Pittsburgh is quicker, stronger and deeper than it's been in years on the defensive side of the line, and it's a credit to Wannstedt, the head coach, and Rhoads -- who moved from the secondary to linebackers coach, to go with his defensive coordinator duties -- for recruiting the right players and molding them into a solid unit.
"I'm not going to say that we're going to be a lot better this season, but we're more experienced and a lot deeper this year,'' fifth-year senior defensive end Chris McKillop said. "So, we should be better. Coach Wannstedt said this is the most depth that we've had since he's been here.
"So, that should help us out a lot, and I think we'll do pretty well. The guys on the defensive line come to practice every day saying that we want to take that responsibility on, to make this a better defense. To have a great defense, you know it starts up front. And we accept that challenge.''
Pitt's other fifth-year senior defensive end, Joe Clermond, believed there is tangible evidence in practice and the weight room that the players are leaner, stronger and quicker. He just asks the fans to not pass judgment until the Panthers show what they can do in a game.
"I believe it's noticeable,'' Clermond said. "You can just look at our linemen and see how much slimmer they are, and everyone moves a lot faster on the field. But what really matters is how well we execute and how well we practice leading up to the game. That will make the difference.
"I can see our linebackers playing a lot faster, and our secondary is pretty quick, too. That makes our job on the D-line a lot easier. But I expect our entire defense to be better. Just wait and see this year. I know we haven't done anything yet, but just watch us this week.''
Rhoads had to refocus his position-coaching skills to Pitt's linebacking corps this year and believe that is the best place to coordinate the defense. Then, why wasn't the move made earlier in his Pitt career.
"When I arrived, the back end (secondary) had a problem giving up deep balls and big plays in general, (but) I've enjoyed making the switch,'' Rhoads said. "It's a whole different insight into what I'm looking at and how I coach it.
"And the position group is a different group. The back end is generally a little looser and maybe more emotional. The front end is more physical and more serious about their task at hand. ... So, it's a great group to coach.''
With three new starting linebackers this fall and several players who recently made position switches to linebacker, Rhoads said that he should be nervous going into this season-opening game.
"But based on camp, I have a lot of confidence that they'll be ready to play,'' Rhoads said. "I'm not saying that they won't have butterflies and be a little jittery early, like me, but I think they'll settle down quickly. They're a disciplined group, a smart group, and the (nerves) will disappear as the game quickly moves on.
"We want those guys to be physical and hard-charging, and I think they've shown that. When we're doing that, we're freeing up defensive linemen sooner and getting off blocks quicker, and that allows the guys up front to play. And they're playing awfully well.''
Pitt's two starting outside linebackers, redshirt sophomore Shane Murray and redshirt junior Adam Gunn were safeties for Rhoads last year. But he believed it was a perfect switch for the two to move up a notch.
"I believe it's the easier transition to go from the secondary to linebacker than it is to go from linebacker to the defensive line,'' Rhoads said. "Their intelligence in the passing game and ... feeling guys in zones has rubbed off to the other linebackers. We have a real good group there.''
Gunn said that he starting thinking about a position switch when Buddy Morris rejoined the Panthers strength and conditioning staff.
"Once Buddy Morris got here, a lot of things started changing with our bodies physically and our minds mentally,'' Gunn said. "He's really pushed us to different capacities, and hopefully it will all carry over into the season.''
Pitt's defense should know sometime Saturday night if things really have changed on its side of the line.
Pitt's Defense Jumps Into Action
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