PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) -- Last year the Panthers relied heavily upon the contributions of underclassmen for an effective pass defense. Safety Jason Hendricks, coming off a stellar redshirt junior season that earned him Preseason All-ACC honors, expects the approaching campaign to be no different.
"Look for Mike Caprara. He's been making some plays this spring," said Hendricks, who led Pitt's defense with 90 tackles last year. "Anthony Gonzalez started some games last year, and I think he's going to be another one of the guys who steps up for us."
Gonzalez, as a dual-threat quarterback at Liberty High School (Bethlehem, Pa.), was the bane of WPIAL champion Bethel Park's existence in the 2008 state championship game, and he made both the All-PIAA Class AAAA squad and the 2012 Panthers as a safety before injuries forced Pitt head coach Paul Chryst to move him to strong side ("Sam") linebacker.
In a surprise move by Chryst, he made his first start in the BBVA Compass Bowl, recording half of his ten tackles on the year at Legion Field. As training camp unfolds, he'll be fighting highly touted southwestern Ohio prospect Bam Bradley for more playing time.
Expectations of Caprara (6'0", 215 lbs.), an All-PIAA middle linebacker from NFL factory Woodland Hills, have been just as lofty. A three-year starter under the legendary George Novak, Caprara helped make his Wolverines one of the least scored-upon teams in Class AAAA and fueled a shutout of mighty Gateway in the 2009 WPIAL Championships.
Then, as a junior, while Woody High fell just short of a successful title defense, he racked up a personal-best 122 tackles, setting the school's career tackles mark with his entire senior year to spare.
He obliterated the record with over 350, and fellow linebacker Ejuan Price, who was another of the most heavily sought-after prep stars at his position locally, appeared set to follow him to Ohio State.
However, following their recruitment, a major financial scandal involving a Columbus-area tattoo parlor tainted that program and unraveled the career of head coach Jim Tressel. Both young men backed out of their commitments, though, in spite of their detour, they remain teammates.
Price has been on the mend from a pectoral injury that sidelined him after a commendable true freshman year. Caprara, a redshirt freshman, is knocking on the door of fifth-year senior Shane Gordon, the Panthers' projected starter at middle ("Mike") linebacker.
Caprara led the defense with 12 tackles, including nine solo, in the annual Blue-Gold Game at Bethel Park Stadium Apr. 12, and in the event Gordon has further health issues, the future could be now for one of the beasts of the Big 33 Classic.
Lafayette Pitts (5'11", 195 lbs.), a running back on those 2009-10 Woodland Hills teams, also got to represent Team Pennsylvania in Hershey, also vacillated between Division I offers--switching allegiance from Rutgers to Pitt--and is also poised to be an impact player in the Panthers' defense for the next few years.
The redshirt sophomore cornerback contributed 35 tackles and a team-best nine pass breakups while starting every game in 2012. Hendricks has "seen him grow as a person and as a player," and, at the other corner, Pitts has good help in K'Waun Williams, who made 47 tackles and four picks as a junior.
"I think we're pretty strong. We've got three returning starters, and Ray Vinopal is coming in looking strong," Hendricks said. "I'm real excited about the secondary."
Speaking of ex-Wolverines, it would bode very well for that group if Michigan transfer and redshirt junior Vinopal, who rode shotgun to Hendricks at free safety before the latter replaced Jarred Holley at strong safety, could benefit from all those reps as a backup in 2012, his first year of eligibility at Pitt.
It would bode even better if defensive backs Terrish Webb and/or Titus Howard, two of Clairton's three "Killer T's" who joined Chryst's 2013 recruiting class, blossomed early under "new" defensive coordinator Matt House.
Nevertheless, Pitt ranked 20th nationally in 2012 with an average of 194.2 passing yards allowed per game. Season-opening opponent Florida State, the overall FBS leader, was the only ACC team better in that category.
The Panthers allowed 15 touchdown passes last season, and of the teams on their 2013 schedule, only the conference champion Seminoles and Notre Dame, the reigning national runner-up, yielded less.
They also collected 15 interceptions in 2012, and Hendricks led the Big East with six, the most by a Pitt player in a single season since Shawn Robinson matched that in 2000.
A springtime toe injury hasn't slowed him down, and he doesn't believe the recent changes embraced by the program, both to the coordinator and the conference, will slow him down either.
"We're playing the same defense as last year, just with some minor changes," Hendricks explained. "We've had extra time to practice [those changes] during the spring. I think we're going to be able to execute even better."
(Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)
for more features.