The pressure will be on Pitt strong-side linebacker Greg Williams, a redshirt freshman, when he makes his second career start tomorrow against visiting Iowa.
Williams is one of the best athletes on the team and certainly one of its fastest players, but his inexperience showed in Pitt's last game, a 27-16 win against Buffalo, and the Panthers' run defense suffered because of it.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said after the game that Buffalo did a good job exploiting Williams, who was not getting into gaps and executing all his assignments.
Now the Panthers must face the Hawkeyes, who have a strong running game built around tailback Shonn Greene, and coaches have used a week off to give Williams a crash course on the position.
- Game: Iowa (3-0) vs. Pitt (1-1), noon.
- Where: Heinz Field
- TV: ESPN2
"The focus at practice has been on our fits, getting into the right spots," Pitt defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said, "and I think he has been very conscientious about it and very focused on getting the things we need from him done.
"I believe he's made improvements and I think [weakside linebacker] Austin [Ransom] has made improvements and that is all we can ask for and now we'll see how he responds tomorrow."
"I think Greg has been making progress, he really has. It is not that Greg doesn't know what to do, he just needs to have the opportunity to do it. He just needs playing time, that's really all."
Williams spent last season as a scout-team running back and wasn't moved to linebacker until the spring. Even then, he spent most of his time at weak-side linebacker, though coaches say consistently the weak-side and strong-side positions are interchangeable.
But he was moved to strong side in the third quarter of the Panthers' opener against Bowling Green after senior starter Adam Gunn went down with a neck injury. Gunn was declared out for the season and Williams, who is 6-foot-2, 225 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.45 range, was moved into the starting job.
"It has been rough on me, trying to learn this, but Gunn really has helped me learn a lot, even though he's been out," Williams said. "I know everybody is depending on me to step up. In the first two games, I was kind of nervous.
"I think the key is to not let them put their hands on me and grab me and instead getting my hands on them and planting my feet and using my leverage. It really is more technique than anything, and I've worked on that."
Williams said he has been able to watch lots of film of the Panthers' first two games, and his mistakes have been easily identifiable. He said in watching Iowa's offense on tape, his biggest concern is making sure that he does a better job of getting to his gaps because those mistakes are the ones he knows cost the defense the most.
"I just think it is a big part of it because I really just have to learn not to make mistakes if I want to continue to play as much as I have and that's especially with Iowa's linemen being so much bigger than what we've seen."
Although Williams has made some mistakes in the first two games, he's also made some big plays. He has nine tackles (fourth on the team) and two quarterback hurries, and has broken up a pass.
And while improving against the run is his primary concern, against Iowa he will also have the double duty of trying to slow down Hawkeyes' tight ends, Brandon Myers and Allen Reisner, who are the second- and third-leading receiver.
The duo has combined to catch 13 passes and two touchdowns and average about 16 yards per catch. Most of the damage they've done is down the middle of the field while being covered by linebackers.
"If you look at what they do with their tight ends, it will be on our safeties and linebackers to be aware of them," Bennett said. "That is something they are all going to be aware of and it is something we have worked on through the bye week and this week as well."
NOTES -- Wannstedt wouldn't commit to a starting strong safety, but all signs seem to point to it being Elijah Fields as the starter and Dom DeCicco coming off the bench. ... Linebacker Shane Murray (knee) is expected to play but not start tomorrow but his playing time could be limited. No other player is expected to be limited due to injury. ... One other player Wannstedt wouldn't commit to is junior-college quarterback Greg Cross. "It will be a situational thing, we'd like to get him in the game but we'll see how things go."
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.