Aggressiveness a focal point for new-look Pitt defense
Pitt's players and coaches always have preached discipline on defense.
Stay in your gap. Don't try to do the other guy's job. Taking risks can compromise the structure of the defense.
Sounds nice and safe, right?
But after last season when Pitt finished between 10th and 13th in the ACC in five important categories — interceptions, sacks, passing and total yards and tackles for a loss — new defensive coordinator Randy Bates and coach Pat Narduzzi decided a change was in order.
Taking an occasional risk in which every consequence is considered isn't always a bad idea.
“It's been a process because it's a little different,” Bates said Thursday after the 14th practice of the spring. “But my mentality is if you go take a shot, you'll make the play. And if you don't, that's what the other 10 guys are for.
“We don't grade the guys on missed tackles. A lot of people do. We grade them on making plays and tackles for a loss and going and taking a shot.”
Sophomore defensive end Rashad Weaver, who recorded six tackles for loss and three sacks despite making only five starts last season, likes Bates' style.
“Before, it was don't try to do other stuff because you'll make bigger problems,” he said. “Now, I know different types of actions have different consequences, and I've learned how to fix them. They trust me to do that and make plays. You have a little more freedom.”
Weaver caught the attention of teammates this spring, and he became the first non-quarterback selected when players drafted teams for the Blue-Gold game Saturday at Heinz Field. With that trust comes responsibility, he said.
“I take that as a compliment,” he said. “I have to just prove it on Saturday and make sure my pick was worth it.”
The defensive end position has been one of the most discussed this spring, thanks to Weaver and Dewayne Hendrix and two others — Patrick Jones II and James Folston Jr. — who have earned more playing time.
Hendrix, a senior, will be a player to watch Saturday. He has been at Pitt since 2015 after transferring from Tennessee and has struggled with injuries. As spring practice was ending this week, he said, “This is the healthiest I ever felt in my life, knock on wood.”
Last season, Hendrix played in a career high 11 games with three sacks. He said he has dropped from 273 to 262 pounds while adding muscle.
Junior defensive tackle Amir Watts said linemen can be more creative, too, and he's not just talking about his proposed sack dances.
“We don't have to stay in our gaps as much,” he said. “It's more attack style. If I'm stuck on a double team, I'm pretty sure one of the linebackers is flying.”
Linebackers could be the most crucial elements in Bates' defense, especially the four competing for three starting spots: seniors Quintin Wirginis, Oluwaseun Idowu and Elijah Zeise and junior Saleem Brightwell.
Bates and line coach Charlie Partridge would discourage the front four from taking chances if the linebackers didn't know how to clean up the mess.
“They're letting us go up front, and they're (linebackers) going to fix our mistakes,” Hendrix said. “That's what we've been working on this spring, taking risks.”
The leader of the linebackers appears to be Wirginis, who missed last season with a three-game suspension and an injury. This year, he has seized a leadership role and become a fixture at middle linebacker.
“It starts with Quintin Wirginis,” Narduzzi said. “He's just a difference maker.”
Brightwell started all 12 games in the middle last season, but the position belongs to Wirginis for now.
“I love Saleem Brightwell,” Narduzzi said. “Saleem is going to be another good linebacker for us. But Saleem is fighting right now to be a one (starter).
“Wirginis is a different guy. He's special. He can play at the next level. If he stays healthy, which has been a little bit of a problem, he can be really special inside.”