As the starting strong safety for the Pittsburgh football team this season, sophomore Dom DeCicco hopes to flash that running ability. Only this time, it'll be displayed while he's returning an interception.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound DeCicco and the rest of the Panthers defense have been urged by new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett to pick off every pass and force fumbles whenever possible, because that didn't happen enough last fall. Pitt had 35 sacks, just eight interceptions and forced 15 fumbles.
"There's been times when I've made a play that I thought was pretty good, and he'll come over and tell me that I should have broken on it a lot earlier and maybe I would have picked it off,'' DeCicco said. "He definitely keeps everybody humble, and he's stressing turnovers.
"We didn't have enough last year, and we're trying to get more this season. We want to get off the field and put our offense back on the field. So, we want to go hard on every play and make a big play on every down. That type of mind-set definitely is going to help us this season.''
Bennett and Pitt secondary coach Jeff Hafley are high on the Panthers defensive backs, and DeCicco has a tremendous up-side.
"Dom had a good camp, and I think he's going to be a real good player for us,'' Hafley said. "But he's still very young, and he's learning every day. I've seen him improve a lot just from last season, and I expect him to get better with every game this season. I'm looking forward to watching him develop.''
DeCicco played in 10 games last season, primarily on special teams, and recorded six tackles. Much more is expected this season, obviously, as he is slated to start at strong safety ahead of redshirt sophomore Elijah Fields. So, DeCicco prepared extremely hard to be ready for that task.
"What I tried to do in this camp was work on the little things, trying to clear up all the mental mistakes that I made last year as a freshman,'' DeCicco said. "It was a great experience for me to play last year, and I wanted to learn about everything. But I also tried not to make too many mistakes.
"So, it was good to travel to the games and experience that, but this year I can play a little faster and not think too much. It was a great experience, but it's definitely a big jump for me to go from special teams to being a starter. There's a lot more that I have to know, and there's a lot more on my shoulders.''
DeCicco performed well enough during spring drills to earn the starting nod at strong safety ahead of Fields, and he maintained it during training camp. Both, however, are likely to play a lot -- possibly at the same time -- and that suits DeCicco just fine.
"I guess I was ahead for the starting strong safety job after the spring, but I didn't want to take anything for granted going into camp,'' DeCicco said. "And Scoot (Fields), he can make big plays at any time, from any place on the field.
"He's a real good player, and he makes me better. I hope I make him better, too. I really think that we push each other, and the whole defense is behind each other. We work very well together and always back each other.''
Pitt's starting free safety is fifth-year senior Eric Thatcher. He has played in 28 career games with 17 starts, including all 12 games last season, so when DeCicco needs some advice he turns to Thatcher.
"He's the veteran of our secondary, the old guy who knows everything, and he's the one who holds us together,'' DeCicco said. "He communicates with Scoot and me a lot and makes sure we're all in the right place.
"He's there for us all the time to help me and Scoot when we're struggling. He's a great guy, the backbone of our defense. When Coach Bennett gets on us, he comes over and says 'don't worry.' And then he tells us what we did wrong.''
"(And) when you do something wrong, Coach Bennett will tell you about it, and you won't do it again or he'll really get in your face,'' DeCicco added. "He won't accept anything but perfection, and we know that. So, we make sure we know exactly what we're doing every time we step on the football field.''
And that should lead to more forced turnovers for Pitt this season.
DeCicco Primed For Big Season
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