As evidenced by last year, with Myles Caragein as Pitt's third defensive tackle, Caragein was in the rotation as much as Gus Mustakas and Mick Williams. The new third defensive tackle appears to be Tyler Tkach, who head coach Dave Wannstedt has praised from the second he got to campus.
Almost daily, Tkach earned praise for his play this camp from either Wannstedt or position coach Greg Gattuso.
"Ty Tkach, don't underestimate him," Wannstedt said of Tkach's performance in the first scrimmage of camp. "There are always a couple of fifth-year seniors that have hung with us, worked hard, and when their opportunity has come, they have seized the moment. Ty (Tkach) might be that guy this year."
Then, Gattuso, added another ringing endorsement on Wednesday.
"Ty Tkach has had an incredible-good camp," Gattuso said. "Ty Tkach is one of those guys you keep saying, ‘He's not quite big enough, he's not quite athletic enough,' but he just keeps doing things really well, and he's just a great football player. He's the kind of guy you applaud when they do really well."
Tkach came to Pitt as part of Pitt's 2006 recruiting class--the first full class that Wannstedt signed. After redshirting in 2006, Tkach almost immediately got some playing time in his redshirt freshman year as a defensive end. He played in all 12 games in 2007, playing at defensive end. He played in seven games the next season. This, after spending the 2008 spring period, as a tight end to provide depth to that position.
"I've done it all," Tkach shrugs. "Tight end for a spring, then a little at defensive end, then tackle. Whatever. It doesn't matter to me. I just want to play."
Last year seemed like it would be his chance to make a move into the rotation--either at defensive end or defensive tackle. A foot injury limited his season, as he played in two games last year.
There's no player on the Pitt team that has more of a right to be frustrated than Tkach. Every time he got his chance to move up the depth chart, he would either get moved to another position, or an injury would sneak up on him. The position changes he feels has helped him to where he is--at the top of his game, and one of the team's most consistent players through camp. Now, entering his senior year, it looks like all the waiting has paid its price.
"It's frustrating for every young kid, because you want to play right away," Tkach said. "You want to help the team whenever. But, you know what? You just got to go out there on the practice field every day, and help. If your time comes for a game, then you got to be ready. If it doesn't, then you got to keep on going out there every day in practice, just keep on improving."
Keep on improving, he has. At the start of camp, Wannstedt labeled the defensive tackle position as one of the concerns, or one of the positions--along with the interior offensive line and cornerback positions--as being up for grabs. In just a few days, the defensive tackle position--which had to replace two senior starters and come up with a new rotation, looked to be in good hands early on. Wannstedt was mum on naming starters for the right guard position, and talked a little bit about the corners as camp went on. Defensive tackle cleared his mind the fastest.
Part of it was the solid play of Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih in the starting lineup, but Tkach and redshirt freshman Tyrone Ezell also looked solid. Gattuso likes to use as many players in the rotation as possible. Last year, it was Williams, Mustakas and Caragein splitting reps evenly, with a little of Alecxih. Because of what Tkach has so far, it looks like Gattuso will be able to keep the same type of rotation, which should once again prove the defensive tackle position to be a strength.
As Tkach has a year at defensive tackle under his belt, he credits him playing a few other positions prior to this one, as helping him have the kind of success he is having now.
"I kind of did (defensive tackle) in my second year," Tkach said. "I tried it, but I had to go back (to defensive end) because of injuries. I kind of really put the weight on this time. I really got comfortable there in spring ball after missing last year to a foot injury. I'm just really comfortable now.
"Just knowing everything. Just going up there, knowing every position, what they got and everything, it really helps you. You know what the guy to your right is doing, and the guy to your left is doing."
Outside of that, Tkach says all the defensive tackles continuously push each other, which he feels, makes the position what it is. Take for example the true freshman Aaron Donald. With what looks like a solid rotation of four, Donald is breathing down the neck of all four for playing time. Tkach says this kind of pressure brings out the best in everybody else.
"I think we're pushing everybody because it's good competition," Tkach said. "With great competition, everyone's just going to keep on improving. We're just going to keep rotating, to have the best people out there."
On the eve of his senior year, Tkach looks back. He looks back at the injuries that got in his way. He looks back at the times he had to move positions. He looks back at the times he had to wait his turn on the depth chart. It's all worth it, for where he's at right now.
Wannstedt and company have done a remarkable job in having minimal attrition at Pitt. Players sign at Pitt, some get on the field earlier than others. For the most part, the players can see the big picture of how it's all supposed to work out. Tkach, perhaps, is the best example.
"It's awesome," Tkach said. "I wouldn't change it. I believe everything happens for a reason. Whatever position Coach (Wannstedt) asks me to play, I'll do it. I just want to help the team win. We just got to win the Big East, that's our goal. Whatever I need to do to get us there."