Pitt Football: Panthers' defense again has teeth
Sunday, August 08, 2010
By Paul Zeise, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pitt lost five starters from a defensive unit that ranked second in the Big East Conference in scoring (19.8 ppg), third in rushing yards allowed, first in red-zone defense and second in total defense. And the Panthers led Division I-A teams in sacks.

Four of the five starters who are not returning were all-conference players, including Big East co-defensive player of the year, defensive tackle Mick Williams. The team also is without an important cog in its nickel and dime packages -- hybrid linebacker/safety Elijah Fields, who was dismissed from the team in the spring for disciplinary reasons.

Yet despite the losses and questions about the depth along the defensive line, the defense has a chance to improve.

The Panthers have a tandem of defensive ends considered by some to be the best in Division I-A, an experienced secondary and a linebacker group anchored by a sophomore, Dan Mason, who coaches believe is destined to become a great one.

"We lost a couple of key starters last year for sure," senior safety Dom DeCicco said. "But a lot of guys got valuable experience last year, so they are ready to play this year. It just feels like we have so much more experience across the board even though we are still kind of young. Everyone has played and everyone knows the defense, so it is just a matter of everyone continuing to improve."

Senior defensive end Greg Romeus added, "I definitely think we'll be better this year because I think this is the fastest defense I've been on and the guys stepping into starting roles have all played, so even though they are first-year starters, they are experienced."

Romeus said duplicating last year's sack total could be tough, but it is certainly attainable given the defensive line's ability to pressure the passer without help.

If the defense is going to live up to this billing, however, there is no question that Mason, a Penn Hills High School graduate, will have to take a huge step forward and become a dominant player.

Mason started three games last season -- two in the middle and one at weakside linebacker -- and while he had some flashes of brilliance, he also showed his inexperience. He appeared in all 13 games and played very well in the Panthers' Meineke Bowl win against North Carolina.

Romeus expects Mason to become a big-time player.

"Dan Mason is one of the toughest players I've ever seen," Romeus said. "He is smart and he is aggressive and what I really like is that he does his homework. I am not at all worried about him."

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt added, "Dan Mason is going to be a playmaker."

While the Panthers appear to be set at six of their front seven spots, one area of concern is the strongside linebacker spot where redshirt junior Greg Williams returns and has started 21 games the past two seasons.

Williams' inconsistency might cost him a spot in the starting lineup. He has fallen behind Tristan Roberts on the depth chart.

While the linebackers still need some sorting out, the secondary is loaded with experienced players.

Last year, the secondary struggled with consistency and was lit up a few times, but DeCicco expects much better days ahead.

"Everybody is healthy now," DeCicco said. "Now we have so many players back who have proven themselves that we can use a lot of different packages. So I definitely expect the secondary to be better. We just have more experience at safety and we have young talented players at the corners, so we should take some strides forward."

Wannstedt, as is usually the case, is happy that his players are confident, but he takes a more cautious, conservative approach to making predictions about just how good they can be.

"It could be [a better defense]. Every year you'd like to think that," Wannstedt said Saturday. "And as players, they should be thinking that, so I like their attitude. But we will see. After we put the pads on we have that first scrimmage. I think we are going to have better depth at certain positions than people think and I believe in our guys and some of these young players who haven't done much have to step up and seize the opportunity, much like last year."
Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.

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