Another sterling article written by our resident football expert MajorMajors – this covers his outlook on our 2018 Defensive Back unit, a group who has played poorly over the last two years especially… Let’s keep our fingers crossed that changes this upcoming season.
2018 Pitt Defensive Backs – Is the arrow pointing upward?
Here are the DB’s two-deeps from the opener (left) and the last game of 2017 (right):
This will be a look at Pitt’s defensive backs. These guys pass the eye test in warm-ups; now can they begin to make more plays on the field. We all know that Pitt’s defense against the pass has generally been lousy since Coach Narduzzi arrived.
We were warned by Michigan State fans that Coach Narduzzi’s defense would take 3 years to come around. Now we get to see if they were correct and if the Pitt defense will finally start to roar under Coach Narduzzi’s scheme.
Let’s start off with a reminder of the DBs we lost from last season:
Jordan Whitehead left early for the NFL; Avonte Maddox graduated and is headed to the NFL, IMHO and Malik Henderson, who would have been a redshirt Junior, has left the team.
Here’s a list of our returning DBs:
- Damar Hamlin 6-1, 190#, Junior
- Therran Coleman 6-0, 195#, Redshirt Soph.
- Dane Jackson 6-0, 180#, Redshirt Junior
- Paris Ford 6-0, 175#, Redshirt Freshman
- Demarri Mathis 5-11, 185#, Sophomore
- Dennis Briggs 5-10, 195#, Redshirt Senior
- Kollin Smith 5-10, 170# Redshirt Freshman, (walk-on)
- Phil Campbell 6-1, 195#, Redshirt Sophomore
- Bricen Garner 6-1, 180#, Redshirt Sophomore
- Phillipie Motley 5-10, 175#, Redshirt Senior
- Rob Boatright 5-10, 190#, Redshirt Senior, (walk-on)
- Jazzee Stocker 6-2, 190#, Redshirt Junior
- Jason Pinnock 6-0, 190#, Sophomore
WHO WILL BE THE NEW FRESHMEN FACES IN THE FALL?
3* Erick Hallett, 5-11, 175# Cypress TX
3* V’lique Carter, 5-10, 165#, West Palm Beach, FL
3* Marquis Williams, 5-9, 165#, Fort Lauderdale, FL
3* Judson Tallandier, 6-2, 180#, Hyattsville, MD
LAST SEASON’S DB STATS
Looking at last year’s individual stats, the DBs recorded only eight interceptions (more than I would have guessed). Maddox and Jackson had two each, then Hamlin, Briggs, Whitehead, and Garner each had one. (Garner’s INT was in the end zone to end the YSU game. Whew!)
For pass breakups, Maddox led with 11, Jackson had nine, Whitehead four, Briggs three and Garner two. Pinnock, Mathis and Motley each had one.
Whitehead led the DBs with 60 tackles, followed by Hamlin with 41, Jackson with 40, Briggs with 33, Garner with 30 and Avonte with 27.
Tackles-for-loss saw Avonte lead with four (all sacks) while Jackson had two (one was a sack); Hamlin and Stocker each had one TFL. Maddox was the only DB credited with forcing a fumble – he did it three times.
As a team, Pitt did poorly in pass defense, giving up an average of 254 yards per game, 7.8 yards per attempt, and a whopping 24 passing TDs (OUCH!). These numbers had Pitt ranked at 106th in pass defense based on yards per game. Another telling ranking was our 88th place in Passing Efficiency Defense where opposing QBs had an average QB rating of 136.42 against us. For comparison our total offensive passing efficiency was 129.01
Check out these comparisons for Passing Defense stats from last season:
You can see from these team stats, that we have a long, long way to go on pass defense, especially on yards and TD passes given up. Course pass defense depends on way more than the DB play, but I don’t see why we can’t get into the same area as the numbers for VT and Michigan State.
And just to show how even one game can affect a team’s stat rankings, wonder what happens if we remove the Oklahoma State game from Pitt’s stats. Pitt gave up a whopping 572 passing yards in that game, a ridiculous 22 yards per completion, and 5 TD passes. If you remove this game from Pitt’s stats, then Pitt’s average yards given up drops to 225 yards per game. So, in other words, if we don’t play the top passing offense in the country, and instead play, say, Akron, our defensive passing rank goes from a little over 100 to something in the 60s. Better, but still not so great.
SO WHAT’S THE OUTLOOK?
The first thing that strikes me is that we have a ton of DBs on the team. Eleven scholarship DBs return, plus two returning walk-ons, plus the four new recruits. (And that’s not counting Maurice Ffrench – with all these DBs, I expect that Mr. Ffrench will be firmly entrenched with the WRs this season.)
With all these DBs, we can have a 3-deep for spring ball and a 4 deep for fall camp. That’s numbers-wise, what about talent-wise?
Well, the DBs certainly improved last season from what we had been seeing. Prior to last season, Coach Narduzzi’s defense had seen the 50/50 balls going more like 90/10 to our opponents. But the 50/50 balls actually seemed to swing a bit in our favor last season. (Though I can’t get out of my head that high arcing floater of a TD pass that UNC completed to beat us. Avonte fell down and we had no safety make a play on that ball even though it was in the air for a good 5 minutes. At least it felt that way…)
But the Pitt defense needs to get more turnovers and the DBs will be looked at for more interceptions. You’d like to get at least one per game. Last season Pitt got a total of nine team interceptions and Pitt was intercepted 8 times – (as Reed has pointed out, Coach Narduzzi is not a fan of taking risks with our own passing game…)
But for comparison, Josh Jackson had 8 interceptions for Iowa, Lukas Denis had 7 for BC, Mark Gilbert had 6 for Duke. UVA had three safeties who each had 4 interceptions. In fact, last season in college football, 23 DBs had 5 or more interceptions. I’m not talking Bob Jury type numbers (Pitt’s all time interception leader who picked off 10 passes in 1976 and eight more in 1977), but Pitt certainly needs to pick it up in this area.
