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Pitt backups getting chances

| Monday, Sept. 20, 2010

The glimmer is hard to see, but there may be a silver lining to Pitt's recent tough luck.

Two weeks into the season, the Panthers' defense had already lost, to some extent, an All-America end, a promising middle linebacker, an all-Big East strong safety and the team's primary nickel back due to injury or off-the-field issues.

But the absence of defensive end Greg Romeus (back), middle linebacker Dan Mason (demoted) and defensive backs Dom DeCicco (hamstring) and Andrew Taglianetti (groin) has provided unexpected playing time for a bunch of reserves.

"If we handle this thing right and we get some people back," defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said, "it will give us some experience for other packages down the road."

Among those taking advantage of the unforeseen lineup shuffling are defensive ends Brandon Lindsey and T.J. Clemmings, linebacker Tristan Roberts, safeties Jason Hendricks and Kolby Gray and cornerbacks K'Waun Williams and Buddy Jackson. Veteran defensive ends Nate Nix and Justin Hargrove, part of the group trying to replace Romeus, will see their reps increase.

All of those players will have another important role Thursday night at 7:30 when the Panthers (1-1) welcome No. 17 Miami (1-1) at Heinz Field for a nationally televised game (ESPN).

"Opportunities come in strange ways," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "The stories are endless. When young men decide to come here to Pitt, they all believe, and we believe, that they are good enough to play. Sometimes they are thrown into the mix before we would like them to be in there."

The newcomers already are making an impact. Lindsey, a redshirt junior starting for Romeus, had two sacks against New Hampshire, while Hendricks, a redshirt freshman starting for DeCicco, had five tackles and continues to draw praise from his coaches.

The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Lindsey will start again in place of Romeus, who is out at least six weeks after having back surgery Thursday. Clemmings (6-6, 280), one of the top recruits of the Wannstedt era, will learn on the fly rather than being redshirted.

DeCicco and Taglinetti both returned to practice last week and could be available for the Miami game. Their absence allowed Hendricks to flourish and gave a glimpse of Gray, the converted former standout Texas prep quarterback.

Roberts will get his first career start as part of the linebacker shake-up resulting from Mason's demotion. Mason lost his starting job after being in the same car as suspended running back Jason Douglas during the latter's hit-and-run arrest on the South Side last week.

"We're getting some guys involved in the game that, hopefully, down the road are going to help us," Bennett said.

Lindsey is facing the biggest task, filling the spot held by Romeus, the 2009 Big East co-Defensive Player of the Year. Lindsey is undersized, but the Aliquippa product makes up for it with quickness and strength.

Meanwhile, the Panthers' defense will gain depth and experience when, or if, they get back to full strength.

"By the end of the year," defensive line Greg Gattuso said, "we will be stronger."

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