Sizing up Soto: Senior flourishing in switch from DE to DT

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Sizing up Soto: Senior flourishing in switch from DE to DT

Defensive tackle Shakir Soto (52) led Pitt with eight  total tackles in the Panthers' Homecoming win against Georgia Tech. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Defensive tackle Shakir Soto (52) led Pitt with eight total tackles in the Panthers' Homecoming win against Georgia Tech. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Defensive tackle Shakir Soto (52) led Pitt with eight total tackles in the Panthers' Homecoming win against Georgia Tech. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

Defensive tackle Shakir Soto (52) led Pitt with eight total tackles in the Panthers' Homecoming win against Georgia Tech. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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Sometime around the end of Pitt’s season-ending 44-28 loss to Navy in the 2015 Military Bowl, Pat Narduzzi decided he needed to make a change to his defense moving forward.

Narduzzi has reiterated his main defensive focus — stopping the run — time and time again, and the Panthers had just been gashed for 417 rushing yards by Navy. In need of a fix, he asked junior Shakir Soto to make a change.

Soto played in all 39 games of his first three seasons at Pitt. But after making all 13 starts at defensive end as a sophomore in 2014, he made only three starts in more of a reserve role as a junior.

Then, Pitt’s second-year head coach decided to switch Soto to defensive tackle for his senior season, thrusting him from the outside into the middle of the line alongside 6-foot-3, 335-pound nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett.

Narduzzi had already been planning to move Soto inside since the end of last season. Then, redshirt junior Justin Moody was diagnosed with a cervical spine condition just before the start of training camp. That meant he could no longer play football, let alone start at defensive tackle for the Panthers.

It was a big change to ask of a 6-foot-3, 245-pound defensive end going into his final year of eligibility, especially one who had never played the position before at the collegiate level. Narduzzi seems to think it’s paid off.

“It was one of the great moves of the offseason,” Narduzzi said at his Monday press conference. “I don’t know if he knew it, but we knew it.”

Defensive ends typically come around the edge to rush the passer, while defensive tackles are asked to clog up holes on the inside. Before he took the field as a defensive tackle, Soto had to pack on a lot more body mass in order to compete with opposing centers and guards.

Soto had to add about 45 pounds to his frame in the offseason to get to his current playing weight of 290 pounds. He said it was one of the toughest challenges in preparing for his new role.

“Gaining that much weight in such a short period of time, I didn’t want to slow myself down or get weaker,” Soto said.

So how did he do it?

“I would eat like two large pizzas a day,” Soto said. “Then wake up in the middle of the night and eat a peanut butter sandwich.”

Although he said it “kind of sucked” having to eat all the time, Soto bulked up to about 275 pounds by spring practices, before adding the final 15 pounds throughout the summer.

Once the season started, Soto became an invaluable game wrecker for the Panthers, constantly blowing up running plays in the backfield before they get started. He credits Jarrett with helping him learn the new position as he made the transition.

“He was there with me. He believed in me every day, and he’s definitely one of the reasons why I’m having success at the position so far,” Soto said. “He’s helped me a lot. Especially when he’s on the field when he gets double-teamed all the time, that helps a lot.”

Soto had a team-high eight total tackles and two tackles on ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage in the Panthers’ 37-34 win over Georgia Tech Saturday. On the season, he has 26 total tackles and five tackles for loss in six games.

“[Soto] was clearly a dominant player Saturday,” Narduzzi said. “He was our defensive player of the week, without a doubt. You saw that halfway through the tape. He was making plays everywhere.”

Jarrett was no slouch in the game either, bottling up Georgia Tech running back Dedrick Mills on a crucial fourth-and-1 stop to set up Chris Blewitt’s game-winning field goal.

He said he’s believed in Soto’s ability to play defensive tackle since before he ever lined up next to him in a game.

“I’m happy that he actually stepped up, and he’s given me a lot of hope for the D-line,” Jarrett said during training camp. “Me and Shakir in the middle, I feel like we’ll be dominant.”

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