It didn’t take long for the Pitt defense to face its first significant challenge of training camp.
In fact, it came a few days before the Panthers opened practice.
Cornerback Titus Howard was suspended for the 2014 season for disciplinary reasons Friday, removing a projected starter at an already thin position and creating a ripple effect throughout the defense that could impact how the Panthers approach that side of the ball this season.
“We need more [depth],” secondary coach Troy Douglas said after Pitt’s first practice Monday. “We need more guys that can play.”
Illustrating Douglas’ point, the man who replaces Howard on the depth chart, redshirt sophomore Trenton Coles, will do so as much by default as anything else. Coles is the only cornerback other than presumed starter Lafayette Pitts on the roster with any experience.
Douglas described Coles as a prototypical NFL cornerback at 6 feet 2 and with lightning-quick speed, but noted he still has plenty to learn when it comes to the mental aspect of the game.
“He’s fearless, he’s long and athletic,” Douglas said. “He probably made as many plays on the ball as anybody, but he got beat as much as anybody. Those are things we’ve got to cut back on, but we’ve got to continue to get him to make plays on the ball.”
For his part, Coles said he looks forward to the opportunity and is ready for the challenge of being an every-down player.
“If you’re not confident, you’re not playing right,” he said. “I’ve got to be confident, because I believe in myself, I believe in what I can do, so I’m going to do it.”
To create some depth behind Coles, the coaches moved safety Ryan Lewis to cornerback on the first day of practice. But that creates a bit of a depth issue at safety, where redshirt senior Ray Vinopal, sophomore Terrish Webb and redshirt sophomore Reggie Mitchell figure to get the bulk of the playing time.
Mitchell also is seeing time as the nickelback in passing situations, and some specialty packages have Vinopal playing linebacker, creating a bit of a void in the secondary.
“Where’s the next one coming from?” Douglas said. “We need to have those [young] guys come as far as they can so we can play the spreads with four wideouts.”
The “young guys” Douglas is referring to might hold the key for the back end of the defense. Freshman cornerback Avonte Maddox made a splash on the first play Monday when he intercepted Trey Anderson’s pass and took it back for a touchdown, but Douglas cautioned that all four freshman defensive backs still have a long way to go.
“Young pup making a play,” Douglas said. “He’s very talented, and so are all the other young kids, but they’ve just got to learn.
“The faster they learn, the faster they adapt, the faster they’ll play. And I’m not scared to play them. I played a freshman last year, I played [NFL cornerback] Tracy Porter when he was a true freshman [at Indiana]. I’ll play a freshman if he’s the best one and coach [Paul] Chryst lets me.”
As for the player whose suspension started all this shuffling, Howard’s teammates said they would support and stand by him while he sits out this yearlong suspension.
“I just told him to keep his head up and use it for motivation, basically,” said Webb, who played with Howard at Clairton. “We come from harder times. He’s not used to it, but he’s been through harder things, so he knows how to respond to it. I just told him it’s a minor setback for a major comeback.
“I told him we’re going to play for him, as a whole defense.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.