Pitt Hoping Internal Competition Builds A Better Defensive Unit
By Stephen Flinn
Great rivalries exist between some college football teams, often for geographic reasons, such as between Pittsburgh and Penn State. Great rivalries also take shape between conference foes, such as Ohio State and Michigan. Some of the best college football rivalries, however, may actually take place between teammates in battles know better as intersquad competition.
Good competition between players usually forces the combatants to play sharp or watch the game from the sidelines. If a team has little depth, however, a coach may not have the luxury of replacing a player who repeats too many mistakes. A lack of depth and not much quality competition at a great deal of roster spots have contributed to the poor quality of football that has been played at the University of Pittsburgh this past decade.
"If you don't have depth, when a player makes a mistake, you just have to leave him in there and suck it up," said Panthers head coach Walt Harris. "When you have depth, competition heats up, and players can be sat down until they do what they're coached to do, which makes for better football players."
The program at Pittsburgh looks to be on an upswing in 2000 for many reasons, not the least of which is that the team can field more quality depth at many positions.
"We will have a lot of competition for playing time on the defensive line this year," Harris said. "Mike White returns, as does Bryan Knight, both of whom are experienced, but after that, we have a lot of players such as Claude Harriott, Vince Crochunis, and Darrell McMurray, who will be competing for playing time, as well as Penny [Semaia]."
In order to bolster the competition on the defensive line, the 6-5, 315-pound Semaia was moved from the offensive line to defense and is expected to help clog the middle this season.
Many local players will be spearheading the charge for playing time on defense. Amir Purifoy of Steel Valley High returns at linebacker and Mark Ponko of Franklin Regional is a returning starter at safety. It is possible neither will be starting every game this season, due to the extensive competition on defense at almost every position, although both are expected to either be in the starting lineup or make major contributions this year.
Even though it would be possible to line up defensive backs William "Tutu" Ferguson of Woodland Hills and Robb Butler of Perry in the same defensive backfield, both vied for the same cornerback spot in pre-season camp.
"We need to concentrate on working hard as a unit, then we will all be better individual players," Ferguson said. "Any place you play, if it is a good team, there will be top-level competition, so we have to realize that and work hard to become better players each day."
Hard work is an important component in Butler's playing strategy as well.
"We got some serious competition this year so the question is, 'What do we have to do to shine at our position?' " Butler said. "My answer is to play as hard as I can, and don't be afraid to make a mistake. As long as I am going full blast when I make the mistake, then I can't blame myself for a lack of effort because mistakes will happen, nobody's perfect."
Stephen Flinn is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.