Only none knew that it would be Fields' high ankle sprain several weeks ago that would be the reason. Elijah Fields was injured in the game at Louisville, his third straight start for sophomore Andrew Taglianetti, who is out for the season after tearing the ACL in his knee at Buffalo, and Jarred Holley stepped in.
Holley had moved from cornerback to safety to improve the depth there, and he has started the past three games at free safety for Fields. In Pitt's 37-10 win against Syracuse Saturday, Holley had an acrobatic interception and led the Panthers with nine tackles, including eight solo.
"Jarred Holley, boy, he's a playmaker,'' Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. "That interception he had was great, and he played a good game. I don't know about his overall stats, but he's got a lot of responsibility back there. For a redshirt freshman to be playing (and) making the checks (defensive calls).
"(Strong safety) Dom (DeCicco) helps him out a lot. I'm very, very pleased with Jarred. We thought he'd be a corner and a backup at that, No. 1, but then we moved him to (free) safety. And now he's starting. And, he's not just starting, but he's playing extremely well. So, he's done a great job there.''
Holley basically has been a steadying force in a secondary that was torched in a couple early games, but has settled down the past few. It would appear that it's no coincidence that Holley's playing time increased during that stretch.
"I just waited for my number to be called,'' Holley said. "I'm just working hard and having fun back there. The stats will come, but you just have to play for your team. And whatever happens, happens.
"I think we've come a long way from the beginning of the season to now, and I think we know a lot more now that we're at this stage. So, I think we're moving along at a great pace.
"But everybody's been doing a good job from the beginning of the season to now, concentrating in the film room and stuff like that,'' Holley added. "We're really coming together as a team. It has nothing to do with me.''
Holley also remained humble while discussing his first interception, which was quite a play. Pitt had just taken a 20-3 advantage with a strong drive to open the second half, and Holley shut down the Orange quickly after that.
With redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Nassib in the game, Syracuse tried for a big strike. Pitt senior cornerback Jovani Chappel was in single coverage down the middle on 6-foot-2, 192-pound freshman Alec Lemon, and Holley gave late help on the play. Chappel tipped the pass, which was a bit underthrown, and Holley hauled in the deflection.
"I was just trying to help out our corner and undercut the route, but Jovani made a great play to tip it up in the air,'' Holley said. "And I just tried to catch it. So, he really made the play.''
Holley has 33 tackles this season, including 20 solo, with two pass breakups and an interception. He had six stops in his initial start against Connecticut and five at Rutgers, but continued improvement brought out the best in Holley Saturday.
"It's been a great experience,'' Holley said. "A lot of the guys are there, by my side, helping me out. I'm learning new things every week, and I'm having a lot of fun back there, just making different calls, playing new teams.
"So, it's been a real good experience. Dom DeCicco and Elijah, they're always there for me when I need them. We're always talking about different schemes and different defenses. It's like one big family out there, so it's good.''
Like many young players Holley initially got to make his mark on special teams, and even now that he's a starter he still plays a prominent role on Pitt's kickoff coverage team.
"Coach Wannstedt really emphasizes special teams here and always says how important it is, so you've got to help the team out in any way that you can,'' Holley said. "And special teams are a big part of it.''
The past two games, Pitt's secondary has played its best ball, and it couldn't come at a more critical time with pass-happy Notre Dame and spread teams West Virginia and Cincinnati remaining on the schedule.
"We did a great job out there, hawking to the ball and staying in our coverage,'' Holley said. "We practiced those things all week and did a great job of it during the game.
"Syracuse is a good team, but we handled them pretty well today and didn't look past them. Now, we have a bigger test coming up with Notre Dame. We'll practice hard all week for them, and we'll be ready.''
The Panthers close out the season against Big East foes West Virginia, Nov. 27 in Morgantown, W.Va., and undefeated Cincinnati Dec. 5 at Heinz Field.
Jarred Holley Steadies Pitt Defense
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