Lafayette Pitts has all the physical traits you look for in a shutdown cornerback, including good body control, speed and quick reaction time.
Four games into his first season on the field for Pitt, he's taking care of some of the other requirements as well.
Pitts, a redshirt freshman, has started all four games for the Panthers this season. It hasn't always been easy, but Pitts said he has gotten more and more comfortable in his role as the season has gone on.
He said the upperclassmen in the defensive backfield have been helpful in getting acclimated to the starting role, notably fifth-year senior safeties Jarred Holley and Andrew Taglianetti, as well as junior cornerback K'Waun Williams, who starts opposite of Pitts.
"It's getting there. It's getting better. I'm getting better with the guys out there," said Pitts, a graduate of Woodland Hills High School. "I'm comfortable out there because they give me a lot of confidence, so I'm playing with confidence."
One of those teaching moments for Pitts came in the 35-17 win Sept. 15 against Virginia Tech.
Late in the third quarter, Pitts got beat by Hokies receiver Marcus Davis, and missed a tackle that allowed Davis to get free for an 85-yard touchdown pass that kept Virginia Tech alive.
On the Hokies' next offensive drive, though, Pitts made a great play along the sideline to knock down a long pass and force the Hokies into a three-and-out.
"Forget about it, move on to the next play," Pitts said. "My teammates told me to let it go, play the next play. So we kept the energy up and that's what helped us."
Pitts wasn't tested much on defense in the game against Gardner-Webb, but did make an impact on special teams, where he has served as the kick returner. On a 64-yard return in the first quarter, it looked like Pitts might have had a lane open to the outside, but cut it back in and tripped on his own blocker around the 35-yard line.
"The last game was all on me," he said of the return. "I should have stayed true to what I was supposed to do and I would've scored, but we're going to try and bust one this week."
While he tries to create some fireworks on special teams, Pitts will likely have his hands full on defense.
The secondary will match up against Syracuse's dynamic receiving corps, led by seniors Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon. The Orange lead the Big East with 341 passing yards per game, and Sales tops the conference with 6.75 catches per game.
Pitts said he expects the Orange to run a lot of short routes, and then try to catch the Panthers biting on a double-move for a deep pass. To avoid that, Pitts will have to maintain discipline with his eyes, a mental aspect of the game he has been working to improve since training camp.
Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable employs a virtually exclusive man-to-man scheme, and Pitts, as the field corner, will handle whichever receiver lines up on his side.
"It is [difficult] in certain coverages because when you can see the whole offense progressing to you, you've got to stay disciplined to your receiver," Pitts said. "Your eyes can get stuck in the backfield sometimes."
Five weeks ago, those double moves from Sales might have proved to be a bit more of a challenge for Pitts, but now he feels like he's ready for whatever comes his way.
"I was coming in blind, didn't know too much, but I'm getting a little bit of confidence every week," Pitts said. "Hopefully it'll stay that way."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published October 3, 2012 4:00 AM