Primarily a special teams player as a freshman, Dom DeCicco was thrust into the starting lineup this year at strong safety after winning a battle with redshirt sophomore Elijah Fields during the spring and fall camp. DeCicco clearly was not ready to make that jump, but that's not the case now.
When 18th-ranked Pittsburgh (9-3) takes on No. 24 Oregon State (8-4) in the 75th annual Sun Bowl Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. in El Paso, Texas, DeCicco should be among the Panthers' top defensive players.
"All these guys were very good high school players, but very few can come in and excel right off the bat,'' Wannstedt said. "Dom came in and played in the opener, and even Buffalo was OK. But our expectations, and his, were higher. We started alternating him as a starter in practice and games (with Fields), and he reacted the way winners react.
"Every time I walked by the DBs room he was in there watching tape. He worked harder in the weight room, and he practiced like it was the Super Bowl every week. He continued to make progress, and he might end up being as consistent a defensive back as anybody by the end of the season.''
DeCicco finished fifth on the Panthers with 49 tackles, including 33 solo, but he had a team-high four interceptions and was among the leaders with six pass breakups. So, he became a solid tackler and play-maker by season's end.
Pitt secondary coach Jeff Hafley believed that there was no question about DeCicco's progression from the beginning of the year until now. But Hafley would not take credit for the player's development.
"He's improved on everything from his tackling to his coverage to his knowledge of the game,'' Hafley said. "You'd like to credit experience and coaching, but Dom deserves all the credit. He put in all the hard work.
"He takes it personally when he makes mistakes in practice or games, and he corrects them. He knew he wasn't playing up to his potential, but he worked hard to get better. You love kids like that because they're very coachable.''
DeCicco just shakes his head when recalling his opening few games as a starter at Pitt. He says there's "an unbelievable difference'' between his play now compared to then. His family, friends and, of course, the coaches have told him this as well, but DeCicco's improvement has been amazing.
"The way I can read things and react to them,'' DeCicco said, "the angles I take on tackles and everything, it's all different. ... Even when I was struggling in the beginning, I looked a step slow or just a step behind, and I wasn't making plays. I was just missing, sometimes by just a little bit, but that didn't matter.
"It wasn't good enough. Definitely, as the season progressed, I started getting more and more comfortable each game. I wasn't thinking as much, and I was getting used to the speed of the game and things like that. I just had to settle my nerves down, and I was able to go out there and just play football like I've been doing my entire life. I played a lot better after that.
"Toward the end, maybe the South Florida game on, I played as well as I did all season,'' DeCicco added. "I realized that it wasn't as hard as I thought it was, and I was able to play better. The game slowed down quite a bit for me. Things became second-nature for me, and things really started to click. You notice things a lot easier than what I did at the beginning of the season.''
DeCicco might be a little stronger than he was at the beginning of the season, but he obviously didn't get any faster or smarter. So, what was the difference?
"I started taking better angles and getting used to the game speed,'' DeCicco said. "And when you do that and not think as much, then you can play a lot faster. So, that's what happened to me. I was very tentative in the beginning.
"But that's not the case now. I'm more confident in my abilities. I watch more film, but I know what to watch for, how to watch it. I can pick out tendencies and can figure things out a lot easier. I can read offenses better as well. There's just a big difference, and I feel so much better out there.''
And that makes DeCicco a candidate to be Pitt's most-improved player.
DeCicco Pitt's Most-Improved Player
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