It seemed that whenever the Pitt defense needed a big play last season, safety Jason Hendricks showed up at the right time.
Two interceptions against Virginia Tech in a season-altering game; a team-high 90 tackles on the season, including 17 in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Mississippi.
Given those impressive numbers, was Hendricks surprised to be leading the Big East with six interceptions at the end of the season?
"Honestly, yes," he said. "It's just being in the right place at the right time. A lot of film study, and I also study myself every year, try to make myself a better player."
Hendricks was the only Panther to make the All-Atlantic Coast Conference preseason team, announced Wednesday. He finished the 2012 season as a second-team All-Big East performer and looks to anchor Pitt's secondary this season.
"I think we'll get the job done," Hendricks said. "We have a lot of returning starters, a lot of experience, and I think we'll do a good job this year."
Eight starters return to the Panthers on defense, and that side of the ball likely will have to carry the load, especially early in the season as Pitt adjusts to several new starters on offense, particularly at quarterback and running back.
Still, Hendricks believes his unit has the same big-play ability it showed in 2012, when Pitt finished 15th in the country in turnover margin. Despite the high ranking, there's still room for improvement.
"I think we started off slow last year creating turnovers," Hendricks said. "I think we should do a better job with that. I think just being a collective unit, just everybody running to the ball.
"We're just making the most of our opportunities. We can let takeaways slide. If there's a fumble on the ground, we have to be the first ones to get there, and if it's a ball in the air, it's ours. We can't just lay back, we have to make the most of our opportunities."
Hendricks said he expects help from defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who surprisingly didn't make the All-ACC team. Donald finished the 2012 season with a team-high 18.5 tackles for loss and has appeared on the watch list for every major defensive award this offseason.
He finished two votes shy of making the team, behind Wake Forest's Nikita Whitlock and Florida State's Timmy Jernigan.
"I think he's one of the best D-linemen out there, and I think he'll show it this year," Hendricks said.
"I got a lot of rushed passes, and I was able to make a play on it thanks to Aaron Donald and Tyrone Ezell in the middle forcing the pressure."
In the other major ACC preseason media poll, league writers picked the Panthers to finish fifth in the Coastal Division. Just like the individual awards, Hendricks isn't buying into the hype.
"We don't feed into that," he said. "We just go out and play some football. We know that we believe in each other, and we believe that we can get some wins in this division."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published July 26, 2013 4:00 AM