Gus Mustakas was thrust into the Pittsburgh lineup as a rush end his freshman season, and he recorded three sacks, two pass breakups and five unassisted tackles despite being somewhat undersized and inexperienced at the position. Then, he was inexplicably moved to tackle last year and anchored a defensive front beset by injuries, inexperience and poor play.
All that should change for Mustakas this season. Though obviously untested, Pitt's defensive line should be a strong point with Mustakas leading the way in the middle. He and classmate Rashaad Duncan are the grizzled veterans at tackle, while fifth-year seniors Chris McKillop and Joe Clermond are the ends.
"We have a good first unit,'' Pitt defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said. "But that's not all we have. We have built some depth there, especially at tackle, while our backup ends are talented but inexperienced.''
That's the difference this season. It gives hope to Mustakas, because the starters don't have to play the entire game. Gattuso and head coach Dave Wannstedt can rotate players throughout the game to keep everyone fresh. It's also great for Mustakas, because he's finally healthy this year. Like freshman John Malecki last fall, Mustakas played with a bad left shoulder.
"My shoulder's feeling good for the first time ever,'' Mustakas said. "I tore the labrum during my freshman season and had surgery, and it still bothered me all last year. It was weak and sore last year, and it never got the strength back. I really think that I came back a little too early.
"But Buddy (Morris) really helped me rehab it during the offseason, and now it's better than ever. So, it feels real good, and I'm ready to go now. I can be more physical now, use more power, but before I had to go all on technique. So, it's much better for me this year from that standpoint.''
Mustakas used the experience as a positive, however, because he was able to hone his pass-rushing techniques instead of just bull-rushing everyone. That had to be difficult as well, because Mustakas weighed just 265 pounds. He's up to a solid 275 pounds now and said he feels stronger than ever.
And after more than one year working at defensive tackle, Mustakas noted that he finally feels comfortable at the position.
"I've worked hard to learn everything I can about playing D-tackle, and I think I had a pretty good camp,'' Mustakas said. "We definitely have a lot to prove on the D-line. To be a good defense, it all starts up front. You can have the best safeties and linebackers, but if we're not good up front the entire defense won't be good. So, it's up to us to set the tone.
"We're the first people to make contact with our opponent, and we have to stop them right at that point. We don't have the big names like we had last year, but we have a lot of good players. And we're really tight. We play as one out there. It also helps that we have much more depth, so if we stay healthy I think we'll have a pretty good defense this season.''
Mustakas added that even though Pitt's defensive tackles are a little lighter than usual for the position, a leaner, quicker and stronger group will be hard to stop this season. And that player development, offseason conditioning from Morris and coaching by Gattuso, make the Panthers defensive tackles -- Mustakas, Duncan, redshirt sophomore Mick Williams and sophomores Malecki and Tommie Duhart -- the team's deepest position.
"We have enough real good players to have a terrific rotation, and we needed that,'' Mustakas said. "Last year, what really hurt us is that we were playing so many plays. And even the best D-tackle in the nation doesn't play the whole game. So, if we can stay healthy we'll have a lot of depth.
"And Coach Gattuso deserves credit for getting us untracked. He changed our mindset and how we approach things. Before, we were a joke, the laugh of the defense, but now we all go to class and are better people. We don't get in trouble, like missing classes and lifts, but it's all different now.''
And that should make a big difference for Pitt's defense this season.
Mustakas Mans The Middle
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