Spring Practice Notebook: Secondary

PITTSBURGH -- If Darrelle Revis stayed at the University of Pittsburgh for his senior season, the Panthers secondary could have been among the most experienced in the nation.

However, Darrelle Revis decided to take his game to another level, as well as his bank account as a likely first-round NFL Draft pick, and Pittsburgh was left to search for a starting cornerback opposite fifth-year senior Kennard Cox and along with returning starting safeties Mike Phillips and Eric Thatcher.

"Mike has played four years, even though he's been injured, and Eric came in last year as a starter and did real well,'' Cox said. "They really have a chance to be a good safety combination for us this year.

"And if we can merge together and work well together, I don't think there's any defensive backfield in the country that can be any better than us. I really believe that.

"We're the veterans on this defense, the guys in the secondary,'' Cox added, "so we have to be the anchor for it. And we're just trying to work hard to make sure we're up for the job.''

The cornerbacks have been the key to Pitt's secondary for several years now, so finding a good replacement for Revis is critical. That's why the Panthers have turned to 5-foot-11, 175-pound sophomore Aaron Berry to get the job done. While Berry might not be as big as Revis in size or stature right now, the Bishop McDevitt High School product is way ahead of the curve as Pitt's spring practice sessions continue at the UPMC Sports Complex.

Berry played some in mop-up roles last fall and also was a contributor on special teams. And he's been starting at the corner spot opposite Cox.

"I have some big shoes to fill, but as long as I go out there and work hard and compete hard every day I'll be all right,'' Berry said. "My biggest thing is to hit the weight room to put on more muscle, and hopefully I'll be 180 (pounds) by the time the season comes around.

"I worked hard in the offseason, and working with Buddy (Morris) was really different. He pushes us in a lot of different ways, and that should help me get to where I want to be for the season. There's a lot of time before September, so I know I'll get there.''

Cox had no doubt about Berry's talents. "One thing I can say about Aaron Berry is that he's very athletic,'' Cox said. "He's learning a lot, and he's willing to learn. That's the best thing for him. If you're willing to learn this game, and you put the time and effort in, you can become a great player. So, we're both trying to put that in.''

First-year Pitt defensive backs coach Chris Ball, previously the secondary coach at Washington State (2000-02) and Alabama (2003-06), believed that Berry was on his way to becoming as successful as Revis.

"We know that there's only one way to be great, and that's through hard work,'' Ball said. "As long as Aaron stays on that path and continues to work hard, keep trying hard, watching extra tape and listening to what all the coaches tell him, he'll be a really good player for us.

"So, he has to focus on the little things, and he really has to get into that weight room as much as possible before the season. He has to eat the weights and get his strength up, but we believe he'll be a good player for us for a long time. He just has to keep working at it.''

While any coach would like to bring in a more experienced player than Berry to start at cornerback in college, it's not always possible. The depth is a little thin as well at cornerback and certainly inexperienced behind Berry and Cox with sophomore Jovani Chappel and redshirt frosh Ricky Gary.

"I think we have a good mix and a lot of good athletes back there, too,'' Berry noted. "And working with our receivers, that's going to help us go against any wideout on our schedule. We have a good group, and they're all different. So, I just have to keep working with them, and we'll all get better.''

Ball seemed to have no doubt that Berry could elevate his considerable talents to be a special cornerback at Pitt for the next few years.

"He has great hips and great feet,'' Ball said. "That's really the first things you look for in a cover corner. You need them to have good enough speed, flexibility in the hips and quick feet. He's got good instincts and good ball skills, which are hard to find these days, but he's got them.

"He's real aggressive, too, but we'll see more once we get more work with pads on. So, the best thing for us to do is just let him play. That's what will benefit him, but he just has to get stronger. If he can do that, I really think he's going to be a good player for us.''

And with Cox on the other side, the Panthers have quite a dynamic duo.

"I feel like I've progressed a whole lot,'' Cox said. "Especially when you consider where I came from. It was difficult for me to show what I could do until I got to start last season. So, I just went out and worked hard, everyone did in the secondary, and that's going to pay off this coming season, too.''

And that's even without Revis in there.

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