Pitt's outside linebackers might look like a bit of an odd pairing when the Panthers line up against Buffalo in the season opener on Saturday. On one side will be redshirt senior Brandon Lindsey, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound converted defensive end. On the other side - for a considerable percentage of the plays - will be redshirt junior Andrew Taglianetti.
Taglianetti is 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds.
"I'm only a buck-ninety, and I think people (wonder), 'Why's he playing linebacker?'" Taglianetti said on Tuesday.
Taglianetti isn't necessarily playing a traditional linebacker role, though. He'll be lining up as Pitt's Spur linebacker, a position that combines elements of strong safety with the more standard responsibilities of an outside linebacker. He was moved to the position during training camp after spending his first three years at Pitt playing safety.
"From Day One, Coach Graham has always said something about Spur, but in the spring I didn't really get a look at it," Taglianetti said. "Going into camp, he said they were going to get me in there. It took a week or two, and then one thing led to another. I caught onto it fast, learning all the techniques and calls and stuff. So they have put trust in me and I feel good playing the position."
That trust has led to Taglianetti being listed as a co-starter at Spur with redshirt freshman Todd Thomas. Graham said on Monday that Taglianetti would take the field in passing situations, while Thomas would see time in "base downs."
Taglianetti's speed makes him ideal for defending spread offenses, and Buffalo will use three receivers in its base formation on Saturday. The Central Catholic product appeared in 26 games over the last three years, including all 13 games when he was a true freshman in 2008 and 11 of 13 games last year. The experience will help him at the new position, but it's only half the battle.
"When I was playing safety, it was mostly pass. But now that I'm playing Spur, I have to play both. I have to recognize pass fast or recognize run and get down there and make tackles. So it's going to be a challenge, but it's something that fits for my speed and I like to play physical, I like to get down in the box, so I think it's going to work."
Taglianetti likes to work closer to the line of scrimmage, but that doesn't mean it's an easy assignment. At 190 pounds, most of the players he'll face head-on will outweigh him considerably. Such was the case on Tuesday, when Taglianetti found himself one-on-one against Khaynin Mosley-Smith, a 300-pound defensive lineman who stands in at fullback in Pitt's jumbo packages.
Taglianetti was succinct about the collision - "That hurt a little bit" - and he knows the size difference is something to be considered, but he's confident he can do some things to offset the apparent disadvantage.
"I think that's where a lot of people are surprised that I'm playing linebacker, because they know I'm going to be going against tight ends and fullbacks. But at the same time, what they have in size, I have in speed, and I can kind of beat them and avoid them a little bit. And if I need to, I can get lower than them; that kind of counteracts."
Taglianetti said he has been working on a variety of down-and-distance situations in practice this week, and he doesn't think his potential contributions to the team are limited to this week's game against Buffalo or other spread-offense teams Pitt will face.
"When you go against a team like Iowa, with two tight ends, two running backs, a huge fullback, am I the best choice in there? Depends on the situation. But if we go against Notre Dame or Cincinnati, who are spread offenses, then I'm better-suited, because I've been playing the pass all three years (at Pitt) and I understand it pretty well.
"But to say I can't do it against Iowa? I know I can."