Defensive Line: The Panthers defense is ranked No.34 in total defense but that stat is misleading since they are giving up 5.74 yards a play, which is No.76 nationally. That means that Pitt's offense has held the ball long enough (No. 21 nationally in time of possession) to keep the Panthers defense off the field, but when the defense was on the field they performed below average. And just like an excellent defense starts with the defensive line, a weak defense starts with the defensive line.
Looking further into the numbers shows just how below average the defense has been as a whole. They have created only 8 turnovers, which is No. 94 nationally, while fumble recoveries are ranked No. 94, tackles for loss No. 78, sacks No. 78, 3rd down defense No. 102, 4th down defense No. 82, and red zone defense No. 110. And people think the defense has been good? Better keep thinking. And these stats include the Gardner-Webb game in which the Panthers demolished a team from a lower division.
Only two linemen are ranked in the top ten for tackles on the team, and they are far down the list with Aaron Donald eighth and Tyrone Ezell 10th. Donald was a legit All-American candidate, and while he has shown a few small flashes of brilliance, his production has gone down a lot from last season. In the first 6 games he has just 18 tackles, 1 sack, and 5 tackles for loss, which projects to 36 tackles, 2 sacks, and 10 tackles for loss. Last season he had 47 tackles, 11 sacks, and 16 tackles for loss.
Khaynin Mosley-Smith was supposed to give Donald help on the inside but instead he has just 5 tackles on the season. Tyrone Ezell has been the second best player on the line with 15 tackles, a team high 2.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss. Not exactly dominant.
The ends have been even worse. It was hoped that T.J. Clemmings would be as good of a football player as he was a physical specimen but it's not looking like that's going to be happening any time soon. On the season he has just 10 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 hurries, and 0 sacks. In other words he's been barely more productive than you as you sit on your couch watching the game. Bryan Murphy has been equally bad with 11 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 hurries, and 0.5 sacks. Both were highly coveted prospects who were predicted to be good college players, but they both look anything but good. Devin Cook added 8 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 hurries, and 1 sack. Jack Lippert began the season as the starter and had 5 tackles in the first two games before an injury sidelined him. Former elite prospect Shayne Hale has proven once and for all that he will contribute nothing as he has played in the last 3 games and contributed just 4 tackles and a sack. True freshman Darryl Render has shown that he could be good in the future but so far he's added just 5 tackles in 4 games.
Last Season's Final Grade: A-
This Season's Preseason Grade: B-
Midseason Grade: D
Linebacker: This has obviously been a unit that has been lacking great talent for years and with Ejuan Price out for the year and Todd Thomas out for almost every snap of the first six games, it's obvious that the talent level is still well below average. The middle was taken over by Shane Gordon this season and while he has been the best of a poor lot, he has been mostly average. He's third in tackles with 33, tied for first with 5 tackles for loss, second in sacks with 1.5, and tied for first with 5 passes defensed. The ranking of where he is on the team sounds impressive, but the actual totals are not. A middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense will usually have around 100 tackles or more, but Gordon is on pace for 66 tackles.
After Gordon, the level drops a lot. Nicholas Grigsby has 24 tackles but 16 of them came in the first two games. Manny Williams also has 24 tackles along with 3 pass breakups. Eric Williams chipped in with 18 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and a sack. Dan Mason has played in the last three games and had 3 tackles, while Todd Thomas has a tackle in two games. Obviously if Mason, Thomas, and Price were healthy the unit could be very good, but they aren't, and what's left behind is a ragtag bunch that has made little impact so far.
Last Season's Final Grade: C-
This Season's Preseason Grade: B-
Midseason Grade: D
Defensive Back: The front seven was not expected to be good this year and the fact that they are even worse than expected put even more stress on what should be a very good secondary. The secondary is still, by far, the best unit on defense, but it's become apparent that they aren't excellent enough to overcome such a poor front seven.
The pass defense is No. 29 in the country, but like the overall defense, that number is deceiving because of Pitt's quality time of possession. The defense has given up 13.4 yards a completion which is much further down the list. Pass efficiency defense is No. 59 nationally, which is pretty much right in the middle, and they are 58th in interceptions. As mentioned before, 3rd down defense is an awful 102nd nationally.
Four of the top six tacklers are defensive backs, more proof that the secondary has had to pick up the slack for a bad front seven. Jason Hendricks has quietly become the leader in tackles with 37, and also leads with 3 interceptions. The other safety, Jarred Holley, is second in tackles with 36 tackles, along with an interception. Cornerback K'Waun Williams has all-conference ability, but injuries have slowed him this season. He was excellent against Syracuse but then got torched in the third quarter against Louisville. On the season he has 22 tackles and an interception. The most pleasant surprise has been redshirt freshman Lafayette Pitts, who is showing that he could have a very good career. He has 13 tackles and 4 pass breakups, and already teams are getting more weary of throwing his way. In fact, the defensive backs have only defended 9 passes, an incredibly low number for an entire secondary over 6 games, and Pitts has 4 of them. Linebacker Shane Gordon has 5 all by himself. Andrew Taglianetti has added 22 tackles, Cullen Christian has added 5 tackles, and spring sensation Ray Vinopal, after a horrible opening game, also has 5 tackles.
