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Replacing Romeus one of Pitt's main challenges

Brandon Lindsey knows he's a marked man.

The Pittsburgh defensive end figures Miami will test him early and often in Thursday night's game at Heinz Field (ESPN, 7:30 ET). After all, Lindsey just made his first start two weeks ago against New Hampshire while replacing star Greg Romeus.

"I definitely feel like they'll try me," Lindsey said. "They know what they're getting in Jabaal [Sheard] and they don't really have a lot of tape on me. Plus, I'm smaller, so they'll probably try to run at me a little bit to begin the game."

Miami will likely attempt to see what the Panthers have in Lindsey. Pitt will learn a lot as well.

Lindsey's spot was supposed to be home to Romeus, last year's Big East co-defensive player of the year and potential high-round NFL draft pick. But Romeus suffered from a back problem in training camp and underwent surgery to repair a bulging disc last week. He is expected to miss at least six weeks.

So in steps Lindsey, a junior who moved down from linebacker last preseason. He had a pair of sacks in his starting debut against New Hampshire, but the competition level is about to go way up.

"You don't really replace Greg Romeus and some of the intangibles he brings," Pittsburgh defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said. "There's not a lot of 6-foot-6, 275-pound guys like him around. Brandon is a different kind of player, a speed guy. And surprisingly, he's among our top three to four defensive linemen in terms of strength. He's a very strong kid, even though he doesn't look the part."

The 6-2, 250-pound Lindsey says he's faster off the ball and quicker than Romeus but doesn't have Romeus's ability to just knock people over.

"I have to use my quickness and my leverage a little better," he said. "I'm getting better at that."

The loss of Romeus will also mean more time for the backups. Junior Justin Hargrove and senior Nate Nix will figure more prominently into the rotation, and true freshman T.J. Clemmings -- who at 6-6, 280 is the most physically similar to Romeus -- will forgo a redshirt campaign. Gattuso says he will mix and match liberally.

"When you've got guys on kind of that superstar level, you fall into the trap of playing them too much," he said. "Brandon's development might have been hindered by not playing enough. Greg and Jabaal have been getting 80-to-85 percent of the snaps, which is too high a percentage. We'll get back to our true style of play, which is rolling seven or eight guys in, and I think that will help everybody involved."

Defensive end isn't the only position where players must assume bigger roles. Junior Tristan Roberts will make his first start at weakside linebacker in the wake of Dan Mason's demotion. Roberts missed all of last season with a shoulder injury but played well enough in the spring that he almost unseated returning two-year starter Greg Williams.

"The shoulder surgery gave me a little extra motivation," Roberts said. "Watching the team win 10 games and not being a part of it had me a little fired up for the spring."

The linebackers have struggled to make big plays and were burned at times in pass coverage against Utah. Max Gruder has moved inside, while Williams has flipped over to strong side. They will all be challenged by a Miami offense bursting with speed.

"If we have one missed tackle, they're probably going 80 yards down the sideline," Roberts said. "But I'm prepared. I feel like if they decide to try to pick on me because it's my first start I'll be able to handle it."

Pitt will learn plenty about its defense this week. It just hopes that lesson isn't learned the hard way.

"We definitely have enough to get it done," Lindsey said. "We just have to be confident when we get out there."