All offseason, Darryl Render has heard the questions.
How will Pitt’s defense make up for the loss of Aaron Donald and how is Render, stepping into Donald’s defensive tackle position, going to replace the consensus All-American?
Has Render gotten sick of the question yet?
“A little bit,” he said, with a laugh. “But it’s all good.”
Render understands the concerns. You don’t replace a player like Aaron Donald. But Render also thinks this Pitt defense has more than enough talent across the board to make up for the loss.
“If people want to overlook us, they can overlook us, but we’re going to do what we need to do on Saturdays,” said Render, a junior. “Not let people run the ball, pass the ball on us. We’re going to do everything we need to do.”
And, while there’s some youth at other defensive positions, the line is one unit where the Panthers are fortunate enough to have a veteran player like Render step in to fill a hole. The Cleveland native has played in 24 games the past four years, including two starts. Last year, he played in all 13 contests and totalled 25 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and half a sack.
“I definitely feel like one of the older guys because I’ve been playing for the last three years, ever since I got here,” Render said. “I feel more comfortable and I feel like I’m ready to take that role on and help younger guys come along and show them the right steps they need to do.”
Defensive coordinator Matt House has been adamant all offseason that replacing Donald’s production will have to happen across the entire defense, not at one position. He noted it wouldn’t be fair to Render to expect that kind of once-in-a-generation output.
In fact, Render’s role might be different than Donald’s was last year. Whereas the coaches spent 2013 constantly trying to find matchups for Donald to exploit, Render could be asked to eat up blocks occasionally this year and let others make plays. Then, there will be times when he’s asked to get in the backfield himself.
“Behind closed doors, in here, everyone’s going to see what I did,” Render said. “Outside, everyone’s going to notice the guy making the tackle. That’s fine with me, as long as we’re catching wins.”
Render said his most important job is staying within his assignment on a given play. Coaches have introduced a mantra of “If you take it, you’ve got to make it,” meaning that if a player takes a risk, he better make the play.
Render admitted that last year, the defense would wait for Donald to make a play when they needed it. This year, players have been more assertive about taking their chances when they get them.
“I do think in their own mind there’s a greater sense of urgency that ‘I’ve got to be the guy,’ within what we’re trying to get done on that particular play in that particular scheme,” House said. “I definitely think there is a bigger sense of ‘I’ve got to be the guy,’ which is a good thing.”
Mostly, though, Render’s just excited to be playing a key role on this defense after two years as Donald’s understudy. He said this offseason flew past faster than any in recent memory and that he’s just ready to get out on the field in the season opener Saturday against Delaware.
“That’s the one thing, just getting a chance to play more, getting a chance to be out there with those guys and being able to work,” Render said. “I’m just super excited and can’t wait to get started.”
He’s also excited, of course, to stop having to answer that certain question.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.