Last Season's Final Grade: B-
This Season's Preseason Grade: B+
Midseason Grade: C
Special Teams: As has been the case last season, too, this group is half good and half bad. The good begins once again with Pitts who is No. 16 nationally with 28.8 avg. Also good is the kick return defense which is currently No. 16 nationally. And Matt Yoklic is No. 25 nationally in punting with a 43.1 avg.
But the bad is pretty bad. Kevin Harper has made 6 of 11 kicks and it's gotten so bad that Chryst has clearly lost faith in him. Despite Yoklic's nice average the net punting for the Panthers is No. 112 nationally thanks to being dead last in the country in punt return defense.
Last Season's Final Grade: C-
This Season's Preseason Grade: C
Midseason Grade: C-
Coaching: I was not happy with Chryst's coaching hires this year or his recruiting to date when I did the preseason ranking on him, but since he didn't coach a game yet I gave him a middle of the road C grade to start off. Halfway through his first season, the recruiting has yet to turn the corner and his suspect coaching hires are looking even more suspect. He does have six games as a head coach now under his belt and unfortunately he has yet to prove that he can be competent as the top dog in a program.
A loss to Youngstown State was one of the program's worst ever. A drubbing by Cincinnati soon followed. The team performed well only twice this season, both in wins, but one was against lowly Gardner-Webb, a lower division team and a bad one at that.
The only part of the head coaching job that anybody could be pretty sure about was that Chryst would be excellent at the offensive aspects of the team. He has proven that he is more than capable at the part of the game and has gotten as much out of Tino Sunseri, Devin Street, and Michael Shanahan as could possibly be expected. However, it stops there on offense. The tight ends, expected to be a strength, have not been a factor even when healthy. And the offensive line is abysmal. My thoughts were dismissed by some when I said that losing Bob Bostad would be a crucial blow, but that's exactly what happened. While the line has no stars in it, it's inexcusable that offensive line coach Jim Hueber, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, and Chryst could take five experienced linemen and not make them one iota better.
Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable was expected to at least be solid but the early results have not shown that. Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield, linebackers coach Chris Haering, and defensive backs coach Matt House were interesting hires since all have little or even no college coaching experience so maybe the results of their success this year is not a surprise.
As for special teams, well, there isn't a special teams coach so it's no surprise that the success of that unit is hit or miss.
Most fans are inherently optimistic until they become overbearingly pessimistic, so I'm not surprised that so many are trying to convince themselves that Chryst will eventually get it together. And maybe he will. I am not saying that Chryst will always be a failure. Todd Graham was equally awful through the first six games last season but the team was definitely improved in the second half of the season, especially on defense. And Graham has proven that he is a very good head coach which shows that a bad first half of a season does not mean the coach will always be bad.
What Graham did have that Chryst didn't have was a track record of winning as a head coach, an excellent staff, and proven recruiters. But trying to be neither optimistic or pessimistic, but instead realistic, Chryst's early coaching stint has shown that he has a bright offensive mind, and if he can get better talent he should be able to put up a lot of yards and a lot of points at Pitt in his career. But we expected that of Chryst. What we didn't know about him was how good his defense, coaching hires, recruiting, and game coaching would be. Through a small sampling all we know for sure is that he has yet to prove that he can be competent at any of those facets.
But like I wrote before, that does not mean I think it will always be that way. Just like Graham last season, Chryst could improve the team a lot in the second half of the season. His staff could prove that they were good hires. He could hold on to Corey Clement and Tra'von Chapman, while adding Robert Foster, Dorian Johnson, and a defensive impact player or two.
But he hasn't done that yet and until he does, one can't realistically say it will definitely happen. Optimistic fans will say that Chryst is stuck with a bad offensive line and he will change that with more talented players. The problem with that theory is that Pitt currently has just two offensive linemen coming in so far and both are rated at the same level as Ryan Schlieper and Cory King were. Optimists will say the same thing about the defense, that once Chryst gets more talented players the defense will be better. The reality is that just four defensive players are coming in and none are highly recruited.
Bottom line, the facts at this time is that the coaching staff has not proven themselves, Chryst has not proven that he can be a good game coach, and he hasn't proven that he can recruit at a high level. Hopefully for all that will change. I would like nothing more than to see A's across the board. This site gets more people when things are going well and it's a helluva lot nicer place to be. So I don't enjoy the constant failures. But right now Chryst needs a lot of improvement to turn things around.
This Season's Preseason Grade: C
This Season's Midseason Grade: D