Pitt couldn’t wait for this news earlier in this season: Greg Romeus, one of the Big East’s top players, is ready to return from the back injury that has sidelined him since the season opener.
Only coach Dave Wannstedt didn’t expect to have the problem of where to play last season’s Big East co-defensive player of the year, possibly as soon as Thursday night at Connecticut (4-4, 1-2 Big East).
With Romeus out since the Utah game on Sept. 2 for Pitt (5-3, 3-0), junior Brandon Lindsey has emerged as one of conference’s best defensive players.
The defensive end has eight sacks, second in the Big East to teammate Jabaal Sheard’s nine. Lindsey also ranks second in the conference in tackles for losses.
Lindsey has the advantage of having played all season, while Romeus has played in only one game in 11 months. Romeus’ status will be decided at game time Thursday. And Wannstedt suggested the decision isn’t an easy one.
“He has practiced; he’s listed as questionable,” Wannstedt said Monday. “It’s a little bit of everything. It’s how he feels, if he’s in game shape and his technique work. There are a lot of things that we’re evaluating on a day-to-day basis.”
The Panthers expected to have the Big East’s top two defensive ends this season, and they have. Only it’s been Sheard and Lindsey, rather than Romeus and Sheard.
With four games remaining, Lindsey already has as many sacks as Romeus did last season, when Romeus shared the conference defensive player of the year award with former Pitt lineman Mick Williams.
Pitt has won its three conference games – against Syracuse, Rutgers and Louisville – by a combined 68 points, with no game decided by fewer than 17 points. One major reason has been a defense that leads the conference in sacks and fewest rushing yards allowed.
“I feel like we’re getting better and better with every week, and we’re more focused than we had been at the beginning of the season,” Sheard said. “We’re hitting on all cylinders right now, and I think we’re playing as well as we’ve played all year. But we know we can play even better. There’s a sense of urgency from the coaches. We all can feel it, and they want the Big East as much as we do.”
While the 6-6, 270-pound Romeus’ back problem was so bad it required surgery to repair a disc in his lower back, he is still regarded as a likely early round NFL draft choice – especially if he can play effectively after returning. Before getting hurt, he was projected as a top 15 pick by multiple scouting services.
With Romeus out, Sheard has replaced him as Pitt’s dominant defensive player.
Sheard had two sacks, two forced fumbles and three tackles for losses during a 20-3 victory over Louisville on Oct. 30, prompting safety Dom DeCicco to call him the best player in the Big East. Sheard already has 3 1/2 sacks more than he did during his previous best season in 2008.
With Pitt up 13-3 in the third quarter against Louisville, Sheard sacked Adam Froman, causing a fumble that Myles Caragein returned 56 yards to the Cardinals’ 5, setting up a touchdown.
After that play, Sheard didn’t see single-team blocking again the rest of the game.
“Our defense would be a lot different without him,” DeCicco said. “You can see it in the things he does while’s he’s getting double-teamed. When we need a play, he is stepping up and doing it for us.”
Pitt has a short week of practice before taking on UConn, which has beaten only West Virginia in the Big East. The Panthers are 2-7 under Wannstedt while coming off a bye, including a 31-3 loss to Miami earlier this season.