There are few jobs as difficult and as thankless on a football team as nose guard, a position in the center of the defensive line that requires a player to absorb blocks and create lanes for his teammates to either rush the passer or stop the run.In either case, it will usually be someone else who gets the glory.
As a result, most nose guards fly under the radar because they aren't the ones who are finishing the big plays and making the big hits.
It is even tougher for a nose guard to get recognition on a defensive line like Pitt's, where the two defensive ends and the starting defensive tackle are standout players with plenty of name recognition.
That used to bother starting nose guard Rashaad Duncan, but, as he matured into one of the Panthers' best-kept secrets and most consistent players, he has grown to realize and appreciate that he has an important job and one that not everyone is willing or able to do.
"In my job, you are the center of everything really, and, at that position, you expect to get your nose broken because you are taking on double-team [blocks]," the 6-foot-2, 295-pound Duncan said. "That's basically what goes on in my life: I'm trying to occupy two guys so the linebackers can come hit the gaps or push them back and stretch out the plays.
"My job is to make plays, but not really make plays as most people would think of it because I have two guys on me most of the time. It is just a grind in there, a real hard grind in there. My team recognizes what I do and come up to me and tell me I'm doing a good job, and, if we get the win, that's all good."
A great example of how important -- and thankless -- Duncan's job is can be found with a quick glance at the statistics. Duncan, a senior from Belle Glade, Fla., has only one of the Panthers' 17 sacks and nine solo tackles through five games. In the Panthers' win against South Florida, for instance, Duncan was credited with one sack, but he should have received some recognition for two others as it was his ability to create a gap and force some pressure that led to both. In fact, on one of the other two sacks, Duncan was actually the first player to hit South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe.
Statistics don't motivate Duncan; making winning plays does.
"I look at it like basketball: Assist the man who scores, and we win," he said. "If I have to set it up, I'll set it up and let someone else take it down. I'll take those assists, I'll take them all day as long as we keep winning and keep taking the men down."
Duncan's rise to team leader has been impressive as he has had plenty of growing pains along the way. Often, as a freshman and sophomore, he was chastised by coaches for being lazy or not living up to his potential.
At first, Duncan didn't take that kind of redirection well, but he learned that the only reason coaches were paying so much attention to him was because they saw his potential and knew what kind of player he could be.
"Probably going into my junior year, I looked around me and I realized that I was the one [defensive line coach Greg Gattuso] was being so tough on because he knew that I was the one who could make the plays," Duncan said. "He used to tell me every day I have to step up, and I finally took it and started playing the way he wanted me to."
Gattuso said Duncan exemplifies the kind of player who makes coaching rewarding. He said Duncan's biggest early issue wasn't necessarily laziness, but more insecurity in his own abilities and a fear of becoming great.
"I've always seen in him the ability to be much better than even he ever gave himself credit for being," Gattuso said. "He has matured so much as a person and a player, and it shows in the way he plays. I hear about all the great players we have on defense and I can tell you that of them all, Rashaad is the most steady of them all. He's not flashy, and guys get overlooked for that, but I've said it before: The kid is a terrific football player.
"I think the greatest testament to the trust he's earned is that he is out there when the game is on the line and he knows that's when we need him the most and he always gets the job done."
NOTES -- Pitt middle linebacker Scott McKillop added yet another award as he was named the Bronko Nagurski Award for national defensive player of the week by the Football Writer's Association for his 12-tackle performance against South Florida.
Paul Zeise can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720.