Defensive End: A strength last season turned into a weakness in the first half of this season, but the unit is starting to come around some and the future looks even brighter. The strength of the line is on the inside and the main man there is Aaron Donald. Because of his lack of size he probably won't be a high draft pick and for that reason I would be very surprised if he left early for the NFL. That would obviously be great news for the team since Tyrone Ezell, Khaynin Mosley-Smith, and Darryl Render will also be back. Terrell Jackson will be in the rotation after a redshirt season and huge prep school lineman Tyrique Jarrett, who I mentioned on the offensive side of the ball as a possible guard, could be a huge help clogging up the middle on the defensive side of the ball. After Donald, none have shown that they are special yet, but then again they can be a very solid five man rotation.
At end, there is more of a question mark because there is no player of Donald's caliber. T.J. Clemmings, Bryan Murphy, Jack Lippert, and Devin Cook are all back and promising incoming freshmen Shakir Soto and Luke Maclean are in the mix. James Conner, who I mention before at running back, may also end up here.
Bottom line, outside of Donald, there is nobody yet who has proven that they can perform at a high level, but with eight of the top nine back, and at least three others joining the mix, depth problems will be a thing of the past.
Linebackers: This is another unit that has struggled but that should be better next season. Seven of the top nine are back, and there will be some new blood and a few returning injured players that could help a lot.
In the middle, Dan Mason shocked everybody when he came back from a mangled knee injury and was playing like an all-conference performer before being lost for the season again, this time because of a lacerated liver. While this is a tough injury it should be easier to come back from then his knee injury so unless the unforeseen happens, he should be back at his ten tackle a game level. If not, Shane Gordon is a good player in own right. If both are healthy, the middle is in great hands.
On the outside, Todd Thomas missed a lot of the first half of the season but he has regained his quick all over the field style this season. He has yet to turn into the star that many expect, but he will still only be a redshirt junior next season so it may finally be his time. The other starter on the outside, Eric Williams, will also be back, as well as lettermen Emanuel Rackard and Nicholas Grigsby. The real talent that may contribute next year, however, did not see the field this year. Talented Ejuan Price missed the season and if he ever reaches his potential, look out. Bam Bradley, Deaysean Rippy, and Devon Porchia all redshirted this season and all have the potential to be very good. Mike Caprara, who redshirted this season, is a wildcard, and incoming freshman Matt Galambos will probably redshirt.
Like the defensive line, the depth will be much better, but will any be a star? That's the question. In a perfect world, Mason is healthy and Thomas, Price, Bradley, and Rippy all live up to their potential, but we'll have to see how perfect the world gets.
Defensive Backs: This was expected to be the best unit, by far, on defense, this year, and they are finally living up to that expectation. K'Waun Williams was hurt against Louisville, and it showed, but for the rest of the year he has been very good. But even better has been redshirt freshman Lafayette Pitts, who is on the verge of stardom already. Top reserve Cullen Christian will also be back. He'll be joined by Jahmahl Pardner, who tore his ACL early in the season, and redshirt Ryan Lewis. Both showed talent in preseason practices. Two tall Clairton kids, redshirt Trenton Coles, and incoming freshman Titus Howard, will probably have to wait beyond next season to see time.
At safety, Jarred Holley and Andrew Taglianetti will be moving on, but Jason Hendricks will be back, and he's had a very good season. Ray Vinopal may get another chance to start opposite him and he's come on much better this season after a bad start. The depth is currently not so great behind them with redshirt freshman Roderick Ryles and Steve Williams not making any impact at all in their first two seasons. Will Anthony Gonzalez get a chance? He definitely has the talent to be a good safety but he has to behave off the field before the staff can believe in him. Incoming freshman Rachid Ibrahim may have a chance to play if he shows anything in preseason practices. A late addition who could see time immediately if the Panthers can steal him during his upcoming visit is Iowa commit Delano Hill, a Detroit native who is good enough that LSU and Notre Dame are courting him.
A starting secondary that would include Williams, Pitts, Hendricks, and Vinopal could be one of the better secondaries in the country, especially if the depth rounds into shape.
Special Teams: Kevin Harper is graduating and that may be a good thing. Then again, things could get worse. Incoming freshman Chris Blewitt will be just that, a freshman. Some freshman kickers come in and are excellent right away, while some don't have a chance of succeeding. It's a total unknown in how well he do, if he is even the chosen kicker. Brad Lukasak is a walk on this season who showed in high school that he has talent, and he could very well be the man.
The rest of the special teams look to be excellent. Matt Yoklic will be back for his third season as a starter and incoming freshman Ryan Winslow looks to be the heir apparent. Cam Saddler will be gone so a new punt returner will be found. Ronald Jones is the current backup so he'll be in the running for the job again. For kick returning, Pitts has a chance to go the distance every time he touches the ball, and he has definite all-star potential at the position.