It's one of the most important facets of any quality football team, but it also can be the most nebulous to define. And, as many frustrated college coaches can attest, it's also one of the toughest attributes to draw out of a growing team.
During Pitt's spring season, which concludes tonight with the annual Blue-Gold scrimmage at Bethel Park High School, one of coach Paul Chryst's goals was to at least start the process of finding on-field leaders for the Panthers in 2013.
Earlier this spring, wide receiver Devin Street, who as a rising senior seems poised to take on a bigger role, was brutally honest about the leadership in the locker room during his four years at Pitt.
"I feel like we've lacked that in previous years, especially since I've been here -- just a vocal leader, a guy who's going to step up and be willing to take the blame for other people's mistakes and my mistakes as well," Street said. "I feel like every great team has a solid leader and a go-to guy that guys can lean on and look to for examples, not even just vocally, but setting an example and practicing hard each day and coming out ready to go."
So where does that leave the Panthers heading into 2013?
Street and other players have said that Pitt's goal heading into the season should be nothing less than an Atlantic Coast Conference championship in their first season in the new league. To accomplish that, according to Street, a few players need to take on more vocal roles than they have in the past.
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph singled out Street as a player who has shown signs of assuming that task. During a practice early in spring, the coaching staff was making players run sprints after a nearly three-hour session, repeating them if anyone jumped too early on the start. After about a half-dozen failed attempts, Street gathered his teammates and implored them to focus.
"I think [the leadership] is still developing, I think as guys gain confidence," Rudolph said. "They're gaining awareness, the details are getting there. As they own those assignments and the details within it, I think you'll see that emerge more and more. We've got to coax it out of some because they're more than capable. There are some guys out there that can do just that. I think Devin's doing a good job pushing that skill group, that's for sure."
On many teams, it's the quarterback who takes the reins on offense. For Pitt, though, likely starter Tom Savage is in the unusual position of being a fifth-year senior who hasn't played a down of football since 2010. The two-time transfer (Rutgers, Arizona) spent last year on the scout team. For Savage, the first goal is just learning the offense.
"It's kind of tough because I've never taken a snap in a Pitt uniform," Savage said. "You can't really go out there trying to be that 'hoo-rah' guy. But I think right now, it's my job to try and lead by example. Just make plays, earn their trust and earn their respect. Once I kind of get that, then we can start moving from there."
On defense, Pitt returns nine starters, but it's still unclear who exactly will take charge on the field. Two likely starters, linebacker Shane Gordon and safety Jason Hendricks, have missed all of spring practice with injuries.
Two of Pitt's best players, senior cornerback K'Waun Williams and senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald, have always been quiet, lead-by-example players, though Williams wouldn't mind changing that this year.
"I want to get the team excited when we make big plays," Williams said. "I want to do everything. It's my last run, I'm just trying to have the most fun."
For his part, Chryst isn't concerned about the defense. As long as it's genuine, leadership will come through.
"I think the biggest thing you need is guys comfortable with themselves and that are themselves; the personalities will come out," Chryst said. "The biggest thing is guys be themselves. If they can be that, then I think you're in good shape."
• What: Pitt Blue-Gold scrimmage, Bethel Park High School.
• When: Facility opens at 5:30 p.m.; youth football clinic (8th grade and younger) 6-6:45 p.m.; scrimmage 7-9 p.m.
• TV, Internet: Pitt Panthers Television (Comcast 188/210); ESPN3.com
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published April 12, 2013 4:00 AM