Andrew Taglianetti is one of Pitt's more seasoned veterans. He's also had to battle through some things in his Pitt career. After playing in all 13 games as a true freshman, he tore his ACL in the second game of the 2009 season. He returned to play in 11 games in 2010, then broke out last season with a career-high 49 tackles, two fumble recoveries and his first career interceptions. Taglianetti played in all 13 games last year, starting six.
Taglianetti is an impact player, and he's proven that in special teams where he has six career blocked punts. He's Pitt's all-time leader in that category, and needs four to tie the national record. He's also found himself bouncing back and forth between the first- and second-team through the early part of spring practice; part of what head coach Paul Chryst calls open competition.
"I'm not worried about where I'm at right now," Taglianetti said. "They call it open competition, and that's fine with me. As long as I get reps somewhere, it's fine. I know what I can do. If I get reps with the (first-team), I'm going to try to take advantage of it."
Taglianetti did take a significant number of first-team reps during Tuesdays' practice—Pitt's fourth of the spring. Even with Jarred Holley being limited this spring, Jason Hendricks is back, there's the addition of Ray Vinopal off a transfer year, the safety corps has a pair of redshirt freshmen in Stephen Williams and Roderick Ryles. The group will also add Deaysean Rippy and Bam Bradley in August.
"It's a lot of fun," Taglianetti said of the group's depth. "We're basically rotating four guys right now. A lot of the younger guys can step in. I think Stephen Williams has a bright future. Roderick Ryles is going to be good. Our safety corps is pretty sharp, not counting myself."
If anything, Taglianetti feels the sense of being a leader this year—a duty of obligation, he says. Last year, he was selected special teams captain.
"I think I have a pretty good grasp on the defense," Taglianetti said. "If I can help one of the younger guys on defense. They came off a redshirt season, so things are flying. If I can help calm them down a little bit, or whatever. I'm a senior. It's my obligation."
Having a good grasp on that defense involves going back to the 4-3, after a year in the 3-4 alignment. Taglianetti says there's not too much of a transition—just based on the fact that a lot of the players he's around were in the 4-3 two years ago. It does beg the question, with more and more teams going to the spread, is this defense equipped to handle spread teams. In one sense, it was easier to practice against a spread in practice all week as they did last year. In another, Taglianetti feels one of Paul Chryst's strength is setting up a scout team similar enough to give the defense the look they need.
"It's a lot different because you're practicing against a spread the whole time (in practice last year)," Taglianetti said. "With this offense, you can play it pro-style, you can play a spread with all the receivers we got. I think we're getting a lot better work. We're going to play teams—Connecticut, Syracuse, Rutgers. Coach Chryst is an offensive genius. He'll be able to throw it out there with a spread (in practice). I think this defense is way better off than earlier in the spring so far.
"I think across the board in college football, a lot of the defenses are consistent with how they play; quarters or three-deep. I've been doing this for five years now. A lot of it is the terminology. A lot of the concepts, and X's and O's stay the same. It's just a matter of recognizing it and reacting."
But, can we expect this defense to blitz a little bit more? In the previous 4-3, there was pressure from the front four, but very little blitzing elsewhere. It might be different this time around—especially getting the safeties more involved. That's one of the benefit of having a number of experienced safeties that Pitt has—the fact they can move one down to the box and play an eight-man front, presumably against spread teams.
"There's times you'll see it where there's one of the safeties in the box, like a 4-4; eight-man in the box," Taglianetti said. "Someone's always unblocked there. There might be times in certain packages where we throw—against the spread offense—one of the safeties down in the box just to play linebacker just to help with the pass, or what not. I think there's a lot we can do with it. We're undersized, I guess, to play in the box. What we're doing so far, I think we can all do it.
Overall, the offense has some more holes to fill than the defense does. Even though the defense is in search of a new set of defensive ends, Aaron Donald is back to anchor that unit. The linebacker spots are all wide open, but if Dan Mason's health holds up, and Todd Thomas returns full strength in August, there is at least some experience and proven ability there. The secondary returns the most experience with Taglianetti, Holley and Hendricks all starting games, Christian and Vinopal seeing the field at Michigan before sitting out the transfer year and K'Waun Williams returning at corner. Despite the coaching change, and a shift back to the 4-3, Taglianetti feels the entire defense could be a strength for the Panthers in 2012.
"We have a lot of guys who can play," Taglianetti said. "I think we're really giving Coach Huxtable and Coach House a lot of confidence in what we can do back there. I know these linebackers—some of them haven't played as much. I know when they step in there, they're going to play. It starts up front. I think we have a pretty good defensive line that's going to be able to control it up front and open things up for the linebackers and safeties. We got a good personnel grouping. It can only get better."