Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Preseason Grades for Pitt Football- Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line:  The great Aaron Donald is gone so this unit is going to be very different this season.  Even with one of the greatest college defensive lineman seasons ever the line wasn't exceptional, so it's obvious that each individual player will have to step it up for the defense to be successful.

At end, redshirt senior, and former Ohio State fullback, David Durham, will start on one side. It's debatable whether or not that's a good thing. The 6'2" 240 pound redshirt senior started last season and had 21 tackles and no sacks. Clearly that's poor and he will have to get much better.

On the other side, 6'3" 265 pound Shakir Soto is much more talented and was more productive that Durham despite only starting one game. With Durham suspect, Ejuan Price gone for the season again, and freshmen as backups, Soto's quick development is crucial.

The backups have yet to play a down of college football.  Redshirt freshman Luke Maclean has the good size at 6'5" and 260 pounds to go along with good athleticism.  He could be a good player eventually, as could 6'4" 230 pound true freshman Rori Blair.  Blair is very athletic and has put on good weight since committing, but he still needs to get bigger and stronger.

The wildcard is star running back James Conner, who is not only the best running back on the team, but could also be an all-star defensive end. But obviously that's a double edged sword as you would not like to wear Conner down. In a perfect world Conner would not be needed here but the fact that he is needed here tells you all you need to know about the position.

Devin Cook, a 6'4" 240 pound redshirt junior, continues to disappoint. He has shown flashes in the past, and every season it's hoped that he will flip the switch, but he's behind two freshmen and two running backs at the position so it may be time to stop expecting anything from him.

Inside, things are a little better, both this season and in the future. Khaynin Mosley-Smith is back after a one year suspension and the 6'0" 310 pound redshirt junior will use his round frame at nose tackle. He has talent but so far he has done nothing with it. This is the time to start.

Taking over Donald's spot (at least on paper) is 6'2" 275 pound junior Darryl Render, who, while no Donald, could be due for a nice season. He's shown flashes in a reserve role over his first two season  and he's eager to take the next step.

Behind Mosley-Smith at nose tackle is the very intriguing 6'3" 335 sophomore Tyrique Jarrett, who is not only massive, but can also move well at that size. If he ever gets it, look out, because he could be a force if it ever comes together for him.

Behind Render at the tackle spot is 6'3" 280 pound redshirt freshman Justin Moody, who is another very promising player.

Two more promising tackles, 6'4" 320 pound Mike Herndon, and 6'3" 295 pound Connor Dintino, will likely redshirt as freshmen.

Bottom Line:  Without a good defense, you can't have a good team, and without a good line you can't have a good defense. Individually, there isn't a lot of high end talent here. Players like Soto and Render could be good, and in the future Moody, Maclean, and Blair could be also, but there's no sure star at this point so for this group to succeed it may have to be with everybody doing their part.

Last Season's Preseason Grade: B-
Last Season's Final Grade: B
This Season's Preseason Grade: C

Linebackers: This unit has consistently been the weakest on the defense for years, but even though there are no real stars here, it's now the best group going into the season.

On the outside, two fifth year seniors, Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas, should be the leaders not only of the unit but the entire team.  The 6'3" 230 pound Gonzalez has survived suspensions and position changes to turn himself into a good linebacker.  The 6'2" 230 pound Thomas left the team last preseason but like Gonzalez he's proven to be a survivor.  He's yet to live up to his excellent potential, but he has one more chance to turn himself into an all-star.

The new starter in the middle is 6'2" 245 pound sophomore Matt Galambos. He has smarts and plays every down as hard as he can, two traits that's good to have in a middle linebacker. If he stays healthy I can see him making a lot of tackles this season. In reserve, 6'2" 220 pound redshirt sophomore Mike Caprara may finally get his chance to contribute as a backup.

Nicholas Grigsby is a tantalizing talent because of his speed, and because of that the Panthers invented a new position for him. Called the "Freeze' after Grigsby's nickname, the 6'1" 220 pound redshirt junior will come in on passing plays at different spots on the field.

The second team outside linebackers are 6'2" 230 pound Bam Bradley and 6'2" 220 pound true freshman Quintin Wirginis.  Bradley is at least solid while Wirginis is an interesting talent that was my sleeper in this class.

Rounding out the unit are 6'2" 245 pound redshirt sophomore Devon Porchia, who appears to be getting passed over by younger players, 6'2" 225 pound redshirt freshman Reggie Green, a very good athlete that came to Pitt as a wide receiver, and 6'4" 240 pound redshirt freshman Zach Poker. Two freshmen, 6'2" 200 pound Jamal Davis, and 6'3" 200 pound James Folston, will likely redshirt.

