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Jordan Whitehead has Pitt's secondary primed for turnaround

Jordan Whitehead was the ACC's top freshman defender in 2015 before struggles and injuries set him back as a sophomore. Daniel Kucin Jr./Icon Sportswire

This offseason, Pitt's coaches have provided the secondary with what amounts to a horror movie marathon. The game film from last season was split up, and each day, players rewatch one big play after another. It's brutal.

But there's another thing Jordan Whitehead noticed watching the film, too.

"It was the same mistakes over and over," Whitehead said. "And it's correctable."

It's spring, a time for silver linings. The ugliness of last season -- five games with 400 passing yards allowed, 66.3 percent of receiver targets caught -- is in the rearview mirror, and Whitehead is convinced there's a fresh perspective within the group that will make all the difference.

Gone are seniors Ryan Lewis, Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb. In their place, a healthy Whitehead and a host of sophomores -- Damar Hamlin, Jay Stocker, Dane Jackson -- and incoming freshman Paris Ford will be the foundation of a new-look secondary. Aside from three-year starter Avonte Maddox, all were recruited by Pat Narduzzi, and they all know what's expected of them as Pitt opens spring practice.

"The mentality has changed a lot," said Whitehead, the ACC's top freshman defender in 2015 before struggles and injuries set him back as a sophomore. "The coaches are more comfortable with us, and the players are more comfortable."

Perhaps "comfortable" is the wrong word. No one is feeling particularly secure. It's simply that they're more aware of the expectations, and the coaches are eager to drive home the point.

Take those video breakdowns of all the big plays, for example. It's not as if Pitt needed a reminder of how badly it struggled against the pass last season. The 61 points surrendered to Syracuse (playing with a backup QB) serve that purpose nicely. The point of the videos is to suggest how easily Pitt's DBs seemed to slip into a comfort zone -- to be in position to make a play but fail to finish the job. For the season, the Panthers allowed 60 plays of 20 yards or more through the air -- more than any other Power 5 program.

"So this spring, our mentality is to not let the offense catch anything," Whitehead said.

In other words, every snap is significant. There's no cushion, no chance to relax.

That's a lesson Whitehead didn't need film to learn.

As a freshman, Whitehead was a star. He led the country in tackles by a freshman, was a centerpiece of Narduzzi's defense, even played a few snaps on offense to showcase his talent. As a sophomore, his season began with a meniscus injury and ended with an arm injury that cost him the final four games of the year.

The time away from the field and the helpless feeling watching his teammates get torched by Syracuse and Northwestern was all the inspiration he needed.

"You only get so many games in college," Whitehead said, "and you have to make every moment count on the field."

As spring opens, Whitehead is still getting treatment for the arm injury, but he said he feels 100 percent. More importantly, he sees a bond among the defensive backs that wasn't always there a year ago, and he's eager to see how that plays out on the field when practices kick off.

A year ago, Pitt was the only team to beat the eventual national champions, and that serves as a constant benchmark of how good this program can be. But those videos of the big plays, all 60 of them, offer a nice antidote, too.

Opportunity is fleeting. That was the lesson of 2016 for both Whitehead and Pitt's defense. In 2017, they're hoping to make the most of every chance they get.

"It's a mindset thing," Whitehead said. "We beat Clemson, but Syracuse puts up numbers. We've got to take each opponent the same. When we went down to Clemson, there was a different vibe -- that's what it seemed like to me. You can be rah-rah, but it doesn't last. Individuals have to get themselves ready for the game."