Pitt Football: Panthers must look to compensate for the loss of Elijah Fields

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The proliferation of the spread offense in college football has dramatically changed the way defenses are built and has forced every team to have a game plan to defend it.

"Back when I was at Miami [as the defensive coordinator in the 1980s], we didn't have any sub packages at all," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We had our three linebackers in the game in every situation, but we saw a lot more two-back and a lot more pro-style, conventional offenses. We didn't see as many three- and four-wide receiver sets like we see now, and the spread offense is an entirely different animal to try to attack."

The sub packages to deal with the spread offense usually feature a linebacker/safety hybrid player who is fast enough to cover receivers but physical enough to support the run.

And that is where Elijah Fields came in handy last season.

Fields, a linebacker/safety who was dismissed from the team this spring, technically wasn't a starter, but in some games he played extensively because the Panthers were out of their base 4-3 defense and into one or more of their sub packages the entire game.

The Panthers are looking for someone to fill that role this season, but there isn't any one player with the combination of size, speed and skill set of Fields. Thus, personnel decisions will be based on matchups and situations with a number of players involved.

Two players who definitely will be in the thick of things are safeties Andrew Taglianetti (5 feet 11, 180 pounds) and Jason Hendricks (6-0, 180), both who have played the nickel back position throughout camp.

Both have made plays in those situations and are good in coverage, but neither is big enough to handle some of the linebacker duties of the hybrid position, so the defensive sub packages like buck and bandit will look a little different this year. Wannstedt also said in certain situations safety Dom DeCicco, who is 6-4, 235, could move into that hybrid linebacker spot, with Taglianetti or Hendricks playing safety.

He also believes the Panthers could get away with playing more base defense this year than last year because this season's outside linebackers are fast enough to cover receivers in a pinch.

"We're fortunate because our linebackers, Tristan Roberts and Greg Williams, can both run [the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds]. I mean, they can both run as fast as some receivers," Wannstedt said. "So we're fortunate if we happen to get caught with them in there. But we have a nickel package and a dime package, like most teams, and who we use will depend on what specifically we are trying to defend about a particular opponent.

"Taglianetti did it for us two years ago and so he will figure in, and I think we have a couple of corners with maybe more specific skills who we will use in certain situations. But it is all about trying to find the right combinations. It will have to be a week-to-week decision, both with our personnel and with our scheme because everyone has a little different spin on how they run their spread offense."

The Panthers have worked on their nickel and dime defenses a lot during camp because they open with a spread offense team in Utah. The Utes are one of at least seven opponents that run some variation of the spread offense.

Wannstedt said that despite the loss of Fields, the defense will be ready to deal with spread offenses because the defensive staff has worked hard to come up with some things schematically that will put the players in positions to make plays.

"We have some good things that the defensive coaches are working on in the spring and the summer," Wannstedt said. "Believe me, we are looking forward to taking a look at them in a couple of weeks."

NOTES -- Pitt will have its second scrimmage today and Wannstedt expects it to be much more crisp than the first one Saturday. He also would like to see more of the key players play. "It is important we bounce back tomorrow and have a good one," Wannstedt said. ... The format for the scrimmage will be similar, although this time there will be a full officiating crew. ... Defensive end Greg Romeus (back spasms) practiced on a limited basis Tuesday. "He had a good practice [Monday] and came out today and was OK, but we have to keep working him and letting him make progress day by day. ...Tight end Andrew Devlin (knee) was limited in practice because he had to have some fluid drained out of his knee. ... The only player who is definitely out for the scrimmage is tailback Ray Graham (knee). Wannstedt said he expects everyone else -- with the exception of the players out for the season -- to participate.


Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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