Bottom Line: My how things have changed.  These unit is not dazzling by any stretch of the imagination, but for the first time in years we can actually say that the Panthers have a good group of linebackers.

Last Season's Preseason Grade: B-
Last Season's Final Grade: C
This Season's Preseason Grade: B

Defensive Backs: This was the most disappointing unit last year. What looked like should be a good unit instead struggled for much of the year. Unfortunately, because of a lack of depth the group may not be much better this season.

One of the main reasons the secondary disappointed last season was because of the poor season of 5'11" 195 pound redshirt junior Lafayette Pitts, who after a strong redshirt freshman season looked like a potential all-star.  Instead he struggled all season. With the unit in a bit of disarray his return to form is an absolute must.

At the other corner, projected starter Titus Howard was suspended for the season and then the next in line, Trenton Coles, transferred.  That means the new starter is former Wisconsin safety Reggie Mitchell, a 6'0" 185 pound redshirt sophomore. He has talent but is new to the position so he's a question mark for now.

The two main backups are 5'9" 165 pound true freshman Avonte Maddox, and 6'0" 195 pound redshirt sophomore Ryan Lewis. Maddox is small but can fly. If he can compensate for his size he could be very good. Lewis is also a speedster, but is a former safety who played mostly on special teams last season.

To show you how potentially dire things are with this group, 5'10" 200 pound redshirt senior Ray Vinopal is the leader, even though he was nearly booed off the field in the first half of last season. To his credit he rallied in the second half of the season and if he is at least solid and consistent that will be a big help.

The other starting safety, 5'11" 180 pound sophomore Terrish Webb, was a surprise letterman last season and he is capable of having a good season.

The reserves at safety, 5'11" 205 pound redshirt sophomore Jevonte Pitts, and 6'2" 190 pound true freshman Pat Amara, have no experience. Amara could be good and hopefully that will be as soon as this season.

Fast 5'10" 170 pound corner Phillipie Motley, and athletic 6'2" 180 pound safety Jalen Williams, will probably be redshirted as freshman unless they are forced into action or develop quicker than expected.

Bottom line: When the two most accomplished players in the unit are Pitts and Vinopal, two players that struggled mightily last season, then there's a reason to worry. However, on the other hand, Pitts could regain his form and Vinopal can continue to improve over the second half of last season. Mitchell may make the transition to corner and Maddox and Amara could hit the ground running. It's certainly not crazy to think that the best case scenario can happen and that this will be a solid unit, especially since new defensive backs coach Troy Douglas has a good track record of having successful units.

Last Season's Preseason Grade: B
Last Season's Final Grade: C
This Season's Preseason Grade: C-

Special Teams: This unit has been hit or miss over the past few years. Some facets were good and some were awful. It's impossible to say how the kick and punt coverage will do, but the rest of the group looks pretty good on paper.

The most exciting development this season is that Tyler Boyd will return kicks and punts. He has All-American potential at both. Kevin Weatherspoon, who returns punts last season, will handle the returns when returning from deep in Pitt's own zone. Giving help to Boyd on kickoffs are Ronald Jones and Avonte Maddox, two explosive players.

Sophomore Chris Blewitt survived countless jokes about his name to have a very good season as a true freshman. He should only get better.

Redshirt freshman Ryan Winslow gets his first chance to be the punter and at 6'5" he has a strong leg.

Bottom Line- At the very least the return game and placekicking should be very good.

Last Season's Preseason Grade: B-
Last Season's Final Grade: C
This Season's Preseason Grade: B


  1. quite frankly, doesn't sound real promising. But not sure they will face any offensive juggernauts until later in the season, thus it gives them a chance to improve.


  2. I had kind of overlooked just how questionable this defense was going to be.

    Can a solid group of LBS and a clock eating run game make up for poor defensive recruiting and an inexperienced DC? I guess we'll find out.

  3. Is it too early to hope Mike London is fired at UVA so we can hire him to replace Matt House? It'd be nice to have an ace recruiter with actual defensive coaching experience.


  4. It was an easy call to predict success for Blewitt given his name. Expect even more from him this year.

    Also expect a BETTER Grade for the Offense.


  5. I didn't see Ray Vinopal play during the first half of the season but I did watch him in the second half and he is a terrific player. I can't imagine the player I saw the second half was so bad that he was nearly booed off the field. Not doubting you -- just hard to see how that could happen.

  6. Ask any Pitt fan that watched the first half of the season. He was disliked so much that it was ugly.