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Pitt looks to turn up the pressure on defense

4/9/2015

PITTSBURGH -- Aaron Donald will be back home next weekend for Pitt's spring game, and the former All-American will find himself doing a familiar job.

No, not making plays up front for the Panthers. But critiquing the work of the guys left behind, this time as an honorary coach, along with Larry Fitzgerald.

It is a job Donald never really let go of after graduating, not even as he was winning NFL defensive rookie of the year honors for the St. Louis Rams this past fall.

"It's great to have a guy like that because he's a non-selfish person," said defensive tackle K.K. Mosley-Smith, who faced Donald regularly in high school. "Any tips he can see, we'll play a game and he'll call you after the game (and) be like, 'Oh man, you should use your hands a little more.' He's just always there looking to push you to get better. He wants to see his fellow defensive linemen get better and that's what I like in him."

It is no secret that the Panthers need to get more pressure up front to succeed in Year 1 under head coach Pat Narduzzi. They struggled mightily in that department upon Donald's departure, finishing 101st nationally last year in sacks (19) and 95th in sack percentage (4.9 percent).

Playing for a former defensive coordinator in Narduzzi, whose Michigan State unit ranked 10th in sacks last season, should help. So will the tutelage of new coordinator Josh Conklin, who oversaw a disruptive defense last season at Florida International, which led the nation in fumble recoveries (19) and was second in defensive touchdowns (six).

Developing depth has been a key this spring, as Pitt returns three of four starters up front but lacks experienced pass-rushers.

"In an ideal world, you would like to be able to rush four guys and get pressure on the quarterback," Conklin said. "Right now, to be candid with you, we've challenged our defensive ends repeatedly here. And they know and they understand they've got to step up to the challenge. And I think we have some guys right now that can do that.

"I look at a guy like Rori Blair and I look at a guy like Ejuan Price, who I think have the ability to do it, but we've just got to be able to do it consistently. And if you can't get pressure on the quarterback with just four, then you've got to find ways to get pressure on the quarterback. And we've got a pressure package and we'll do all that."

Conklin has been pleased with the interior, where Mosley-Smith and Darryl Render have provided some stability and senior leadership after starting last season. Blair, a sophomore end, burst onto the scene as a rookie, tallying a team-best five sacks.

"We expect to be a high-energy group," Mosley-Smith said. "I feel like we expect to be dominant. Go to work. Get a lot of pressure this year. We're working with each other. Make each other better in any way. Watching old films on some of the players that came through here that were great. We have a high expectation this year and I think this is the year we need to live up to that."