On a team with 13 returning starters and plenty of players ready to step in, one of the few legitimate position battles in Pitt’s 2014 training camp is at strong safety.
But don’t tell that to Reggie Mitchell, one of its participants.
“I don’t really want to say it’s a battle, because we’re both helping each other out there,” said Mitchell, a redshirt sophomore who is competing with sophomore Terrish Webb for the starting job.
“We’re trying to get each other in the best shape we can so we can both help the team out.”
The two have alternated first-team snaps since the Panthers opened training camp this week, and it’s hard to pick a favorite to ultimately earn the job at this point.
Even defensive coordinator Matt House found it difficult to differentiate the two after one week of practices.
“Terrish is really, really bright; not that Reggie isn’t, Reggie is, too,” House said. “Terrish loves to compete, Reggie loves to compete. Reggie’s got great quickness. It’s a good battle going on back there.”
Mitchell is entering his first season eligible to play for the Panthers after transferring from Wisconsin last year. A Shady Side Academy graduate, he played in one game for the Badgers as a freshman in 2012 and sat out last year after coming to Pitt.
While sitting out wasn’t exactly fun, Mitchell said he appreciated the time it gave him to learn the playbook and rehab some injuries — particularly in his knee — that bothered him.
“I’ve got a lot more energy this year, I know that’s for sure,” Mitchell said. “It’s been a long time. I’ve been just sitting and watching, so I’m excited to get out there.”
The other option, Webb, is also a local product out of Clairton High School. He was Jason Hendricks’ primary backup at strong safety last year, and played in all 13 games.
Webb earned his first start when Pitt opened in a dime formation against Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, and responded with a career-high six tackles and a pass breakup.
It was a whirlwind at times for Webb last season, but that playing time as a freshman has led to an increased comfort level heading into his second training camp as a college football player.
“Coming in last year, out of high school, you kind of run simple plays, but in college it’s like a way different atmosphere,” Webb said. “You’ve got to key the little things, the offensive line, the receiver splits. So I feel way more comfortable that I’ve got the year experience, plus with the help of Jason Hendricks last year, he taught me the little things, so I feel very comfortable now.”
Webb agreed that he and Mitchell are trying to help each other improve on the field, regardless of who wins the job.
Of course, this particular competition comes with a wrinkle that makes it a little less cutthroat than, say, a quarterback derby. No matter who gets the starting nod, both are likely to see the field plenty this season. When Webb is working at strong safety with the first team, Mitchell is the primary nickelback in passing situations, and vice versa.
With the number of spread offenses Pitt will face this year, the Panthers will be in nickel formation plenty, which means Webb and Mitchell will be on the field together.
“We’re in the ACC and it’s a passing conference, so we’re going to be running those defenses,” Webb said.
Nickelback is usually a position better suited for a cornerback because it involves a lot of man-to-man coverage against receivers, but Mitchell said he and Webb have taken to the position well.
“We’ve got the tools,” he said. “We’re both trying to learn as much as we can. I think the more reps we get, we’ll get on top of it.”
So maybe it is a position battle, after all, even if just a friendly one.
“We’re learning that we can depend on each other, because we’re both playing strong safety and nickel,” Mitchell said. “Whether I’m lining up in nickel or strong safety, I know that T-Webb’s got my back.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.