Pitt's Myles Caragein ready to fill big shoes

You can't read a preseason preview on Pittsburgh without seeing that the Panthers return the Big East's offensive player of the year (Dion Lewis) and the co-defensive player of the year (Greg Romeus). It's also true, but rarely mentioned, that the other co-defensive player of the year played for Pitt in 2009 and is no longer around.

Why, then, is there almost no talk about replacing Mick Williams, who was a dominant and disruptive nose tackle? Mostly because Pitt has a highly capable player waiting in the wings.

Junior Myles Caragein was the third tackle last season and was nearly as productive as Williams in less snaps. He had the same number of sacks (five) as Williams and only seven fewer tackles, though he had only half the tackles for loss (8.5) that Williams piled up (17). Pitt's coaches are confident there won't be a dropoff this year, though Caragein knows that's not guaranteed.

"Those are big shoes to fill," he said. "It's not pressure, but I have a lot to live up to. I can't just go out there and be average. I have to live up to expectations and perform to the level that Mick did."

What Caragein really must match is Williams' ability to lead the defense and come up with big plays at key times.

"Mick brought a lot of excitement to this defense," he said. "That's what I hope to do this year, make a big play and have them build off of us up front."

The Panthers' other starting defensive tackle from 2009, Gus Mustakas, was also a senior. He's being replaced by another strong former backup in Chas Alecxih, who had four sacks a year ago. Redshirt freshman Tyrone Ezell has improved greatly and could play the third tackle role that Caragein fulfilled last season.

"I think collectively we have enough guys to fill that spot," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We have guys that have the ability to do it, now we just have to make it happen."

The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Caragein was a three time All-America wrestler at Pittsburgh's Keystone Oaks High School. Wrestling at a top weight of 285 pounds, he went 40-1 as a senior, losing his only match in the state finals by a 3-2 count.

"That's something I keep thinking about a lot," he said. "It was a case of me taking a bad shot, getting taken down and escaping, and I just couldn't get him down again. It was tough."

He committed to Pitt for football before any wrestling scholarships rolled in. But Caragein credits his background in that sport for helping him battle in the trenches.

"Physically, it helps with your hands and movement, getting off the ball," he said. "Mentally, it gives you that attitude to never stop, to keep going and keep pushing. If you stop for one second in a wrestling match, it can cost you the match."

Mick Williams might have left his shoes on the mat. But with Myles Caragein tapping in, Pitt shouldn't lose too much.