Pitt linebackers coach looks for leaders
Please, don’t ask Rob Harley to name the three linebackers he plans to insert in Pitt’s starting defense this season.
Even if he knows – and he probably has a preliminary idea he prefers not to share at this time — the opener against Virginia is five months away, and there’s too much time until then to lock onto three starters.
With three reliable veterans gone, there’s so much for the hopefuls to learn that Harley will teach first. Later this summer, Pitt’s linebackers coach will think about rewarding starting jobs.
For now, he’s just happy when his cell phone sounds – even when he’s home at night — with questions from an inexperienced, but increasingly inquisitive, group eager to make a good impression. Those calls tell Harley it matters to those players.
“When it becomes real for young guys, you see what they’re made of,” said Harley,” who is entering his fifth season on Pitt’s staff.
“They can taste playing time, taste maybe starting. You start seeing some guys separate from the pack with extra film work, extra drill work, extra questions in the classroom, texting late at night.”
There seems to be a sense on the team that linebackers will be faster this season. Coach Pat Narduzzi said that’s possible, but speed wasn’t the only commodity he wanted to see Saturday when Pitt held its eighth practice of the spring.
“Of course, they think they’re fast, right?” he said. “I hope they’re as smart as they are fast. Speed is one thing, but intelligence is another and doing the right things. I want to see more consistency out of those guys.
“We recruit the speed, but we coach the intelligence part of it and the knowledge. I think we do have speed. I want them to do the right thing all the time and that’s the next step.”
Competition is developing at all three linebacker positions.
Junior Elias Reynolds, 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, replaced injured Quintin Wirginis at middle linebacker for seven games last season before sitting out the Sun Bowl (coaches decision). Does that give him an edge over junior Chase Pine, who’s 15 pounds heavier?
Harley, of course, is non-committal, but he does acknowledge that Reynolds played well last season and learned some valuable lessons on the field. In only 11 games, he was fourth on the team with 49 tackles, including 3 1/2 behind the line of scrimmage.
“That was huge for him (replacing Wirginis),” Harley said. “I thought he played really well last season at times. He knows there are things he has to clean up.”
Seeing events occur on the field while he was in the middle of the defense has the potential to empower him this season, Harley said.
“`Oh, wow, that happened at North Carolina. Oh, wow, that happened against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game,’ ” Harley said. “That gives you so much power because it’s such strong knowledge for him.
“What I’d like to see now is the leadership. He never had to lead. That is where he’ll make his biggest strides.”
Pine, who also can play defensive end, and redshirt freshman Wendell Davis are competing in the middle. Pine also can play outside where he’s battling senior Saleem Brightwell for playing time.
At the other outside position — where coaches are seeking a linebacker with pass coverage skills — former safety Phil Campbell, a junior, is learning a new position while competing with sophomore Cam Bright.
“He’s an instinctive football player,” Harley said of Campbell. “He’s fast, he’s intelligent. He’s using those things right now. He’s new and there are things he’s going to slow down on.”
All those players are big and athletic enough to make the easy plays, but Harley is looking for someone to lead and set an example.
That’s something none of the current players did much of last year with departed seniors Wirginis, Seun Idowu and Elijah Zeise showing the way.
“With any youthful group in terms of experience,” Harley said, “it’s who wants to take the reins of the entire defense and lead those 11 (players).
“That’s what we are working on now, which is the best part of spring ball. We get to see who the leaders are.”
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Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .