Nate Barnes

Defensive tackles to anchor Pitt defense

Pitt's defensive tackles make up arguably the deepest position group on the team. They will anchor this year's defense.

Pat Narduzzi doesn't want to talk about his defensive tackles right now. 

Not because they're unspeakably bad. Rather, the first-time head coach would rather focus on the team's weaknesses as it completes the final week of training camp. 

"We’ve found some depth," Narduzzi said of his interior lineman. "We feel pretty good there. I don’t like to talk about the strengths."

All kidding and topic-evasion aside, the inavoidable challenge facing Narduzzi and the rest of Pitt's coaching staff in their first year is fielding a defense capable of securing leads its offense will likely provide. 

James Conner and Tyler Boyd are arguably the best players at their position in the Atlantic Coast Conference, if not the nation. Chad Voytik is primed for a breakout season after a strong finish in 2014 and tutelage from offensive savant Jim Chaney. 

The Panthers are going to score. A lot, probably. 

A defense playing anywhere near the level of the offense could make Pitt a serious contender atop the Coastal Division. 

That scheme requires its cornerbacks to man up and press opposing receivers on passing plays. Linebackers will fill the box to reinforce the run defense. 

But the defense's fulcrum rests on its line against both the run and the pass. The linemen must clog gaps to stuff the run and generate pressure, often on its own, to hurry quarterbacks.

At least on defense, if not of any group, Pitt's deepest position looks like it's at defensive tackle. 

“If you would’ve told me in January or February that our depth would’ve been at the defensive tackle position I would’ve said you’re crazy," defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said. "But I think we have some pretty good players there."

Darryl Render and Khaynin Mosley-Smith are the starters on the inside, but an apparent elbow injury has cleared room for Tyrique Jarrett to practice with the ones almost full-time. 

Behind those three are also Jeremiah Taleni and Michigan State transfer Mark Scarpinato. Once Render is healthy, and Pat Narduzzi maintains there are no injuries that will carry into the season at this point, defensive line coach Tom Sims will have five tackles to rotate at his disposal. 

He's pretty happy with that depth, considering he says team would like to have at least three at each position on the line. 

"They get banged on and they’re extremely large so they get tired," Sims said. "You need a few of them to roll through."

Don't mistake depth for just having bodies to throw on the field. 

Mosley-Smith, a fifth-year senior, looks forward to putting his best effort forward after he will have played nder three head coaches and missed the entire 2013 season due to a suspension. 

"I just want to be one of the dominant interior guys out there in the ACC," Mosley-Smith said. "Up front, period, we want to be dominant."

He and Render each carry the most starting experience with 13 career starts apiece. Mosley-Smith recorded 27 tackles with two for loss last year, while Render posted 32 stops, six for loss and two sacks. 

Both Conklin and Sims say Taleni, a redshirt sophomore, is coming along while Scarpinato takes reps with the second-team defense in practice. 

Jarrett's prospects are the most intriguing among his teammates. He was named the defense's most improved player during the spring practice period but his conditioning remained a focus during the offseason.

The Taylor Allderdice product could only play two or three downs at a time last year, but says he can now go four or five at full-speed. 

"The conditioning is more mental than anything. I’m just trying to push myself, really trying to just find that inner me and really just trying to keep going whenever I’m tired.”

Jarrett said after Monday's practice he weighs 348 pounds, but continues to work on slimming down and his goal to get back to 335.

As a group, the early performance has shown progress.

During Saturday's scrimmage, the Panthers running backs were limited to 87 yards on 33 carries. James Conner and Chris James did record a single carry and Qadree Ollison took 21 of those attempts, but allowing 2.6 yards per rushing attempt plays out pretty well for a defense regardless of opponent.

"I think they’re going to give people fits in the run game," Conklin said of his tackles. "We went with some four-man pass rush today on third down. I saw some good things out of those guys as well."

Both he and Sims admit the pressure in the passing game isn't where they want it to be yet, and that it's a work in progress. Usually it's the defensive ends who post the big sack numbers, if not linebackers pinning their ears back and coming off the edge. 

That doesn't mean the tackles won't be involved. One must only go back two years to find a Pitt interior lineman who was pretty good at getting to the quarterback.

"We all want to get to the quarterback," Mosley-Smith said. "It’s a race."

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