During team drills at Pitt’s eighth spring practice Tuesday, defensive backs coach Troy Douglas began seeing glimpses of his vision.
Douglas, who has preached the importance of forcing turnovers since his hiring in February, saw his unit pick off three passes over the 21⁄2-hour session, the highest total this spring.
“We’re finally starting to get our hands on some balls,” Douglas said. “That pleases me, obviously. The ball’s the issue. Our job is to get the ball back to our offense as quick as we possibly can.”
Practices this spring have included an increased focus on ball skills. Rather than just going through the motions, virtually every drill has, at least, ended with the defensive backs catching a ball from one of the coaches.
The practice can’t hurt.
Pitt finished tied for 98th in Division I-A last year with eight interceptions, four in their wild, 58-55 win against Duke.
“They’re slowly but surely starting to come around,” Douglas said. “We’re going to throw them more balls in practice than they’ve probably ever caught around here. That’s what gives them the comfort that they can play the ball in the air.”
Other changes in the secondary seem likely next season. Cornerback Titus Howard said he anticipates running more press coverages than the Panthers used last year, and that suits him fine.
“I like the press because I’m long,” Howard said. “It’s kind of easier for me to get my hands on receivers and knock them off their routes.
“I like actually being in their face, beating them up at the line. So they know every time they come over here they have to deal with it.”
At 6 feet 1, Howard possesses the prototypical frame Douglas prefers in his cornerbacks.
“The receivers are getting bigger and bigger,” Douglas said. “You don’t want to put 5-8 on 6-2, 6-3. It’s tough.”
As the unit looks for more big plays, though, coach Paul Chryst was quick to note that aggressiveness isn’t about just scheme or technique, but, rather, stresses more reliance on quick thinking and comprehensive understanding of assignments.
Even though two of Pitt’s likely starters — Howard and safety Terrish Webb — will be just sophomores in 2014, both saw plenty of action last season.
They’ll be joined in the defensive backfield by redshirt junior Lafayette Pitts and redshirt senior Ray Vinopal.
“If you know what to do and you know how to do it, then you can play fast, and I think when you play fast you can be more physical,” Chryst said.
For as good as the three picks were Tuesday, it wasn’t a perfect session. The defensive backs also heard Douglas’ four dreaded letters: “M.O.B.P.” As in, “missed opportunity for a big play.” It’s a mouthful, but it’s something the defensive backs will hope to avoid hearing.
“In today’s game, offenses are so sophisticated,” Douglas said. “They’ve got all the 7-on-7s, all the way down to high school. If they give you an opportunity to make a play, you can’t drop it. You’ve got to make them pay for it.”
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.