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Injuries on Pitt’s D-Line force new faces into key roles

Pitt+DT+Jeremiah+Taleni+%2894%29+is+a+candidate+to+start+for+the+Panthers+against+Clemson+on+Saturday.+Theo+Schwarz+%7C+Senior+Staff+Photographer
Pitt DT Jeremiah Taleni (94) is a candidate to start for the Panthers against Clemson on Saturday. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt DT Jeremiah Taleni (94) is a candidate to start for the Panthers against Clemson on Saturday. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt DT Jeremiah Taleni (94) is a candidate to start for the Panthers against Clemson on Saturday. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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The Pitt football team’s much-maligned defense has given up its fair share of devastating plays this year.

The Panthers’ defense has struggled all season to come up with stops in key situations. But midway through the second quarter of a 51-28 loss to Miami Saturday, the unit may have experienced its most excruciating play yet — and it wasn’t even a touchdown.

With Pitt holding a 21-20 lead, Miami handed the ball to running back Mark Walton, who made Pitt linebacker Mike Caprara and safety Jordan Whitehead miss in the backfield before breaking a 29-yard run down the sideline.

But more important for the Panthers than the big gain were their two starting senior defensive tackles laying in a crumpled heap at the line of scrimmage.

A Miami offensive lineman took out Pitt defensive tackle Shakir Soto with a cut block, diving headfirst at Soto’s legs as soon as the Hurricanes snapped the ball. With his attention focused on the quarterback, Soto didn’t even see the lineman and went down in obvious pain — and rolled right into his linemate, Tyrique Jarrett.

Jarrett’s legs got caught underneath Soto and he too crumbled to the ground, where both linemen remained for minutes after the play as trainers attended to them. Neither player came back into the game, and Jarrett later returned to the field on crutches.

The defense clearly missed their presence, especially against the run.

Jarrett and Soto have played key roles clogging up holes for the Panthers’ No. 13-ranked run defense this season. This was especially evident in Pitt’s 37-34 win over Georgia Tech, where Soto made a team-high eight tackles and Jarrett swallowed up Tech running back Dedrick Mills on a crucial fourth-and-1.

Losing the pair dealt a big blow to the defensive line, but the Panthers would turn to some fresh faces to fill the holes.

Without the two senior leaders up front, redshirt junior Jeremiah Taleni and true freshman Amir Watts came in and played the majority of snaps at defensive tackle the rest of the game. Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore James Folston Jr. took reps at defensive end in place of injured junior Rori Blair.

Although the backups couldn’t help Pitt to a win, head coach Pat Narduzzi gleaned some positive takeaways from their performances at his Monday press conference.

“Jeremiah, first of all, did a heck of a job. I mean, he was impressive,” Narduzzi said. “He played with great leverage … he’s got a chance to start next week.”

With Jarrett’s and Soto’s statuses uncertain moving forward, those new faces could be looking at increased roles for the rest of the season. Based on what he saw last week, Narduzzi doesn’t seem worried.

“[Watts] is a good football player … he’s got a ton of talent so he’s only going to get better,” Narduzzi said. “Taleni, if he can play against Miami, I think he can play against anybody.”

Watts and Folston Jr. spoke to reporters Wednesday about seeing extended game action for the first time in their college careers.

“I know that injuries happen, but I have a lot of faith in the young guys,” Folston Jr. said. “We approached it the right way … we just have to keep progressing as a whole and step in for everybody.”

Watts had a simple explanation for his mindset stepping in mid-game after Jarrett and Soto went down.

“Time to play I guess,” Watts said. “It’s not real different to me, it’s just a bigger stage … I was real anxious to play, so I was ready.”

Watts said he didn’t notice a big leap in competition from his high school days — partly because of Pitt’s stacked offensive line, which he faces every day in practice.

“It was fun. When I got out there I’m like, ‘Dang, I should have been out there a little earlier. But it’s cool,’” Watts said. “To be honest with you it felt easier than practice. I’m like, ‘All right, cool. I can do this college thing.’”

Watts pointed to his quick-twitch explosiveness as one of his strongest assets, something Narduzzi has continuously mentioned when talking about Watts throughout the season.

“My edge is, I just get off the ball way faster than anybody else,” Watts said.

Watts isn’t lacking confidence heading into Pitt’s Saturday showdown with the undefeated Clemson Tigers — the No. 2 team in the College Football Playoff rankings led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, a returning Heisman Trophy finalist.

“I don’t care who he is,” Watts said about Watson. “To me, I swear they’re just wearing an orange jersey.”

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Injuries on Pitt’s D-Line force new faces into key roles