Shakir Soto isn’t deaf to the noise around him. He knows that one of the biggest questions onlookers have about Pitt is how the defensive line will replace a once-in-a-generation talent such as Aaron Donald.
Soto, a sophomore defensive end, also knows that he is the first name people point to when guessing who could take a step forward in Donald’s absence.
And he is OK with that.
“I’ve been reading some stuff online and a lot of people are saying that it’s time for me to fill in and step up,” Soto said. “I’m not a freshman anymore. I’m trying to be the man I’m supposed to be at the defensive end position. So I’ve got to fill that role.”
Part of the reason responsibility falls to Soto is that there simply isn’t anyone else to step up. Pitt entered training camp this year with two experienced defensive ends — Soto and redshirt senior David Durham — but Soto possess a skill set that gives him unique potential.
After playing last season at around 240 pounds, Soto is up to 268 as of Tuesday, and hopes to play this season at around 265.
“That’s good size for a defensive end,” said John Palermo, Pitt’s coach at the position. “He’s relatively smart, does what he’s supposed to do. He’s still got a lot he has to learn about the game, but he’s very coachable.”
Soto said carrying the extra weight was a bit challenging at first, but he has gotten used to it and the increased power has become evident.
“It’s gotten a lot better since day one,” Soto said. “It was kind of difficult at first, trying to handle all the weight I’ve gained since last season, but I’m moving better, and, as camp goes on, I’m playing better with everything.”
Soto also has experience on his side this fall. He enrolled early as a freshman for spring practice in 2013 and saw the field early as a freshman. He played in all 13 games and had a career-high four tackles in the Panthers’ regular-season finale against Miami.
When regular starting defensive end Bryan Murphy did not play in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl against Bowling Green, Soto got his first shot as a starter and responded with his first career sack a little more than a minute into the game.
“Just like every other freshman, I was a little nervous, you know what I mean?” Soto said. “You could tell when you play, the freshman moment comes out a little bit. But I feel now like I’m a lot more comfortable and can play the defensive end position a lot better.”
The ends struggled to produce at times last year. Five players made contributions there, but they combined for 82 tackles and six sacks. If Pitt is going to replace Donald up front, the ends likely will need to contribute more, particularly in the pass rush.
Soto, like many of his teammates and coaches, preached a team mantra when discussing how the Panthers will make up for Donald absence.
“No one [player] is really going to do that for a while,” Soto said. “I believe the whole defensive line can do that, produce the same numbers he did.”
So far, a week and a half through training camp, Palermo said he can see flashes of Soto’s potential, but added that he hasn’t put everything together on a regular basis yet.
“Shakir’s done OK,” Palermo said. “Shakir needs to step up his game a little bit. He’s a starter for us right now, and he’s got to practice a little bit more on a consistent basis. When he does what he’s supposed to, he’s a very good football player.”
Part of the reason Palermo is a bit hard on his pupil is that he knows the importance of Soto to the defense and the possibilities if Soto can tap into his full potential.
There are legitimate expectations on the young sophomore’s shoulders, and Soto wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I like having people to have confidence in me,” he said. “I prefer that than having people not talk about me at all.”
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.