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March 31, 2014
Soto enjoying the second time around
Shakir Soto has done this before.
The sophomore-to-be went is now going through his second spring practice, and things are a bit different this time around.
"My first practice, I felt like I was just lost," Soto said with a smile. "Coming from high school to college, the speed's totally different. Now, I feel a lot more comfortable with the speed, instead of trying to rush around I feel a lot more patient."
But that's not the only difference this spring, as Pitt's defensive line must replace college football's best defensive player last season in Aaron Donald. Although it's an inexperienced group, there is opportunity for new faces along the line, and Soto has high expectations for his sophomore campaign.
"I believe everyone on our defensive line has stepped up," Soto said halfway through Pitt's 2014 spring practice. "We've talked about A.D. not being here and we have to step up. I think we'll be better as a whole defensive line as opposed to last year when people thought it was just him."
With Donald graduating, the Pitt defense must replace arguably one of the best defensive players in Panther history. Donald won four national awards last season - the Bronko Nagurski award, the Chuck Bednarik award, Outland trophy and RotaryLombardi Award - and earned unanimous All-American status.
The defense must also replace 33.1 percent of its tackles for loss and 44 percent of its total tackles, but Soto and the rest of the defensive linemen want to learn from Donald and make a name for themselves during the 2014 season.
"It was a great experience," Soto said of working with Donald. "He was one of the guys that he would take the time to talk to us. Even though I play defensive end, he'll help me out and talk to me about stuff.
"He was just a force. No one could stop him. In the beginning of spring ball, you could tell he's not there. Now, it's getting a lot better because we're adjusting to him not being there. I'm not going to say we relied on him, but he was always making plays."
Soto sees an opportunity for himself, both without Donald's production on the line but also while having first crack at a starting job.
After enrolling early in 2013, Soto played during his true freshman year. In 13 games, Soto made 20 tackles, four for loss, a sack and hurried the quarterback twice. Because he didn't redshirt, he gained valuable experience in getting acclimated to the college game.
"I gained a lot of game experience," he said. "When we opened up against Florida State, I was nervous, but getting all that experience last year, it helps to make life more comfortable for this upcoming season."
"I think there are pros and cons of both (redshirting and playing). Redshirting you get the extra year of football, plus school. For true freshmen, you get that game experience and you get coached up a lot. I think it was a benefit for me personally. I came in early to prevent from getting redshirted because coming in last spring was just like being redshirted."
With a year under his belt, Soto has made a concerted effort to improve his game and prepare to take on a starting role.
After playing last season at 240, Soto is now up to 265 pounds. He might gain a bit more weight because he lost a decent amount of weight during fall camp last year, but he feels like 265 is a good size. He also feels a difference in his strength, holding his own against tight ends J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff during drills.
Soto's also focused his on the field working, getting in extra workouts on his own time with fellow defensive end David Durham.
The sophomore-to-be realizes the opportunity he has, both at his position and along the defensive line. He wants to make the most of his chances and make an impact in his second season at Pitt.
"Last year, I did a lot during practice, and the coaches have high expectations for me," Soto said.
"I went with the one's a lot last year. Now, it's like a full job because I'm always with the ones. I'm getting better and better every day, so I feel a lot more comfortable than I did last year."