Pitt Football: DeCicco is a new wrinkle
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Sometimes injuries can become a positive for a football team because it forces depth to come into play.
Pitt strong safety Dom DeCicco was slowed by a hamstring injury during training camp, so redshirt freshman Jason Hendricks was forced into the lineup at starting safety and has been more than up to the challenge.
Hendricks' play gave Pitt coaches the luxury of moving DeCicco to linebacker, a position of need.
Early returns on that move are positive as well.
DeCicco, who had been the Panthers' starting strong safety for the past two years, made his first career start at weakside linebacker Saturday against Florida International and played well at a position he said he has never played.
"I was a little nervous at first," DeCicco said. "I just had to settle in and play football. It is a lot different being that close to the line of scrimmage and it was tough this week because I was in both [defensive back and linebacker] meetings this week. But the guys around me helped me out and as the game wore on I felt more comfortable.
"It is a big change for me, but the big thing is coaches asked me to do it in order to help the team because we're going to see a lot of spread offenses."
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said that DeCicco was moved to the linebacker spot -- he called it the "nickleback" -- because the Panthers aren't likely to see a traditional pro-style offense any time soon and DeCicco is big enough to play the run and fast enough to cover underneath receivers.
DeCicco will be an upgrade in pass coverage at that position because covering underneath receivers and crossing routes has been something the Panthers' linebackers had struggled with this season.
In fact, that is a big reason coaches turned to DeCicco, who played every snap Saturday until late in the game and Wannstedt emptied the bench.
DeCicco's position move may have been made even if Hendricks had not played so well. Wannstedt said DeCicco (6-4, 235) should shore up the Panthers' coverages against teams which run spread offenses or use a lot of formations with multiple (three or more) receivers.
Saturday against the Golden Panthers -- a 44-17 win by Pitt -- DeCicco showed he is an upgrade at the position in two ways -- he covered receivers well and he made two good open-field tackles to stop what could have been big gains.
Pitt middle linebacker Max Gruder -- who is settling into a new position himself -- said it was clear that DeCicco grew more comfortable with his new role.
"I've always felt so comfortable playing with Dom because he is so athletic and I felt comfortable today, he has the build of a linebacker," Gruder said. "He is very athletic and I loved having him on the field next to me. Almost every team we play is a spread team, it is rare to play against a team like us who runs it 30 times or whatever -- it is pretty much the opposite, we're going to see pretty much all passes and read [option] type of stuff.
"That's why now days you have to have athletic linebackers who can run around and jam receivers and run with receivers and backs and Dom definitely brings that to the table. He is the same size as most linebackers and he was playing at safety -- the one word he brings to the table at linebacker is athleticism. He is an athlete -- he is a great tackler and we saw that today."
Gruder said that the Panthers have tweaked their base defense a little bit because DeCicco is more of a hybrid player than he is a traditional linebacker.
Gruder moved from strong-side linebacker when starter middle linebacker Dan Mason suffered a season-ending knee injury. Greg Williams moved from weak side to strong side and Tristan Roberts started one game before being replaced by DiCicco at weak side.
Wannstedt said he liked the new look of the linebacker group Saturday but it will be a work in progress as DeCicco learns the nuances of the position.
The group will be put to the test again Saturday as they play against Notre Dame's spread offense.
"Basically by putting a safety in there at linebacker it gives us a better athlete," Wannstedt said. "And Dom, it is perfect for him because he is physical enough to play the run. And for his first time, under fire, I thought he did a good job."
DeCicco said he knows he has a lot of work to do this week to get ready for Notre Dame -- the Irish are coached by former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly so the Panthers are very familiar with his offense -- but at least now he has a more clearly defined role to attack and try to refine.
"Taking on blocks from linemen is different than what I am used to," DeCicco said. "I know this is what will help make the team better and so I just need to get to the point where I am just out there playing and not reacting or thinking too much. I'm looking forward to learning the position and improving and helping the team win."
First Published October 4, 2010 12:00 am