Before last season, Tyrone Ezell was a player without a position.
He played virtually every defensive line position in training camp until, just a few weeks before the 2012 opener, he settled into the nose-guard spot.
After 39 tackles, including seven for losses, in 2012, Ezell is even more comfortable this year while playing next to star defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Ezell, a Steel Valley High School graduate and redshirt senior, had one of the best games of his career in Pitt's 19-9 loss Saturday against Virginia Tech. He made himself a presence in the Hokies backfield and disrupted their running game, which averaged just 2.0 yards per carry.
"I wanted the team to do well and I wanted to win that game bad," Ezell said. "I just gave it everything. I thought about I had nothing else to do the rest of the day, so I'll just give everything I've got this game. I went out there, did my job and made the plays that presented themselves."
Donald has been the one pulling in accolades this season, and rightfully so. He has eight sacks and at least one every game. This week, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports all named him to their midseason All-American teams.
But the man next to him, Ezell, also has played an important role in Pitt's defensive success this season.
"He's working hard," defensive coordinator Matt House said. "He's improving every game. I think he's kind of hitting his stroke, so to speak."
Ezell said he has tried to pick up Donald's work ethic, including the countless hours of weightlifting in the offseason. So far, it has paid off.
"Watching him, just watching how he never stops," Ezell said. "In his pass rush, he keeps his feet moving. I picked up on that a little bit."
There's also a schematic advantage playing next to Donald. Because he commands such respect from opposing offenses, it sometimes opens space for the other defenders.
Even though Ezell's primary job at nose guard is to eat up blockers, he occasionally can see a little more space when the offense is focusing on stopping Donald.
Ezell also noted that he has faced his share of double teams this season.
"I see that respect," Ezell said. "If they weren't worrying about me, they wouldn't put two or three guys on me at a time. I definitely feel like I've earned my respect out there."
Pitt's defense, as a whole, has earned more respect in the three weeks since it gave up 55 points against Duke.
Over the past two games, the Panthers defense has given up an average of 251.5 total yards per game.
"I definitely feel like we're making strides of getting better and turning that corner," Ezell said.
"We're starting to understand the scheme that we're running, everybody's starting to get more comfortable I feel like. Everybody's starting to slow down, play fast and have more fun."
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM