April 24, 2007

Spring wrap-up: The other side of the trenches

There are a couple themes that have consistently emerged from Dave Wannstedt in his time as Pitt's head coach. Chief among those oft-mentioned topics is that the Panthers need to create a successful running game, but while that is undeniable as one of Wannstedt's main focuses, there is another area of the team that he appears to value even more:

The defensive line.

Since his arrival at Pitt, Wannstedt has preached the necessity of having an effective defensive line. As such, his two recruiting classes have included 17 defensive linemen. While he waits for those players to become significant contributors, Wannstedt has had to work with the linemen he inherited, and that process has come with mixed results.

But after two seasons of relatively ineffective line play, 2007 could finally be the season when the Pitt d-line becomes an impact group. Much of the defense that Wannstedt and Paul Rhoads want to operate relies on an effective line, and with the Panthers replacing three starting linebackers, the line will be of even higher importance.

As in the past, Wannstedt still envisions a dream scenario when he can field a rotation of eight defensive linemen with relatively no drop-off throughout the group. In 2005 he found himself very far from that objective; last year he got a bit closer, and this season he could look at the two-deep and feel confident in the talent level on the line.

Here is a breakdown of the defensive line's performance in spring camp 2007.

Gus Mustakas

Since his debut at Pitt as a reserve end in his freshman season, Mustakas has done one thing: make plays. Whether it was batting down passes as a freshman end or returning an interception for a touchdown as a sophomore tackle, Mustakas has been a playmaker for the Panthers. His biggest strengths come from his athleticism, and he used his natural quickness quite often in spring camp, much to the chagrin of left guard Joe Thomas, who had trouble handling Mustakas.

But while Mustakas has always had that quickness and athleticism, he has shown noticeable improvement each year as he has continued to increase his strength and hone his technique. Now, as he enters his third season, it appears that those areas are catching up to his athleticism, with the end result being a more complete package of tools for the junior tackle. The coaching staff has noticed Mustakas' improvement as well, presenting him with the Ed Conway Award for most improved player this spring.

Rashaad Duncan

Mustakas' linemate in the middle, Duncan has, in the past, struggled with his conditioning and drive. This spring, though, it seemed like he turned a corner: while he wasn't a physical specimen, per se, he looked to be in better shape than he has in the past. Perhaps more importantly, though, he appeared to be more focused than he has been the past few years. Duncan is a powerful bull-rusher whose size should give him a strength advantage over opposing guards and centers. If he can maximize his pushing ability, he should be able to draw a significant number of double teams, which will allow some of his fellow linemen to take advantage of one-on-one situations.

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