Defensive Line: This unit was not good for the first half of the season, but just like last season they came on strong at the end of the year. The main reason for that is junior Aaron Donald, who was back to his dominant self in the second half of the season. In the first half of the season, Donald had just 18 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, and one sack. In the second half, he had 45 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks. That's some difference. His sack total is down from last season, but his tackles and tackles for loss are up. Bottom line, the guy is a star who right now is one of the best defensive linemen in the country.
Beside Donald inside is Tyrone Ezell, who was solid with 34 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. In reserve, Khaynin Mosley-Smith was a disappointment with just 8 tackles.
The ends supplied little for the first part of the season, and while there are no stars in the bunch, they at least performed better in the second half of the season. Bryan Murphy was below average at the beginning of the year but once he shook the rust off he ended up with 25 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and 6 hurries. Those aren't elite numbers but it's much better than what was expected after the first few games.
Maybe the most impressive development on the line was senior Shayne Hale, who finally lived up to at least some of his potential. He has 23 tackles on the season, along with an impressive 7.5 tackles for loss. He also ended up with two sacks. On the other side, T.J. Clemmings was a big disappointment with just 20 tackles, and 8 of those came against Buffalo.
One intriguing player was redshirt freshman Devin Cook, who only ended up with 12 tackles on the season, but amazingly 8 of them were a loss. He also had a sack, 3 hurries, and 2 forced fumbles. With that kind of big play ability, he's clearly somebody to keep an eye on in the future.
In the first half of the season, the Panthers gave up an average of 138.3 yards a game on the ground. In the second half of the season, the average dropped to 119.8 yards a game. And this was with the No.1 team in the nation, Notre Dame, going for 231 yards. On the season, the Panthers rushing defense is at 129.1 yards a game, good for No.24 in the country.
Last Season's Final Grade: A-
This Season's Preseason Grade: B-
Midseason Grade: D
Final Grade: B-
Linebackers: Like the entire defense, this unit made good strides in the second half of the season, thanks mostly to Dan Mason and Todd Thomas.
Mason amazed everybody but himself apparently, when he amassed 21 total tackles against Buffalo and Temple. But he lacerated his liver and was lost again for the rest of the season. But he was excellent in those two games, as well as the Louisville game proceeding those two.
Meanwhile, Thomas looks like he's on a one way street to stardom. After injuries kept him out of almost the entire first half of the season, in the second half he totaled 49 tackles, a 33-yard interception, 4 pass breakups, and even a blocked punt. His 8.2 tackles a game average in the second half was very close to the 8.6 tackles a game that Notre Dame superstar Manti Te'o amassed on the season. I'm not saying that Thomas is at that level, but he's proving to be one of the better linebackers in the country against the pass.
Eric Williams was also solid on the season with 48 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, 2 pass breakups, and 5 hurries. None of those numbers are special but there's enough there to see that the sophomore should only get better.
When Mason wasn't in the middle, Shane Gordon usually was, but the junior didn't come up as big as was hoped for when the season started. He ended the season with 48 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and 6 pass breakups. Those numbers aren't horrible but the middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense usually has much more tackles. In the second half of the season he only had 14 tackles and 9 of those came against Rutgers.
Redshirt freshman Nicholas Grigsby had 27 tackles, but only 3 of those came in the second half of the season after Thomas came back into the lineup. Manny Williams had 24 tackles but was injured in the second half of the season and was lost for the season. Joe Trebitz filled in when Mason and Gordon were injured, and he came up big with 13 tackles against Notre Dame and 9 against UConn. But then he also got injured and saw little time afterward.
Last Season's Final Grade: C-
This Season's Preseason Grade: B-
Midseason Grade: D
Final Grade: C
Defensive Backs: It took some time but eventually the secondary lived up to their lofty expectations. K'Waun Williams had one bad half against Louisville, when he was battling a leg injury, and he missed some snaps early in the season because of a preseason injury, but usually when he was in there, he was an excellent cover corner. He had 44 tackles on the season, 2.5 sacks, and 3 interceptions.
Williams had to come through because as the season went on, it became apparent that opponents were not going to throw at Lafayette Pitts anymore. Just a redshirt freshman, Pitts was excellent with 32 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble, and a team high 9 pass breakups. Pitts was so good that he had better stats in the second half of the season even though he was getting less action his way.
Cullen Christian was the top cornerback reserve, and only came up with 14 tackles on the season, but the fact that he's never been singled out is proof that he did his job well.
At safety, it took awhile for Paul Chryst and Dave Huxtable to figure out who got how many snaps, but eventually Jason Hendricks and Jared Holley rose to the top. Hendricks had a breakout year with a team high 73 tackles and a Big East high 5 interceptions. Needless to say he played at an all-conference level. Not far behind was Holley, who started slow, but came on strong with 70 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 4 pass breakups. Andrew Taglianetti added 34 tackles as a solid reserve, and Ray Vinopal who began the season as a starter, ended up with 13 tackles.
In the first half of the season, the defense gave up 205.2 yards a game through the air, but it improved to 188.3 yards a game over the last six games. The Panthers also had 8 of their 13 interceptions in the second half of the season.
For the season, the pass defense ranked No.24 in the nation with 196.8 yards a game and the pass efficiency defense ended up No.22 nationally. One stat that lowers the grade of the unit, however, is third down defense, which is No.97 nationally.
Last Season's Final Grade: B-
This Season's Preseason Grade: B+
Midseason Grade: C
Final Grade: B
Coaching: Pitt fans want to believe that Chryst will bring them back to at least respectability, if not excellence. For that reason, many get very defensive when you bring up the truth, which is that it's still impossible to say how well Chryst will do. He started off with an inexperienced, questionable staff, and then started very slowly in recruiting. He also made some poor very poor on the field decisions.
While he still makes some bad game decisions, the program is light years ahead of where they were just a few months ago. The recruiting for 2013 could have a great close, and they are working the 2014 class hard. Also, the team in the second half got better, especially on defense. And let's never forget that Chryst turned Tino Sunseri into a highly productive quarterback, something that was previously considered impossible.
But at the end of the day, the team went 6-6, and finished near the bottom nationally in more than a few categories. For that reason, I think the grade I give is the only one I can give since this is isn't where I think Chryst will eventually have the program, but rather what the team has done this season.
This Season's Preseason Grade: C
This Season's Midseason Grade: D
Final Grade: C+