Elias Reynolds earning trust as Pitt’s starting middle linebacker
Elias Reynolds didn’t expect a thank-you from Amir Watts. Just knowing he had made the call that put Watts in the proper position to make a big play was enough.
The play happened a week before Reynolds, a sophomore from Brooklyn, N.Y., became Pitt’s starting middle linebacker.
Reynolds had earned the coaches’ trust long before senior Quintin Wirginis’ season-ending knee injury, and he was on the field in the second quarter of a tight game against Syracuse.
Before the snap, Reynolds called out a check that required Watts, a defensive tackle, to drop off the line of scrimmage. A moment later, Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey threw the ball directly to the spot where he didn’t expect Watts to be standing. But because of Reynolds’ awareness, Watts was there to make the interception.
“I said (to Watts), ‘You’re welcome,’ ” Reynolds said, with a smile.
Not a week later, Wirginis injured his knee in practice and Reynolds found himself in the middle of the defense - sophomore Chase Pine is also in the mix -- calling out alignments, making plays and providing leadership.
Then, all of a sudden, Pitt put together its best defensive effort of the season at Notre Dame Stadium.
Losing Wirginis was a devastating blow for many reasons, including his knack for being around the football and to set an example for younger teammates.
“Quintin definitely has more experience over me,” Reynolds said. “Bigger, stronger, been here longer, knows more things at the mike position. I’m a young player. ... Big shoes to step in and fill.”
In his last game, Wirginis had eight tackles, a sack and a forced fumble against Syracuse. Reynolds had only three tackles in the Notre Dame game, so Pitt was missing Wirginis’ big-play abililty. But the team’s overall defensive effort was its best since the opener against Albany.
The Irish, who have risen to No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, defeated Pitt, but scored only 19 points (their lowest output of the season). They averaged 518 yards against Wake Forest, Stanford and Virginia Tech. But Pitt held them to 344, only 21 more than FCS opponent Albany recorded.
But that was just one game, which will mean nothing if Pitt fails to follow up with a second strong effort Saturday against Duke at Heinz Field.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe studied the Pitt-Notre Dame video and came away impressed.
“One of the things Pat (Narduzzi) has always done is played a lot of people on defense,” he said. “They’ve stepped up. They did lose an outstanding football player. We have great respect for (Wirginis), having played against him in the past. It’s an unfortunate part of football.
“But I think they played with purpose against Notre Dame. They had a great opportunity to win the game. Actually a shame they didn’t win the game.”
That’s a nice tribute but nothing to trigger a celebration in the linebackers’ meeting room.
“We did very well as a unit,” Reynolds said. “Our job is to keep points of the board, so we definitely could have done more. I could have done more.”
Reynolds said Wirginis remains a part of the team, helping linebackers with video study and offering advice. He credited the call he made in the Syracuse game to advice he received from Wirginis.
“He shows me how to watch film, how to approach the gameplan, how to approach teams we’re playing and how to get better.”
Reynolds admitted to feeling “butterflies in my stomach” prior to the Notre Dame game. But, he said, “I just brushed it off.”
“The guys embraced me and helped me take on this big role.”
Narduzzi said Reynolds didn’t panic in the first start of his career, but he did benefit from having seniors Seun Idowu and Elijah Zeise flanking him at outside linebacker.
“Two older guys out there with him who can help make sure things are right,” he said. “I think Elias did OK. You lose one guy in the middle, he’s the heart of the defense, really. He gets everything controlled. Elias did some nice things in there as far as getting everybody lined up. He’s pretty cool.”