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October 7, 2010Pitt's new-look offensive line sprung Ray Graham for a near-record 277 rushing yards on Saturday against Florida International, but the impact of the Panthers' other adjustment might be just as significant.
Faced with injuries, subpar play and spread offenses, the Pitt coaching staff decided to shift the personnel on defense following the Panthers' 31-3 loss to Miami two weeks ago. Senior Dom DeCicco moved from strong safety, where he had been a three-year starter, to a hybrid nickel-back/weak-side linebacker role. In DeCicco's place, redshirt freshman Jason Hendricks took over at strong safety.
"It's pretty exciting," middle linebacker Max Gruder said. "I think overall the defense played pretty well. We started meshing towards the end of the game and I think it showed."
The adjustments were born out of several circumstances. Dan Mason's season-ending knee surgery caused Gruder to move from strong-side linebacker to the middle, which led to Greg Williams moving from weak-side to strong-side. That opened the weak-side linebacker position for Tristan Roberts, but he struggled in the Miami game, his lone start of the season.
With a number of Pitt's remaining opponents using spread offenses, the defensive coaches wanted to get more speed and athleticism on the field. Moving DeCicco to the middle of the defense and Hendricks into a full-time role fit the bill.
"I think it's good to have [DeCicco and Hendricks] in the game," safety Jarred Holley said. "They're both athletic guys, and when you put Dom down closer to the line, he's one of the best tacklers on our team. I think it's a good fit for our defense."
DeCicco, 6'4" 230, brings a solid presence to the middle of the defense, while Hendricks brings an element of speed that has improved the secondary and the defense overall. The FIU game was Hendricks' second start this season and his third game with considerable playing time, having filled in while DeCicco was sidelined with a hamstring injury.
"He's progressed really well," Holley said of Hendricks. "He's a key guy for our defense and he's doing very well. I think [Hendricks' speed] helps a lot. He's flying up to the ball, staying in coverage, and for our defense, it's big to stay in coverage and not get beat deep. I think he helps out in that aspect."
With Hendricks and Holley patrolling the back of the defense and DeCicco and Gruder offering solidity to the middle, Pitt may have found its best combination.
"It's a situation where we get the best eleven players on the field, which is great," Gruder said.
"I definitely agree," DeCicco said. "We need to get Jason on the field. He's making plays. With Jason being on the field and me being on, it gets our best guys on the field and the most playmakers on the field."
The adjustments are getting rave reviews from the players, but that doesn't mean it has been all smooth-sailing for DeCicco in making the transition.
"Playing safety, I've learned what the linebackers do on every play. So I knew exactly what I was doing, but it was a matter of actually doing it. As the week went on in practice and the game went on, I got more comfortable.
"As the week went on, there were days when I was frustrated because I knew safety so well, and playing that new position just wasn't clicking. But as the week went on, I got more and more comfortable and definitely as the game went on I got more comfortable."
There's one part of playing hybrid nickel-back/linebacker that DeCicco has come to appreciate.
"It's a lot more fun knowing that, if someone runs behind you, you don't have to go chasing them."
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