As spring football winds down over the next week, the evaluations of where a lot of the defensive players begins to wind down. A lot of key players have been injured. Brandon Lindsey, Greg Williams and Antwuan Reed have been out all spring. Others such as Max Gruder have been out for the last two weeks. Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson has not panicked. In fact, he says this is what spring is all about.
"You get all worked up over injuries in the spring," Patterson said. "I don't mind it so much because you're building depth especially when you look at the young men we have that are injured. You know what they're able to do physically. They're getting all the mental work of learning the schemes."
One area that hasn't been hit with the injuries too much is the defensive line. Everyone that Patterson has tried up front has not only been healthy through the spring, but has also played well. It's given him the liberty to try different players in different alignments. Myles Caragein is a lock for the nose, which is no real surprise. Chas Alecxih can play in either the three technique (over the guard) or a five technique (over the tackle). He liked what he saw of Tyrone Ezell filling in with the first-team last Thursday, when Caragein had to sit out of full contact with a sore knee. He's also been willing to test players such as Aaron Donald in a five technique, as well as Justin Hargrove.
One thing that won't change from recent years, is that Pitt continues to be deep up front. There are four players right there who have the ability to start. Patterson is also pleased with the likes of T.J. Clemmings and Khaynin Mosley-Smith, and possibly Shayne Hale at the five technique as well.
"You take Myles and Chas, and you have Donald and KK Mosley-Smith," Patterson said. "That's four interior guys that are as good as there are. I'm very excited about those guys. Ezell comes on and gets better and better. That's five guys inside. The other guys, Hargrove is rock solid. There's a guy we hardly talk about, because he's just solid. I feel very good about Hargrove. Clemmings, he's a big guy—6-6, 285 pounds, as well as Shayne Hale. Shayne Hale is a young man we've moved over to Panther. He has done some really good things the last couple of weeks."
Feeling comfortable about what's going on in the interior, Patterson feels he still has to develop some pressure from the edge. It's not that Pitt doesn't have the guys to produce from the edge. It's a matter of being hit with some injuries a little more with guys like Greg Williams and Lindsey out this spring, combined with the idea of trying players such as Bryan Murphy, Hale and Carl Fleming at that Panther position. In talking to Patterson, it sounds like there's an eagerness to do even more experimenting at the perimeter positions.
"We're trying to develop those guys on the edge," Patterson said. "Brandon Lindsey played five (technique) all of last year, so he could be a five. He could also be a Panther. I think Greg Williams could be a Panther. We've talked about Murphy all spring long. I really feel good. That gives us three solid edge guys."
Patterson even admits getting carried away last week, trying to get ahead and implement some new schemes last week, based on the pace at which the players up front have adjusted. He says this week is a good week, and possibly the rest of spring ball, is a good chance to take a step back and go back to basics.
"We threw so much at them," Patterson said. "After the scrimmage, we probably had more busted assignments in the scrimmage on Saturday than we had the entire spring. What we did, we kind of reeled it back in this week; go right back to the fundamentals to the corps of our defense."
In the secondary, while the corner position has been tested a little by Reed having to sit out the spring, he's been pleased with the play of K'Waun Williams and Buddy Jackson. There's no switching around at corner, as he feels that Williams is an ideal boundary corner, and Jackson an ideal field corner.
"(Williams) is a great cover (corner), he's a great tackler, he's a big, strong, physical corner, we're very, very excited about him," Patterson said. "It's going to be challenging in fall camp. We got some competition. We have Antwuan Reed. We have Buddy Jackson, and we have K'Waun Williams, so there's going to be some competition. We're going to see who's on that field, and when it's third down, in situational defense, we'll get all three of them out there."
At safety, there hasn't been too many injuries, but the position has gotten even deeper this spring. The spring started out with Jarred Holley, Jason Hendricks and Andrew Taglianetti—three players who have started games in their Pitt careers. Kolby Gray started off the spring moving back to quarterback, but moved back to safety after the first week of practice. Brandon Ifill, a redshirt freshman, started off at corner and could still be able to be counted on to provide depth at safety. Both of those players have been able to work their way into the mix at safety. Ifill has even taken some reps with the first group at safety for a couple of practices.
"Kolby Gray is an ideal (bandit safety)," Patterson said. "He's got the physical toughness. He also has the skillset to be a free safety. He can play free or bandit safety. He's really come on and provided a lot of depth with Holley and Hendricks at that position. Right now, we have Hendricks at the bandit position. We have Holley at free safety."