As a freshman with Pittsburgh, Jabaal Sheard played in nine games as a defensive end and tallied just three tackles with two pass breakups. While those would indicate moderate success, Sheard's experience was invaluable.
"Being around the game last year, even just a little, and being around the older players was a great experience for me,'' Sheard said. "Hopefully, I can bring that into this year. What it did for me is gave me a chance to see plays in a different way. I probably wouldn't have been able to see that if I just played the scout team last year and didn't get into any games, so I'm grateful for that.''
The Panthers should be grateful as well. The playing experience whetted Sheard's appetite for this year, and he had a terrific offseason. He watched video to hone his technique and was an animal in the weight room. Sheard bulked up to some 250 pounds, 15 more than when he arrived on campus.
"I've been able to bulk up, but maintain my speed,'' Sheard said. "Hopefully, that'll help my performance this year. I've had a decent spring so far, got a few pass knock-downs and an interception (Friday).
"I guess the pass blocks, that's really on my instincts. I just rush the passer, and when I see a quick drop and the O-tackle not dropping back too far, I try to get up to get the ball. That's worked pretty well so far.''
Sheard has been playing left defensive end this spring, backing up redshirt junior Doug Fulmer. But when Fulmer missed some time with a groin injury, Sheard stepped into the starting role and was a prominent resident in Pitt's backfield with redshirt sophomore right end Greg Romeus.
The two have the strength and speed to beat most offensive tackles, and they both have three seasons of eligibility remaining. Redshirt freshmen Justin Hargrove and Tony Tucker could also work into the rotation.
"I think we're very athletic, all of us, with good speed,'' Sheard said. "There's really some good competition between us, going back and forth, and a lot of aggressiveness. So, I think we've really got a good package this year.''
While Romeus has gotten a lot of accolades since his strong finish last season, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt believes that Sheard is just as talented.
"Jabaal's going to be a heckuva player for us,'' Wannstedt said. "The limited playing time that he had will help him understand what it's going to take this year. Right now, he's in the rotation. We've got Romeus, Fulmer and Sheard
"And if we were playing tonight we would rotate those three guys. And Tony Tucker, if he keeps progressing, we'll play all four of them. Tucker made plays (Saturday), and he showed up more than he has since he's been here.''
The truth be told, Pitt's offensive tackles have had problems blocking each Panthers defensive end throughout the spring. And if Sheard continues to improve, Pitt's defensive line will be difficult to stop from either end.
"I just look to get better in my technique,'' Sheard said. "I've got a lot of things to work on, as far as footwork and striking, so I watch film every day to help out with that. I've also been getting a little bit more involved in film.
"I watch as much as possible, and that should make a big difference. Coach (Greg) Gattuso says that my footwork and putting down both hands are what I need to work on the most. I'm more used to using my right (inside) hand on the left side, but I have to learn to do both.''
And if Sheard can do that, he'll be even more valuable to the Panthers.