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Competition to snag Pitt DB positions heats up

| Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 11:30 p.m.

Pitt's new secondary coach walked off the field toward a reporter after a recent practice, but his first words had nothing to do with crucial position fights at cornerback and safety.

But they spoke to how hard Troy Douglas is working with young players.

“Coach Douglas has a bad back,” he said, trying to smile through the pain.

Douglas is one of Pitt's most active coaches in this spring of transition, leading defensive backs through drills that emphasize turning the ball back to the offense. Players who don't “high-point” the football (catch it at its highest point) are quickly reprimanded.

A 26-year collegiate coaching veteran, Douglas is Pitt's first full-time secondary coach since Matt House was promoted to coordinator before last season. House (safeties) and graduate assistant Hank Poteat (cornerbacks) split the duties in 2013.

Douglas' unit includes returning starters Ray Vinopal at safety and Lafayette Pitts at cornerback, but graduating seniors Jason Hendricks and K'Waun Williams left vacancies at two other spots.

In the midst of the cornerback competition are three sophomores: Jahmahl Pardner and Clairton graduates Trenton Coles and Titus Howard. At safety, Clairton product Terrish Webb is competing with Ryan Lewis, Jevonte Pitts and Reggie Mitchell. Pitts is Lafayette's cousin and a fellow Woodland Hills grad; Mitchell transferred from Wisconsin after graduating from Shady Side Academy.

Coles, Howard and Webb played key roles last season as backups; the others have even less experience.

“They're a little confused on the checks and all the adjustments, and all the motions and shifts the offense is giving us,” Douglas said. “We'll get there. We have to keep working them and getting them better.”

Truth be told, Douglas was speaking of the group as a whole. The playing time earned by Coles, Howard and Webb gives them a slight edge in the spring, when impressions are made but jobs not necessarily won.

“Now, I know what to expect when I'm on the field, playing against these older guys,” said Howard, who started two games last season. “It's coming easier to me because I was in the process last year.”

Coles and Howard are enjoying their man-on-man competition. As Coles said, “I've been playing football with him since we were 5 years old.”

A state sprint champion at Clairton, Coles arrived at Pitt in 2012 carrying only 155 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. He's now at 175 after two years of “lifting and eating right,” he said.

Vinopal, who is entering his fourth season at Pitt after transferring from Michigan, is the leader.

“Ray's so smart, he's like a coach on the field. I'm learning from Ray,” said Douglas, who spent the past two seasons at Iowa State.

Vinopal said players are pushing each other.

“We definitely have some leaders, guys who aren't afraid to get on people they think are slacking,” he said.

“That's a good culture to have because without competition and guys pressuring you, people are just going to do the minimum and no one's been doing the minimum, I guarantee you that.”

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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