Careers come full circle for Pitt senior ends
It would have been understandable if they had chosen to quit, to walk away from the game once they were passed on the depth chart by freshmen and sophomores.
Something made Vernon Botts and Charles Sallet stay.
Even after Botts bounced from position to position, after Sallet lost his spot in the starting lineup. Even after it appeared that they no longer fit into Pitt's plans.
Now, it's about to pay off for Pitt.
The Panthers (6-3, 2-2) are counting on the fifth-year seniors to provide much-needed depth at defensive end against Connecticut (3-5, 0-3) in a Big East Conference game Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
"We've gone kind of full circle," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "The guys I'm going to be depending on this week to make plays - Charles Sallet, Vernon Botts and, possibly, (center-guard) Chris Vangas - are guys who are upperclassmen, guys who probably a month ago probably thought it was over. Now, they're right back in the mix.
"Those guys are the ones I've been talking to this week: 'We've got three games left. How do you want to finish it out?' There's a lot of storylines."
Now that injuries have sidelined two of Pitt's starting defensive ends, Doug Fulmer and Chris McKillop, the Panthers have resorted to shuffling the line for depth.
Tackles Botts and Gus Mustakas are capable of shifting outside, while Sallet is working his way back into the rotation. It's fair to say that Pitt has come to a point where defensive linemen need no official designation.
They are just that: defensive linemen.
"That's awfully accurate," Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said, "and I trust it's true with a lot of football teams around the country right now, that injuries are taking their toll. It seems we've had our fair share of guys that have been lost for the season on both sides of the line.
"We've got guys that are doing a nice job of learning multiple positions, and that's not an easy task."
That pretty much sums up the career of Botts, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound fifth-year senior from Easthampton, N.J., whom the Panthers are holding up as an example of perseverance paying off. Botts has played every position on the defensive line and spent a season at tight end before moving back inside this season. Now, he's moving again, to end.
"He gets a little frustrated sometimes because he's playing nose guard, dime nose guard, a three-technique and now he's playing end on both sides," Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said. "There's a lot of things going on for him. Now that he's settled in at end, it's been easier for him. He's the kind you want to hire someday because he's versatile, he's smart, he's hard-working and he's a team player. When things weren't going his way, he never pouted. Hopefully, he gets a chance.
"I'd love to see Vernon get a big play this week."
Botts had three tackles last week against South Florida, including one for no gain on a third down to force a punt. He is hoping that concentrating on one position, especially one within his comfort zone, will lead to making plays. The challenge comes with having to change his mentality, from holding the gaps at tackle to outside containment at end.
"Right now, they have me knowing every position on the defensive line," Botts said, "so that gets a little tough, a little confusing. But it's nothing I couldn't handle."
The same goes for 6-foot, 240-pound Sallet, who started nine games last season and 18 in his career at right end. He lost his starting job to Fulmer in training camp and hasn't been in the rotation since being sidelined by turf toe.
Freshman McKenzie Mathews is expected to start at right end. The speedy but undersized Sallet should back him up, especially in pass-rush situations.
"When you're a football coach, you know you're going to have a chance for injuries," Gattuso said, "and we tell them every day - and it's a cliche, but it's true - that you've got to be ready when your number is called."
Pitt owes some gratitude to Botts and Sallet for remaining around because their presence is allowing the Panthers to preserve the redshirt status of freshmen ends Greg Romeus and Tyler Tkach.
"Injuries are always a tough thing to deal with, when they hit unexpectedly, especially," Botts said. "We're all equipped to step up. Any given week, somebody can step up and be that factor that can change the game."
Lost and found
After injuries to starting defensive ends, Pitt is turning to seldom-used fifth-year seniors Vernon Botts and Charles Sallet to provide depth. Here is a comparison of their statistics from last season to this season: