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Deep linebacker group, position battle energizes Pitt defense

August 12, 2018

Pitt linebacker Elijah Zeise goes through during drills on the first day of practice Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

The last sight Randy Bates wanted to see on the first day of training camp was someone out of breath and out of shape.

Yet, one such person did end up huffing and puffing after practice, and Bates wasn’t happy about it.

It was Bates himself, the 58-year-old defensive coordinator.

“The only guy out of shape is me,” he said. “My voice is ridiculous right now. I sound like I’m 12-years-old.”

Everyone else looked “great,” according to the coach.

That’s nice, but the least any coach expects from his players is to show up in good condition, and that appears to be the case as the Panthers started camp.

What really matters is how Bates’ players can play football. “We’ve been talking and teaching and now it’s time to see what we got,” he said.

Pitt’s defense might be in better shape than the national perception. There’s experience in the front seven, an interesting position battle at outside linebacker with two seasoned players, nine returning starters and eight redshirt seniors.

“We’re deeper on defense,” coach Pat Narduzzi said.

The guy Narduzzi has put in charge of the defense is Bates, who’s in his first season at Pitt after 12 years as Northwestern’s linebackers coach. He has already made an impression on his players on and off the field.

“He’s kind of a ball of energy,” senior linebacker Elijah Zeise said. “You see him run around out there screaming. He’s a good dude. I like him a lot.”

In the classroom, Zeise said Bates makes the defense “easier to understand.”

“For that reason, for a lot of the young guys, it will be easy for them to transition into our defense.”

Bates promises all 11 players on defense will run to the ball. “Things happen when you populate to the ball,” he said.

The best way to do that is to recruit superior athletes who can think quickly and react when their brain tells them it’s time.

Coaches are expecting that to happen throughout the defense, but especially at linebacker where seniors Zeise, Quintin Wirginis and Seun Idowu and junior Saleem Brightwell have played a lot of football (a total of 124 games). Even the reserves -- Anthony McKee on the outside and Chase Pine and Elias Reynolds inside -- have some experience. McKee, who will back up Idowu, won the Conway Award as the defense’s most improved player in the spring.

Zeise, who came to Pitt as a wide receiver, said the big difference for him is his reaction time.

“When I first moved over (to defense), I was just trying to understand what I was supposed to do,” he said. “As far as where I was supposed to fit.

“Now, I’m more comfortable. I have more knowledge about what the offense is doing. I’m able to react a lot faster and see things happening faster.”

Yet, he doesn’t have a lock on a starting job.

With the return of Wirginis, a middle linebacker redshirted last year after suffering a nonfootball-related injury, Brightwell needs a home.

He started all 12 games in the middle last year, but he will move outside to the money position and compete with Zeise, who played there all last season.

At 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, Zeise is 2 inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Brightwell. But the plan is to play them both, perhaps one a bit more than the other. The starter won’t be chosen for another month, and even after that, the competition will continue.

“We’re just both going to get better from it,” Zeise said. “I know I’m going to push him to try to take the spot and he’s going to push me.

“We’ll make it hard on (linebackers) coach (Rob) Harley to choose one of us to put in. Ultimately, I think both of us will play either way.”

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