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Pitt cornerback Pitts sets tone during spring drills

Jerry DiPaola
| Tuesday, March 18, 2014, 10:33 p.m.
Pitt's Lafayette Pitts breaks up a first-quarter pass intended for North Carolina's Bug Howard on Saturday Nov. 16, 2013, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Lafayette Pitts breaks up a first-quarter pass intended for North Carolina's Bug Howard on Saturday Nov. 16, 2013, at Heinz Field.

Pitt defensive coordinator Matt House called it a “pursuit drill,” with all 11 players chasing the ball carrier over 50 yards of turf. The objective: never give up, even when the task appears hopeless.

During the second day of spring drills Tuesday — still without pads — rising junior cornerback Lafayette Pitts set the tone.

Later, House enjoyed talking about it.

“It's 50 yards, but he had to run 80 yards two times in a row (coming from the opposite side),” House said. “Unbelievable effort, unbelievable finish, good football position when he finished.”

With only 19 seniors and juniors stepping into prominent roles this season, Pitts' effort was not taken lightly. Not only do the Panthers need production from their older players, but leadership is important on what coach Paul Chryst calls “a young team.”

“Really and truly,” House said, “(Pitts' effort) is leadership to me. He didn't buck the second time. The second time was picture perfect, like the first time.”

Pitts will be a three-year starter this season, but his production fell off from his redshirt freshman season in 2012: nine pass breakups to four and one interception to none.

“I am really excited about Lafayette's approach this year,” House said. “He didn't necessarily accomplish all the things he wanted to accomplish last year, and I think he's hungry and he's working hard.”

House enters his second year as coordinator after losing six starters from a defense that was largely responsible for at least three of Pitt's seven victories: wins over Virginia, Notre Dame and Syracuse.

With All-American tackle Aaron Donald gone, the challenge falls to others to ensure Pitt can carry on without him.

“Just because one guy left doesn't mean the whole defensive line is going to fall apart,” junior tackle Darryl Render said.

“We all have to piggyback off each other to get better,” junior linebacker Nicholas Grigsby said.

Render and Grigsby are former reserves whose roles will increase. Render and K.K. Mosley-Smith will man the tackle spots. Grigsby, a designated pass rusher in many packages, will be important because of the proliferation of throwing offenses on Pitt's schedule.

Then, there's senior safety Ray Vinopal, whose two interceptions against Notre Dame last season were the biggest defensive plays not credited to Donald.

“He's a worker,” House said. “That's the one thing you can't teach. He's a guy who really likes football, likes to watch film, likes to study. You get a guy who's a senior doing that, and it naturally brings some of those younger guys around.”

Pitt lost safety Jason Hendricks and cornerback K'Waun Williams, but House counted seven defensive backs who have gained experience through on-the-job training, including Titus Howard, Terrish Webb, Trenton Coles, Jahmahl Pardner and Reggie Mitchell (when he was at Wisconsin). That's a result of Chryst's directive to his coaches to get more players involved.

“There is a difference between a freshman who is going to be a sophomore who never played before, compared to a freshman who has actually been on the field,” he said.

“Titus Howard has lined up against Florida State, the national champion. The first time he walks on the grass in a game situation this fall won't be the first time he's been on the field with the lights on.”

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

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