Both Greg Romeus (6-foot-6, 270 pounds) and Jabaal Sheard (6-4, 260) have junior eligibility for Pittsburgh, and he duo provides the Panthers' defense with arguably its best bookends in decades. Romeus is in his fourth season at Pitt.
But Sheard, after playing sparingly as a freshman and thrust into the starting lineup last fall, is ready to take his game to another level in his Pitt career.
"Coming from my freshman year, when I really didn't get on the field, to last year when I was starting and getting pretty good stats, it was a big difference for me,'' Sheard said. "So, I just want to keep improving for this year.
"If I can make the jump like I did from my freshman year to last season, make that kind of improvement this season, I think I'll be on the right track. So, I just want to keep working hard to get there, and I think I'm on my way.''
Sheard had 45 tackles, including 25 solo, with 5.5 sacks and 10.5 total stops behind the line, seven pass breakups, 11 quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a recovered one. That's more than pretty good stats for a first-year starter. But it certainly still leaves room for something to build on.
Sheard said through all his off-season weightlifting and conditioning, he's a lean 260 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame. That's quite an increase from the slightly built kid who arrived from Hollywood Hills, Fla. High School a ilttle more than two years ago.
"Yeah, I was just a skinny kid that was about 230 pounds when Coach Partridge introduced you to me during that recruiting camp my first summer here,'' Sheard said. "I'm definitely a lot bigger and stronger now, after a couple years working with Buddy, so I'm really looking forward to this season.
"I feel like I'm more ready than I've ever been. I thought I was going to share some time, at least in the beginning, with Doug Fulmer last year. But then I had to start and played a lot of snaps. I was happy to get the chance, and I think I did pretty well. But I want to be a lot better this season.''
Sheard is kind of a quiet, unassuming kid, much like Romeus. The line must get that from its position coach, Greg Gattuso, but that doesn't mean they won't turn it up a few notches when they hit the field. In fact, they're taught to do just that.
"The workouts that we do, we're able to be an aggressive player on the field, and that's the way we want to play defense,'' Sheard said. "All the running that we do, we're well-prepared. We'll be ready for anything, I think.
"We want to be tough, and we want to play smart. The discipline that we learn from Buddy and the coaches, that keeps us going. We had a good defense last year, but I think we can be even better this year with our experience.''
With Sheard, Romeus and fifth-year senior tackle Mick Williams up front, redshirt sophomore Greg Williams at strong-side linebacker, seniors Jovani Chappel and Aaron Berry at cornerback and junior Dom DeCicco at safety, Pitt has seven returning starters on defense.
But don't forget that sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn and fifth-year senior nose tackle Gus Mustakas are former starters. Gunn missed last season with an injury, while Mustakas worked his way back from one the year before. So, that's a lot of experience.
Throw in redshirt junior Elijah Fields and sophomore Andrew Taglianetti, who played a lot, at free safety and redshirt sophomore Max Gruder at weak-side linebacker, and Pitt has a chance to be special on the defensive side.
"We definitely want to be the best defense that there is,'' Sheard said. "We want to be No. 1, not only in the Big East, but in the country. I'm sure our offense has the same goals. We want to win as many games as we can and win the Big East, and if we go undefeated we have a chance to win a national title.
"It's all we talk about, winning more games than last year and winning the Big East. So, that's what we're going to try to do. We came close to winning the Big East last year, and we don't want to come up short this year. If each player does the best he can and each unit on offense and defense, we should be able to accomplish all of our goals. So, that's the way we're looking at it.''
And Sheard certainly should play a large part in helping Pitt get there.
Sheard Expects Defense To Be Dominant
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