

“You know, in the pass game, you can't look for a guy,” he said. “I think you get in trouble when you look for a guy. You have to read. You have to do what your quarterback coach tells you to do and read your coverage.

“But he's got to get open. We've got to get him the ball in the run game, as well, but the look has got to be what we need it to be, and then we've got to find ways to get it in his hands and make it like a punt return.

“And then he's got to make plays when he gets it. ”

Henderson is seventh in the nation in punt return average (16.1 yards), but he's caught only 13 passes for 140 yards and no touchdowns.

Shorter practices

Narduzzi said he has cut down on practice time “so we're not on our feet as long during the day.”

“Just cutting back on some of the periods. Instead of going 10 minutes of inside drill ... cut it down to seven.

“Not cutting down what we do, but just slimming down the amount of time, and if the coaches want to get more plays on, you'd better go faster.”

Star Wars Night

The North Carolina game Thursday will include a Star Wars Night promotion with the Pitt band putting on a Star Wars-themed halftime show.

Hamlin said the players will be involved through previously recorded video, but he admitted he's not a big Star Wars fan.

“My dad was, so I had to watch it a little bit,” he said. “I would just fall asleep.”

Next road game

The ACC announced Pitt's game at Virginia Tech on Nov. 18 will start at 12:20 p.m. It will be televised by WTAE-TV.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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