Pitt's secondary has a nice blend of returning experience, hope for the future, improvement and versatility.
The safety position boasts a great deal of experience with returning starters Jarred Holley and Jason Hendricks, as well as Andrew Taglianetti. All three players have combined for 28 career starts, with Holley leading the way with 21 of those starts. Holley also tied for the team-lead with five interceptions, on his way to all-conference honors as a sophomore. That's not all the safety position has. Brandon Ifill and Kolby Gray also have the chance to make an impact. Ifill started off the spring at corner, and could still contribute there. He worked in with the first-team for a few practices. Gray moved back to quarterback for the first three spring practices, before going back to safety where he played a valuable role as a redshirt freshman last year. Gray had the lone sack on the team that was not recorded by a defensive lineman in 2010, proving his versatility.
Five safeties might look like a logjam, but all five have the opportunity to play a big part in the defense's success. The depth at safety provides a number of different possibilities for nickel and dime packages.
As if the safety position needs anything more, the Pitt coaching staff put a great deal of emphasis in recruiting the position for the future. Florida standout Roderick Ryles will make a push to contribute as a true freshman. The safety position also adds Steve Williams to the mix. Former Michigan safety Ray Vinopal will transfer in for the fall, and will sit out the 2011 due to the NCAA transfer rule.
Despite being without returning starter Antwuan Reed, the cornerbacks had a productive spring with Buddy Jackson and K'Waun Williams working exclusively with the first group. Head coach Todd Graham said that Williams is an ideal "No. 1" corner, while Jackson shared the Conway Award on the defense with defensive lineman Tyrone Ezell for most improved player. Jackson, once again, had an impressive spring. Based on his improvement in the 2010 season and through the spring, the battle between him and Reed will make for the most closely contested battle of all the position battles in August.
Jackson knows he has his work cut out for him going up against the returning starter Reed, but there's no question his work with the first-team through all of spring gave him a nice head start. The coaching staff also likes his size and speed. If he can put it all together in his redshirt senior year, he has a chance to make an impact. There's no question all three—Reed, Jackson and Williams—will all see a considerable amount of time on the field.
Saheed Imoru brings some experience to the position as well. He should be a valuable reserve, and at least contribute on special teams. Walk-on Jeremiah Davis filled in at the other spot with the second-team. If Ifill goes back to corner, he could push for one of the backup spots, as will incoming freshmen Jason Frimpong and Lloyd Carrington. Of all the freshmen, these two players have the best shot at seeing the field early.
The cornerback position got another pleasant surprise when Michigan corner Cullen Christian—who played as a true freshman in 2010—decided this week to transfer to Pitt. Though he will have to sit out a year due to the transfer rule, the combination of him and Williams looks promising for the future, in addition to filling a huge void that will be left by the graduations of Reed, Jackson and Imoru. His playing experience as a true freshman at Michigan, combined with his ability to learn the system this season will help him get a nice jump to earn a starting spot in 2012.
The defensive line has the most depth of any group on the defense, but the secondary is not far behind. What the secondary doesn't have as opposed to the defensive line, is the ability to become even stronger depending on the addition of some freshmen, as well as the incoming transfers who will at least be able to practice with the team. Even with three senior corners, there's plenty of opportunity for some of the incoming players to come in and play a valuable role this year, still leaving the position in good shape for the future.
As a whole, the secondary will be strong in its base package. With its versatility, there are also endless possibilities for nickel and dime packages as well.