Butch And Sundance

They're the Pitt football team's version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the 1969 Western with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but Panthers safeties Elijah Fields and Dom DeCicco aren't expected to rob banks.

Instead, their theft is directed at opposing quarterbacks and intercepting passes from spots in the Pittsburgh secondary. There is that difference, but redshirt sophomore Elijah Fields and sophomore Dom DeCicco are just as close as their movie counterparts.

"We really are best friends,'' DeCicco said. "I'm with him every day. He's either at my place, or I'm at his place. He comes home with me all the time, and we're really best friends. But we never talk about each other playing.

"We help each other try to get better, and we realize that we could be playing together for a few years here. And we're looking forward to that, so if we can get better we can give Pitt a strong secondary in the next few years.''

Fields never competed against DeCicco in high school, since his Duquesne, Pa. squad was a small Class A school. And DeCicco's Thomas Jefferson, Pa. High School is at the Class AAA level. But once the two became involved with Pitt, their friendship quickly developed.

"It's a good relationship between me and Dom,'' Fields said. "Like I've said before, I went over to TJ to work with his dad's basketball team last summer, and I have dinner a couple times a week with his family and (Thomas Jefferson) coach (Bill) Cherpak. So, it's been a good deal for me.

"And that relationship helps a lot on the football field. Me and Dom, you could say we're like brothers. And that helps me a lot, because he's there to pick me up when I struggle, but I'm always there to do the same thing with him. That's what we're able to do for each other.''

Many were waiting for this finally to be a breakout year for Fields an uneventful freshman season, and redshirt year due to off-field issues. DeCicco also joined the Panther squad amid some recruiting hype and played some as a freshman last fall, but more was asked from both going into this season.

With Fifth-year senior Eric Thatcher returning as a starter at free safety, Fields and DeCicco were asked to battle it out for the top strong safety spot. DeCicco won that battle initially and started the opening two games, but Fields' improved play earned him starts the next two.

DeCicco was back as the starter at South Florida, but Fields also played extensively as Pitt went to its Bandit (passing) defense where the outside linebackers are replaced by Fields and cornerback Ricky Gary.

"That's a good package for me,'' Fields said. "It shows the people my man-to-man (coverage) skills, and I can also play up in the box like a linebacker. It's been a good package for our defense. (And) I love being out there with Dom. That's going to be the face of this program, probably, the next couple years.

"So, it's a good thing. We can make sure that we both know the calls and the offensive tendencies, where they're lining up and what plays to look for. So, I'm coming along pretty good, and I'm getting a lot of experience now by playing more. Dom and me going to play a lot, so it doesn't matter who starts.''

DeCicco's tackle total is modest, 15 overall with 13 solo stops, one huge interception at USF and two pass breakups. Fields has not made as many plays, six total stops, four solo and one pass breakup, and both have made some glaring mistakes. But those minimized drastically against the Bulls.

"I think I'm getting better with every game, and the team definitely is getting better with every game,'' DeCicco said. "Experience has a lot to do with that, so the more we play as a team the better off we'll be as a defense. That includes me and all the younger guys like Elijah.

"I was struggling so badly in those first three games that there was no reason that I should be starting. Then, they took some pressure off me, and Elijah got a chance. It's just that we're both so inexperienced, and we're such good friends that it doesn't matter who starts. We know we're both going to play a lot.

"I was down a little bit after I lost that (starting) spot,'' DeCicco added, "but playing some kept me motivated. They told me I would still get some reps, and that was great because I didn't know why I was playing so bad and wanted to work things out. It was just experience, but we're getting better all the time.''

DeCicco and Fields did not face adversity much at all in high school, so it was a shock to them when plays they had made so easily were not there at the next level. DeCicco took poor angles on his attempts and missed tackles when a big hit was only needed to knock a guy down in high school. Fields mostly struggled with Pitt's scheme and couldn't even get on the field in the beginning.

Now, the Panthers' coaches are comfortable with both on the field.

"One time Elijah goes in there he'll man up on people, but the other time he'll go in almost as a linebacker,'' DeCicco said. "That's because he's one of the best cover guys on the team and he's basically the size of a linebacker. And he can hit like a linebacker. So, we get the best of both worlds.

"(But) it's basically night and day with how much Elijah and I have improved from those first couple games. We got a lot of work in the preseason, but after all the practices and scrimmages and everything, you can't simulate live games. And we keep working hard, stay after every practice to hit the sled and work on our tackling. It's the only way to get better at it.''

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt certainly agreed.

"We went from three weeks ago being uncertain about whether either guy could get it done to being confident that we've got two guys back there who we feel confident about playing. And we feel like we've got two starters. They're more comfortable in their spots, and they have a better understanding about what we're doing on defense.''

And that should be a big concern for opposing quarterbacks.

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