Perhaps the toughest position battle heading into training camp this year will be between Antwuan Reed and Buddy Jackson at corner. K'Waun Williams solidified himself as a No. 1 corner in the spring according to co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. The great thing for Jackson, is that even if he loses out on the starting corner position, he looks like he's found a home as a kickoff return specialist.
On his very first return of spring practice, Jackson returned a kick 91 yards for a score. He did the same to open the scoring for the spring game. If he can do this in games, Pitt will help itself dramatically from 2010, where starting field position was a problem (average start; Pitt 23). Jackson was a co-recipient—alongside defensive tackle Tyrone Ezell—as one of the defense's two most improved players. Jackson has always had a good spring. The difference between Jackson now and before, is that he gradually made more plays on special teams (punt coverage) as the season went on. If he can take that kind of playmaking experience, combine it with the work he put in during spring, he has a chance to set himself up for having a good training camp.
His challenge is not to beat out an all-league caliber type of player, but it's still an incumbent starter in Reed. Reed's 2010 season can be explained in four pass interference calls at USF. While a couple of them were questionable, the fact that Skip Holtz' gameplan was devised that day to go after Reed is a question for concern. Reed managed the position, but corners are put on the field to make plays. In fact, whoever wins the battle between Reed and Jackson must do that—step up and make plays. The goal of the defense before may have been to just play it safe. This new regime wants to be more opportunistic, specifically in forcing turnovers. A big part of that starts with the corners playing more aggressive.
Settling in as backups at corner will be Saheed Imoru, another senior, and incoming freshmen Jason Frimpong and Lloyd Carrington. While there's ample opportunity for some of the freshmen linebacker to contribute as early as this year, no other freshmen have a shorter path to the field than these two players. It's almost a guarantee that one of them will be on the two-deep for the opener against Buffalo.
The safety position will still be in good shape, despite the loss of two key components from a year ago. The biggest loss is replacing three-year starter, and two-time all-conference player Dom DeCicco. The safety position also lost Kolby Gray, who left the program shortly after the schoolyear ended.
It still leaves three players who have started games for the Panthers—Jarred Holley, Jason Hendricks and Andrew Taglianetti. Holley, no question, will be a starter and gives the Panthers a ball hawk in the defensive backfield. Hendricks also has that nose for the ball, but he can be brought closer to the line and is a sure tackler as well. Taglianetti is also a sure tackler, and had one of the best games of his career against Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl. All three players will see the field a lot.
Brandon Ifill will be able to add something to the position, after redshirting in his true freshman season. Ifill started off the spring at corner, before moving to be a backup at safety. If he stays at safety, the Panthers have four solid safeties—not including incoming freshmen Roderick Ryles and Stephen Williams. Ryles is one of the Panthers' most heavily recruited players, and could at least be in the mix for a backup spot.
There's a lot of experience returning to the defensive backfield this season. There's also room for improvement. Reed and Jackson have to show who's improved the most to earn a starting spot. Hendricks will have to hold off a push from Taglianetti for a starting spot. Ifill will have to hold off one of the true freshmen for a backup spot.
There's going to be some good competition at all the secondary positions in training camp. That competition is going to prove how much of a strength or liability the position will be in 2011.
2011 PRESEASON DEPTH CHART
Antwuan Reed/Buddy Jackson
SENIORS – Antwuan Reed, Buddy Jackson, Saheed Imoru
JUNIORS – Jarred Holley, Andrew Taglianetti, Jeremiah Davis
SOPHOMORES – Jason Hendricks, K'Waun Williams
FRESHMEN – Brandon Ifill, Roderick Ryles, Stephen Williams