Even with the notable losses of Whitehead and Maddox, Pitt fans can take some comfort in a few things regarding the DBs.
–Dane Jackson returns as a redshirt junior. Dane has certainly shown that he’s a player and will start at one corner spot. Excellent in coverage, good height, and decent stats from last season with 40 tackles, 9 pass breakups and a couple of INTs.
–Damar Hamlin may be ready to bloom at safety. He played well at times last season. Pitt fans are hoping he will finally have a spring ball, fall camp and football season without his mysterious physical condition holding him back or keeping him off the field. He’s already a Junior! I was actually surprised to see that he had 41 tackles last season. Should be a starter at safety.
–Paris Ford is expected to take the field. After red-shirting last season, we finally get to see the gem of last year’s recruiting class. Sounds like he will play safety. I have some reservations, which I’ll explain later, but it will be exciting to see what kind of impact he can have. His progress will be one of the big things to watch during spring ball.
–We appear to have some decent DB depth. I remember looking at the younger DBs at last year’s spring game. The general look of them is athletic, tall, skinny, and long armed. They look a bit alien compared to the DBs we’re more used to seeing at Pitt.
For example, guys like Bricen Garner, Therran Coleman, and Phil Campbell just look like complete studs – now we need to see them make plays. Garner recorded 24 solo tackles and 6 assists last season, with 2 pass breakups and an interception. Looks like a good candidate for a safety spot. Coleman played last season in the nickel package as the fifth DB – started against Syracuse. Campbell had seven tackles against VT and started against Miami.
And continuing with the depth theme, we have Phillipie Motley battling for a corner spot. This guy has already started – and he looks like one of the faster guys on the team. But besides him, we have Mathis and Pinnock, who the coaches had enough confidence in as true freshmen to get them on the field. And they seemed to hold their own, at least for true freshmen.
SO WHO WILL START AT THE CORNER AND SAFETY POSITIONS?
I’ll be honest, we have so many DBs, I’m not sure who the best candidates are to start. I do think that Briggs (who was elected a captain last season and who started the first 3 games at safety) and Stocker will be providing depth but have likely been passed by the younger guys.
CORNER: At one corner we have Dane Jackson; at the other corner we have a ton of competition. Could be Motley (started 2 games last season; started 2 games in 2016 too), Mathis, Pinnock, or Coleman(?) or a true freshman? (The freshmen DBs are supposed to be really quick, but seem to lack the body weight, with the exception of Tallander, to contend for a spot this season.)
My guess for the corner starters: Dane Jackson and Phillipie Motley.
SAFETY: At safety, you have Hamlin (started 4 games at safety last season), Garner (started 6 games at safety), Campbell (got the start against Miami), Ford, Coleman(?), Briggs and Stocker. Again, a lot of good competition.
I imagine most Pitt fans have penciled in Paris Ford to start at safety. May very well happen, but I have one precaution concerning the safeties. From everything I’ve heard about Coach Narduzzi’s defense since he got here, the toughest position to play is safety. The safeties have to make split second decisions on run versus pass, and if they even lean the wrong way reading run, our opponent is going to have a WR or TE running wide open down the field.
Question: How many times have we seen this since Coach Narduzzi has been here. Answer: Too many times. So we need safeties who not only have good instincts/decision-making abilities, but who are excellent athletes.
So the guys we have competing for the safety spots have some experience, with the notable exception of Paris Ford. So I caution Pitt fans that although Paris is an elite athlete, how quickly he can pick up the subtleties of the Narduzzi defense will determine how impactful Paris Ford can be. I’ve seen it written that Ford has good “football instincts.” We shall see.
My guess for starting safeties: Damar Hamlin and Bricen Garner.
I think we will see a lot of Paris Ford, in the early part of the season, as the nickel back. Hopefully he picks up the defense and can be a difference maker with time.
BTW, I do like the fact that we will now have a full-time safeties coach in Cory Sanders. I think that decision reflects on the past problems we’ve had and the importance of the safeties in our defense. (And as a side note, I find it interesting that when I talked to Defensive Coordinator Randy Bates at the LOI event, I asked him who was going to coach the safeties. He said that he was. I liked that answer, as it meant to me that someone was seeing the importance of the safeties being better coached. Of course that was before Cory Sanders was added to the staff as the 10th coach.)
The bad news is that we haven’t been able to get the number of interceptions you’d like to see from our DBs. This is an area where Pitt really needs to pick it up.
The good news (aside from the fact that Oklahoma State is not on the schedule) is that we should be able to go to 5 or even 6 DBs and put 5 or 6 really good athletes on the field. And of course the DBs are an important element of the kick and punt coverage teams (e.g. Rob Boatright, #35, a senior walk-on DB from Clairton, earned a letter last season playing special teams).
More good news, the only seniors among the scholarship DBs are Briggs and Motley.
I say, overall, the future of the defensive backfield looks bright. Be interesting to see what spring ball brings.
NOTE: Here are The Pitt POV’s previous pre-Spring Drills unit reports:
Hail to Pitt!