But as the Panthers gun toward the homestretch in camp this week, Rashaad Duncan is back beside classmate Gus Mustakas on the first-team defensive line. And all is right in Pittsburgh for a defensive group that certainly has taken its hits in recent years.
"It's going good so far,'' Duncan said. "I was looking forward to camp coming into it, and it turned out pretty good so far. Coach has been trying to mix it up a little bit get everybody involved, and you know that before you can lead you have to learn how to follow.
"So, we're all getting an opportunity to get the chemistry on the team where it should be going into the season. That gave everybody a chance to see what they could do and gave them a chance to step up to the plate, but we're back where we should be right now.''
The past two seasons, it appeared that a different running back gained more than 100 yards on Pitt, and some even surpassed the 200-yard mark. But if that's what it took for the Panthers to get to this point, then it should be well worth it. Juniors Mustakas and Duncan are among the Big East's best defensive tackles after playing for two seasons, and John Malecki even got some playing time last fall as a freshman.
Others like sophomore Tommy Duhart were brought in to shore up the unit's depth, and redshirt sophomore Mick Williams hopes to get back on track after an injury-plagued 2006. But all four are playing well, and Duncan believed that made the defensive line the best at Pitt in years.
"That's basically what it is, because Gus and Mick and Tommy are together, and me and Malecki are together,'' Duncan said. "So, everybody is mixing it up a little bit. And if we can build our depth, we won't have to play every snap in a game. Last year was hard, but I think it was all about trust.
"Coach didn't really know if he could trust some of the younger guys to be in there on the second group, but everybody is playing to a high level this year. So, it should be much better for the defensive line.''
Duncan's lateral movement appears to be better than ever. He dropped a few pounds and is in terrific shape for a big guy. He believed he was a lot stronger, too, and he wouldn't get an argument from Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso.
"Rashaad has really come on the past week or so,'' Gattuso said. "A lot of these big guys, we knew it would take them a while to get going, but they've all been working hard. Gus, he's played well from the beginning, and John got a good start. Rashaad, Tommy and Mick, it took a while for them.
"But they're on track now. So, I feel pretty good about our tackles. The ends have less experience after the first guys, but the young guys have as much talent as anybody. So, we expect big things from our defensive line this season, and Rashaad should play a key role in that success.''
Duncan has accepted his role as a team leader with Mustakas, even though the two aren't the most talkative players on the team.
"I played a lot last season, but I want to take it up a notch this season,'' Duncan said. "And I think all the guys on the D-line feel that way. We have a lot of good players, and I think we can be a really good defensive line. People might not think too much about us, but we know what we can do.
"Coach Gattuso always preaches that it's our job to stop the run, and if anything breaks open it's our fault. So, that's how we're taking it this year. It's not the linebackers' fault or the D-backs' fault if the other team breaks away for a big run on us. It goes on the D-line.
"And I'm taking it upon myself, too, that it's our responsibility to make the initial stop,'' Duncan added. "And it's my fault if the younger linemen don't do their assignments right. It's up to me to keep them in line, so that's the role that I want to take this season.''
And now that he's back on the first team, that role will be easier for Duncan.
Duncan Assumes Leadership Role
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