Bennett Brings Change

Few coaches probably get to start a job with the talent Phil Bennett had returning when he took over as Pitt's defensive coordinator this year.

Bennett has All-American Scott McKillop at middle linebacker for this Pittsburgh team, budding superstars on a deep defensive line with Mick Williams at tackle and Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard on the ends. And heading up the secondary is Aaron Berry, one of the best cover cornerbacks in the Big East.

With all that talent in front of him on the field and a deep bench, why did Bennett always seem to be yelling about something during training camp.

"That's just his style, I think,'' Berry said. "He's always on us because he wants us to get better, but he lets us know when we make a good play. I just think he's more comfortable when he's yelling at us.''

Bennett's coaching style already has been discussed somewhat because it differs from that of former Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. When a Pitt defender made a good play, Rhoads would be among the first to high-five or chest-bump him. Bennett has been known to chastise a player after knocking a pass down instead of making an interception to get off the field.

"I've asked them individually about what's different,'' Bennett said. "They feel like there's a confidence that maybe hasn't been here before. I don't know. But I do know this, they've worked extremely hard. The things we've done poorly, we've corrected. And I think it's obvious that offensively, we've gotten better.''

The difference on the field won't be known for at least another week or so, but Berry believed it will be immediately noticeable.

"We're going to get after people,'' Berry said. "We have a lot of speed and talent on this defense, and we're going to take advantage of that.''

Bennett has been around the block, so to speak, on more than one occasion since he just concluded his 30th training camp. He realizes that the Panthers have talent, but they also have the right focus and attitude to be successful.

He praised veterans like Eric Thatcher and McKillop, but he's also been impressed by freshman cornerbacks Jarred Holley, Ronald Hobby and Antwuan Reed and frosh safety Andrew Taglianetti.

"They've been fun,'' Bennett said. "It's been challenging, but fun. Jeff Hafley and I have talked about it. They've all got talent, but what we've got to do is see where these guys fit in and see how much they'll play, especially on special teams, as we begin to look toward Bowling Green.''

Bennett also believed players like redshirt freshman cornerback Buddy Jackson, who fell behind the freshmen due to a groin and hamstring injury that limited him through half of camp, made up some ground during the final scrimmage. The same could be said for safety Irvan Brown, whose entire career has been hampered by injuries, including a week or so in this camp, along with middle linebackers Max Gruder and Steve Dell.

Bennett praised safety Elijah Fields as well, predicting that "it's going to happen for Elijah this year.'' Fields likely will join starting safeties Thatcher and Dom DeCicco on the field, especially if redshirt junior Shane Murray (knee) can't play his weak-side linebacker spot. Or Bennett can stick with the backers he has.

"I think they're a good group,'' Bennett said. "We've got to develop some depth at linebacker, but we're getting there. ... I had Austin Ransom last spring at safety, and at the end I looked at my production chart. He was one in four.

"On every fourth play, he made a play. He runs a 4.5, and he's 215 pounds. And if you watch him, he's a little buzz-saw out there. So, he's coming along, but I also think it made Tristan Roberts better. Both of them will get an opportunity if Shane can't go.''

While Bennett addressed nearly every defensive player, he couldn't help himself but talk about some of Pitt's offensive talent as well. And one player in particular, tight end Dorin Dickerson, impressed him.

"As a defensive coordinator, I always look to see if the other team has a tight end who can stretch the field,'' Bennett said. "And I dare them to squat a safety on Dorin. I dare them to, because he is extremely fast and plays fast, and we can move him all over. That move is going to pay off for us.''

And the move to bring in Bennett as Pitt's defensive coordinator already has made a difference as well.

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