April 25, 2007

Spring wrap-up: The primary secondary

Ask a Pitt fan about the Panthers' secondary in 2006, and you're likely to get a mixed reaction.

On one hand, the Panthers fielded one of the top defensive backs in the country in Darrelle Revis, a cornerback who figures to go in the top 15 in this Saturday's NFL draft. On the other hand, Pitt's safeties were beyond bad, routinely appearing to idly watch as opponents ran breezily through the second level of the defense.

It's safe to say that the safeties were among the most-maligned unit on the Pitt team last season, and for good reason; however, it bears noting that there were extenuating circumstances. Primarily those circumstances were related to injury, as Eric Thatcher was lost for the season and Mike Phillips was never at 100% after several ankle injuries. The result was that senior Sam Bryan had to take over for Thatcher, and the Phillips-Bryant combination was one that lacked playmaking explosiveness.

For Pitt fans, though, the situation can be summed up succinctly: the play of the safeties in 2006 stunk. It's a negative attitude but one that has merit. However, that notion does not necessarily carry over to 2007. As a matter of fact, the Pitt safeties in 2007 could be among the strongest groups on the team.

Here is a breakdown of the secondary's performance in spring camp.

Eric Thatcher
Redshirt junior

Thatcher played in spring practice like a man who has been waiting six months to get back on the field. He emerged in 2006 as a head-hunter in the secondary, unleashing a number of big hits in the early going of the season and seeing one of his crushing blows show up on ESPN's Sportscenter. The ankle injury ended his season last year, but not his drive and skill. This spring was an important time for Thatcher and he answered the call, showing no noticeable drop-off on the field and displaying an increased level of leadership, often pushing his teammates with reminders of the defense's performance a year ago. Thatcher is loud, abrasive, and physical, and he'll be a great deterrent to Big East receivers who wander over the middle of the field.

Mike Phillips
Redshirt senior

When healthy, Phillips is among the most athletic players on the team. The problem is, Phillips has struggled with injuries the past two seasons. In 2005, as a safety converted from cornerback, Phillips was a strong player before an ankle injury ended his season three games in. The injury lingered and lingered, and by the time he had fully recovered from that ankle injury in August of 2006, another sprain crept up on his other ankle, and Phillips spent the entire season playing at less than 100%. The result was that he lacked the quickness and athleticism that had made him a quality player the previous two seasons.

Now, in spring of 2007, Phillips appears to be fully recovered from any and all ankle injuries, and his spring camp performance was evidence of it. Phillips was fast, strong, and agile, and the pairing of him and Thatcher should be a successful one.

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