Bennett, Pitt Defense Look To Build On Finish

Despite LeSean McCoy's presence in the backfield last season, the Pitt football team's strength most assuredly was on the defensive side of the ball.

One might have trouble with that concept when recalling Pittsburgh games against Rutgers and Cincinnati. However, despite a new defensive coordinator, an injury-decimated linebacking corps the first week and midseason meltdown against the Scarlet Knights, the Panthers rallied to allow an average of just 12.6 points per game during the last five contests.

And second-year defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who has been on the staff basically for just 13 months, believed there's much hope for the future.

"As a staff and as a team, we handled everything thrown at us pretty well last year,'' Bennett said. "I don't think we missed a beat, despite our linebacking corps taking a big hit, and I think that we really meshed for the last five games. And as a defense, we were a group that had to be reckoned with during the latter half of the season. That's for sure.

"And I believe our defense is going to be a strength on this team again this year, even though we do have some offensive talent, and it always starts up front. If you can have a good front seven to dictate some things ... and with Greg Romeus and Gus Mustakas out this spring, we're able to get some other guys a lot of reps who might not have gotten them.''

Pitt's secondary was torched by Rutgers for six touchdown passes on the way to a 54-34 thrashing, but the Panthers bounced back for a 34-33 four-overtime win at Notre Dame the following week. Pitt beat Louisville 41-7 the next week, but, Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike ran and passed the Bearcats to a 28-21 win to clinch the Big East title.

The Panthers were not deterred, however, and beat West Virginia 19-15 at home and capped the regular season with a 34-10 win at Connecticut. The defense wasn't an issue during a 3-0 loss in the Sun Bowl, and it certainly should keep Pitt in more games than not this season.

"We're further ahead than we were a year ago, even with the tweaks that we've made, but we're not a finished product,'' Bennett said. "And I think we can get a lot better. I think our guys understand what we're trying to do, and I think we have some guys who will strike (hit) you.

"They all seem to understand that last year is last year, and we're (getting ready) to start a new year. And we have some unfinished business. We felt like we went to Cincinnati and even though we played real hard, we let a hot quarterback take the game over.

"So, I told them that I don't remember the Notre Dame game, and I don't remember the Connecticut game,'' Bennett added. "I remember the Cincinnati game, and that's what motivates me. And I think it motivates a lot of them, too, which we are hopeful will carry over into the season.''

There were some who believed that this was just a pit-stop for Bennett, no pun intended, but after several conversations with him after the season that does not appear to be the case right now. Bennett is excited about the upcoming season and the athletes he has a chance to work with on defense.

"First of all, I really like it,'' Bennett said. "I like the staff, and I really like these players. I think they're tough kids. They want to get better, and they're easy to coach. And it was just a lot of fun for me the past year. I think Dave keeps it fun, while we still work hard, and that's important. Not just for the coaches, but for the players as well. So, it's been a very enjoyable experience.

"And for me, just knowing the players now and their capabilities, that's made a big difference for me this spring. We've been able to tweak some things, especially with guys like Greg Williams showing a lot of improvement. We have Adam Gunn back, but Steve Dell has done a nice job. And we're doing some things with Scoot (Elijah Fields) a little differently. So, it's been a fun spring.''

Bennett also mentioned young players like defensive linemen Tony Tucker, Shane Hayle, Chas Alecxih, Myles Caragein and Justin Hargrove, linebackers Greg Williams, Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts and defensive backs Antwuan Reed, Buddy Jackson, Jarred Holley and Andrew Taglianetti as bright spots for the future.

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