Spring Practice Notebook: Safeties

PITTSBURGH -- Ask any University of Pittsburgh defensive football player, and they know all too well where their unit placed among the 119 NCAA Division I-A teams in rushing defense this past season.

The Pittsburgh Panthers were 107th, but each individual player also knows that it's up to them to turn things around this fall. Without its top four players, starting senior linebackers H.B. Blades, Clint Session and Brian Bennett, as well as junior cornerback Darrelle Revis -- an expected first-round NFL draft pick -- improvement won't happen easily.

"I think things are going pretty good for us right now,'' fifth-year senior strong safety Mike Phillips said. "Everybody's getting on the same page in the secondary and on the overall defense, too.

"We got big holes to fill with the losses of Darrelle Revis and Sam Bryant in the secondary and all our linebackers. We're doing our best, but we have to strive to get better. And I think we're on pace to do that.''

With Phillips, redshirt junior free safety Eric Thatcher -- a part-time starter last season -- and fifth-year senior Kennard Cox returning as a starting cornerback, Pitt's secondary is its most experienced unit on the defense. Sophomore Aaron Berry is the other expected starting corner.

Phillips, who played some at cornerback to begin his career, started three games at strong safety in 2005 and opened five games at free safety last fall as Thatcher's replacement. He started the first five games, but injured an ankle. Phillips broke his ankle as well in 2005 and had a tough time bouncing back last season even though he played in all 12 games.

"Last year, I was saying in my head that I was back at 100 percent, but I really wasn't,'' Phillips said. "I really never got over that hump, but I feel real good right now. And I think it should be even better when the season starts.''

Thatcher is back at free safety during Pitt's spring workouts at the UPMC Sports Complex, while Phillips has moved back to strong safety.

"Last year helped me out a lot,'' Thatcher said. "Just seeing how fast the game really is against different teams and in the Big East and not just our guys in practice, it definitely helped me to be ready for this season and to know what to expect when I get out there in a game again.

"And I don't think I'll have any problem with my ankle. It feels real good right now, but I have to keep working at it, keep rehabbing it, getting my treatment and working hard on conditioning. So, I expect it to be in great shape when summer training camp comes around in four months.''

Paul Rhoads is charged with improving the Panthers defense, not only as the unit's coordinator but as the new linebackers coach. He handled the secondary in his previous seven seasons at Pitt. Chris Ball was hired this season to coach the Panthers defensive backs. He coached the secondaries at Washington State and Alabama the previous seven seasons.

"We definitely have a veteran secondary,'' Ball said. "We also have some young guys in there like Berry, Jovani Chappel and Elijah Fields, who are expected to play a lot this season. Berry should start opposite K.C. (Cox), but we'll see what happens in summer camp.''

Thatcher believed that he and Phillips needed to assert themselves on the field as the starting safeties, as well as off the field as team leaders.

"We definitely have a lot of experience out there, especially with me and Mike in the secondary and K.C.,'' Thatcher said. "So, we can just bring along the young guys, in meetings and on the field, and just help them along. When they need help, we should be the first ones there. That's the way it should be, but I think we can help everywhere on defense.

"We might not know the gaps and things like that for the D-line, but we can keep them pumped up and keep them going. We can do that for the linebackers as well, and we can back them up if anybody gets past them. So, I think we'll be pretty good on defense. We just need some guys to get some more experience, and we'll be all right.''

And Pitt's defense most certainly should improve its ranking.

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