Small Stature, Big Playmaker

The point is arguable, of course, Pitt senior cornerback Jovani Chappel had among the most unenviable matchups during the Panthers' training camp.

Sure, it was tough for left offensive tackle Jason Pinkston to battle Greg Romeus, center Robb Houser to take on Mick Williams and Lucas Nix to be paired against Jabaal Sheard on a daily basis. But Jovani Chappel always seemed to be on the same side as wideout Jonathan Baldwin during every first-team snap for Pittsburgh.

"I did a good job on him, but he pushes off all the time,'' Chappel said.

When a pass is thrown correctly, up and away from the defensive back, no one should be able to take it away from Baldwin. But Chappel has his share of big plays despite the size differential. He's tough, aggressive and hard-hitting. And he knows he has to pick up his play this season.

"It's a huge year for me, and I'm really excited and confident about it,'' Chappel said. "Last year was my first year starting, so I was able to get my feet wet and get ready for my senior year. And I'm ready for it. I didn't play much when I came out of high school. It took a while to get back in that mode, get my confidence up to where it should be, but I'm there now.

"I had an all right season last year, but I'm ready to have a breakout year for this one. So, I'm excited and confident. I had a great offseason, from a mental and physical standpoint. I've stayed healthy so far in this camp, and I'm ready to go. I can't wait for the season to begin. I know we've got another week, but we're getting close. The first game is almost here.''

As a senior and returning starter, Chappel is among Pitt's veteran leaders. And he relishes that role.

"It's my last go-around,'' Chappel said. "So, actually, I'm excited. Being one of the older guys, somebody who knows what's going on and what it takes, it's kind of exciting. I know what to expect, but I also get to help the younger guys.

"And that's what is exciting. Watching them improve. When the light comes on for them, it's something to experience. I enjoy that. I'm trying to enjoy every minute of it before it's gone for me. That's the way I'm approaching this year.''

And Chappel believes the Pitt secondary will be better than it's been in years.

"Last year, we had some real young guys behind us, and we didn't have the depth that we have now,''Chappel said. "Those guys have a year under their belts, a year with Coach Bennett, and that's one thing that's going to take us over the top. We know this system now, and it's going to help our defense.

"When you have a new coordinator, it takes a while to play fast under his system. There comes a time when you almost have to stop thinking and just play, and once we hit that level it was all uphill from there. We definitely can play now, and if we know the system we'll be able to play fast and play well. And that's the way we are now. We're ready to after it this year.''

Pitt's second-year defensive coordinator Phil Bennett also must see the potential from the Panthers' defensive backs. It's the group he works with the most, along with secondary coach Jeff Hafley, so Bennett rode the DBs the hardest during camp. And while he's been tough, at least you know where you stand with Bennett.

"He expects a lot from us, and he lays it out for us every day,'' Chappel said. "We know he's not going to sugarcoat it, and I wouldn't expect him to do that. We're all men, some a little younger than others, but we're all here to play football and learn as much as we can. So, we have to listen to him.

"Sure, he's tough on us, but if you don't get offended you'll be all right. If we're wrong, he'll definitely let us know about it. But he tells us if we made a good play, too. It might not sound that way, but he does it. It's just that a lot is expected from us, and he strives for perfection. You know, the minor things can lead to bigger ones, so we can't let the little things slip past us.''

And coming from Chappel, that says a lot.

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