Fire Still Burning in McKillop

He hangs behind the defensive line with his eyes shifting from side to side. He makes his reads, using instinct to break into the opposition's mind. Sometimes it's the quarterback. Other times it's the running back. But no matter who's getting the ball, he can almost always count on running into Pitt linebacker Scott McKillop a few moments later.

At the end of an unbelievable junior season, Scott McKillop was showered with awards and honors. On one of the top defenses in the country, he ended the year as the nation's leading tackler with 12.58 per game. He was a unanimous first-team All-Big East selection and was named to four All-American teams.

Now, heading into the fall, McKillop has been named an All-American candidate and is also on several other watch-lists for distinguished honors on the field. But even after all the success and publicity, McKillop, a to-be senior, isn't satisfied. Pitt linebackers coach Joe Tumpkin, who joined the Panthers in February after coaching three seasons at Southern Methodist University, said McKillop has been concentrating on improving the technicalities of his game since the season ended.

"I'm impressed with his work ethic," Tumpkin said. "It helps the defense out a tremendous amount."

McKillop said he is focused on making the defense as good as possible. But luckily for him, he'll have some help out there on the field.

Hanging on McKillop's right and left will be junior Shane Murray and senior Adam Gunn. Murray was Pitt's second-leading tackler behind McKillop, notching 60 on the year. Gunn was the third-leading tackler, tacking on 59 stops. All three were starters last year, and should benefit greatly from the experience together.

McKillop said after the graduation of players like H.B. Blades and Clint Session, they had big shoes to fill last year.

"Last year a lot of people questioned our linebackers [at the start of last season]," McKillop said. "We had to fill three spots. This year, we have three returning people. There are no excuses."

A strong defensive line is another reason McKillop said he expects the defense to have success. In Pitt's 4-3 defense, the defensive line, if athletic and strong enough, can put pressure on the opposing quarterback without any help from the linebackers or secondary. With returning contributors in Rashaad Duncan, Mick Williams, Tommie Duhart and Greg Romeus, the front line for the Panthers has the ability to be one of the strongest in the nation.

"It all starts up front," McKillop said. "We have a very deep defensive line and, that makes my job a lot easier. Those are my guys. I thank them every time I see them."

Missing from that defensive line this coming year will be Scott's brother, Chris McKillop, who was a three-year starter at defensive end and is now hoping to make an NFL roster. Aside from learning to play without his brother, McKillop is also getting used to working with Tumpkin and new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who also came to Pitt from SMU.

"It's going to take some time just getting used to his coaching style," McKillop said of Tumpkin. "We're different than his last teams, [but] I love the new coaches. They're mentality, it's so upbeat."

Tumpkin agreed that it might take some time for everything to start clicking, but said he expects it to happen.

"Our terminology is a bit different," Tumpkin said. "How we coach and the ways we approach the game are different. But I think our linebackers have been fantastic so far."

Still, even with the relationships between player and coach just forming, McKillop and the rest of the Pitt defense have looked extremely solid thus far in the spring both stuffing the run and defending the pass. The defensive unit appears motivated, strong and quick to the ball. It's been set up for success, and isn't making any excuses.

McKillop is one of the main reasons for that. And offenses around the country better watch out. Because by now, they've pretty much all been warned.

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