Thoughts about Elijah Fields range from calling him the best Pittsburgh athlete to one that says he'll never realize his talent with the Panthers.
While Fields was not made available for comment this week, his teammates and coaches had a lot to say about him. Fields gets his first start this season, as sophomore Andrew Taglianetti will have surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee and miss the season.
"We're definitely confident in what he can do,'' sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn said. "He's a great athlete, and he played a lot for us last year. Now, he just has to play a different role.
"I remember watching the Notre Dame game for us, and he was playing nickel back. So, he's ready to step in. He's played in some big games, and he has the experience. So, I think he's definitely ready to contribute for us.''
Fields has played in 20 career games for the Panthers and actually started two times last fall. He has one pass breakup and 13 solo tackles. Fields played in just eight games as a freshman in 2006, primarily on special teams, and did not record a statistic. He was suspended the following season for disciplinary reasons, but came back last year and was somewhat productive.
However, other than special teams, Fields did not play last year against Navy. So, it will be interesting to see how he handles his assignments against the triple-option offense run by the Midshipmen Saturday at 6 p.m. at Heinz Field. Pitt secondary coach Jeff Hafley is confident that Fields will get the job done.
"This is his time,'' Hafley said. "For him, it's now or never. He's got a shot, and he's going to take it. He was in (Monday, a day off), and he was in (Sunday). And I'll tell you what, the way he responded in the second half in the Buffalo game, he did a very nice job. And I think it started then.
"It doesn't start today or yesterday or this Saturday. I think he did a nice job in the second half of that football game against Buffalo, and I think he'll continue to do that. (Navy) is a different type of offense, but Coach Bennett has developed a defense that we simplified for our kids.
"We have not made it complicated (or) confusing,'' Hafley added. "We'll teach him what he needs to do, and I'm confident that he'll execute the game plan. He's got the opportunity. It's in his hands, and I think he'll take it and run with it. ... Maybe this is what he needs now. Let's go.''
Head coach Dave Wannstedt, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, Hafley and the defensive coaches are counting on "the light to come on'' for Fields. This game will test Fields considerably, but if the Buffalo game was a quiz he passed it. Fields had a handful of tackles and a big interception that he returned 30 yards.
"Elijah's looking forward to this opportunity,'' Wannstedt said. "He made some plays in the (Buffalo) game. Opportunities come in different ways and at different times for individuals. His is now. I thought he made a big play.
"For not getting a lot of the first-team reps, I thought he played quite well. I expect him to take the torch and move forward. We'll also have (backups) Irvan Brown and Jarred Holley, who was moved to safety (in camp).''
But the Panthers will rely on Fields the majority of the time.
"I hope he embraces (the opportunity) and never looks back,'' Hafley said.
If Fields doesn't play well, he might have nowhere else to look.
Opportunity Knocks For Elijah Fields
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