There were a few more defensive highlights than we've seen from Pitt. One of them was the play of redshirt freshman linebacker Todd Thomas.
Thomas finished the game with six tackles, a team-best 1.5 tackles for losses a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. In fact, aside from the tackle numbers, his two biggest plays on Saturday were the hurry and the pass breakup. He came through on a blitz against Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees. Thomas chased Rees out of the pocket, and timed up a hit on the quarterback perfectly. He got to him just as he released the ball, but also not too late where he could have been penalized. Head coach Todd Graham had a pretty good explanation on why Thomas can make a play like that.
"He's a very imposing guy out there as a strong safety/outside linebacker," Graham said. "Guys struggle with getting off the ball with him out there."
Even though it was his best game yet, it looked like on the field that Thomas was lined up in a multitude of positions. Thomas confirmed that, saying that he expects to line up anywhere. Interestingly, with more responsibility, he says he feels even more comfortable.
"Basically, on defense, I play every position on defense," Thomas said. "It doesn't matter what situation—third-and-ten, second-and-nine, first-and-ten—I'm just everywhere on the field. I really don't have a position—I just stand around and play every position."
It's possible when teams come in to play Pitt, he will get a lot of attention. He expects to be that marked man that teams gameplan around, but not right now.
"Hopefully, in the future, I am," Thomas added. "Right now, people probably don't know who I am. I'm just trying to make the team better, and make a statement."
It was a rough outing for Thomas the previous week at Iowa, where Hawkeye quarterback James Vandenberg targeted Thomas in coverage several times, including one of his three fourth-quarter touchdown passes. That Iowa game marked Thomas' first-career start. Despite a sub-par performance, head coach Todd Graham kept Thomas in the starting lineup for the Notre Dame game. Thomas responded.
"Todd Thomas has done very well, he's getting better every day and each week," Graham said. "He is progressing and learning every day like any freshman should be doing. As he gets more comfortable and has a better mastery of what he is doing then he will become faster and make more plays."
On the pass deflection, it's a play that should have been an interception. The defense has been hoping to force more turnovers on a week-by-week basis. After finishing the Notre Dame game with a +2, they can turn their focus on turning pass deflections into interceptions; quarterback hurries into sacks. Thomas' pursuit is at least putting him in good position. Now, he just needs to start finishing these plays—a common theme for the defense.
"He's kind of going for the hit instead of going for the ball," Graham said.
Thomas—who referred to Graham as his position coach—said almost the exact same thing.
"Against Notre Dame, I was at safety, and I was feeling comfortable, but I was making sure they didn't catch the ball," Thomas said, referring to his near-interception. "I was really just going more for the hit than the interception. Now, I'm just comfortable back there. Now, I can just play ball; play football."
While Graham seems to be pleased with Thomas' progression, Thomas says Graham has been a big part of that progression.
"He's just pushing me, being hard on me, screaming –whatever you have to do to get me lined up right, it helps a lot," Thomas added. "Coach Graham said, just go over, look intimidating, look big and just play fast. I play faster and stronger, I should be okay."