Defensive Line: This is where things start to get ugly. The one thing that stands out in this unit is that Aaron Donald's greatness made up for a lot of holes last season. Senior David Durham, a former fullback, was the best defensive end. That's a problem. Durham was better this year than last year but he still had just 28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 pass breakups, and 1 fumble recovery. Shakir Soto, who the defense was depending on entering the season, was even worse. For the year he had 30 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, no sacks, no pass breakups, and no fumble recoveries. Throw in his embarrassing tirade against Miami and he was a total disaster this season.
At least there is some hope with the reserves, especially true freshman Rori Blair, who ended up with 13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and 2 pass breakups. Redshirt freshman Luke Maclean was looking good through the first four games, but an ankle injury cost him the rest of the season. But in those first four games he had 7 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and 0.5 sacks. In other words, in just four games he did more than Soto did all season.
At tackle, like Soto, much was hoped for from Darryl Render. The replacement for Donald was never going to live up to that level, and he surely didn't, but he played much better than Soto. On the season he had 31 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 4 pass breakups, and a forced fumble. Beside him, nose tackle KK Mosely-Smith had 27 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, no sacks, a fumble recovery, and 3 pass breakups. The numbers don't wow, but the nose tackle in Pitt's system is to hold the line so those numbers are actually pretty solid.
Redshirt freshman Justin Moody played little but when he did he showed flashes. He totaled just 8 tackles on the season, including a tackle for loss, a half of a sack, and a pass breakup. Yes, even he joined the "more production that Soto" group. Tyrique Jarrett was the primary backup up at nose tackle until he missed the last five games of the season with an injury. He still hasn't lived up to his potential and totaled 7 tackles (all assists). He didn't record a tackle for loss, sack, pass breakup, fumble forced, or fumble recovery.
Bottom line: Obviously another Donald was not expected, but this was a bit ridiculous. The pass rush was virtually non-existent, and it wasn't much better against the run. The Panthers were No. 51 nationally against the run but they also gave up 4.4 yards a carry and 24 rushing yards. Pretty bad. And how bad were the defensive ends? Donald had more sacks as a sophomore tackle than the entire group of ends. The good news is, Blair and Maclean appear to already be better than Soto and Durham.
Last Season's Final Grade: B
This Season's Preseason Grade: C
Midseason Grade: D+
Final Grade: D
Linebackers: Big things were expected from returning seniors Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas, and while they had decent seasons, they did not progress from last year. Gonzalez had 74 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 pass breakup (compared to 6 last year), and one fumble recovery. Thomas had 71 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, no sacks, 2 pass breakups, a fumble recovery, and an interception. Again, these aren't bad numbers from these two but they aren't necessarily good numbers for starters either. Middle linebacker Matt Galambos got the start in the middle but he also disappointed. He finished with 64 tackles, one tackle for loss, no sacks, one pass breakup, and one interception. He did finish better, though, with 23 tackles in the last 3 games. That projects to 92 tackles over the season.
Bam Bradley was solid, if not spectacular, in reserve, with 32 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, one sack, 2 pass breakups, and an interception. Fast Nicolas Grimsby had a position invented for him that would enable him to make big plays. It didn't work. He finished with 24 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, and no sacks. He was actually better the year before when he had no position invented for him.
Bottom line: This was supposed to be the strength of the defense but they weren't much better than the other units, even with the return of veteran starters Gonzalez and Thomas.
Last Season's Final Grade: C
This Season's Preseason Grade: B
Midseason Grade: C
Final Grade: C
Defensive Backs: With offseason losses this unit was looking like a disaster, but to be honest thanks to Troy Douglas this unit wasn't as bad as it looked like it was going to be. In fact, it was the best unit on the defense. Let's start with the weak link, despite his experience, and that's Lafayette Pitts. The redshirt junior had 36 tackles, a tackle for loss, 4 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. That doesn't look bad until you realize that he was picked on more than any starter. That's especially bad when the other starting cornerback, Reggie Mitchell, was never a cornerback until the offseason. He did very well and ended up with 55 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, a sack, 2 forced fumbles, and 6 pass breakups.
True freshman Avonte Maddox struggled at times but he clearly made strides as the season progressed. He finished with 27 tackles and 3 pass breakups.
At safety, Ray Vinopal had 62 tackles (down from 83), and 2 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions. He was probably the best player on defense but statistically he actually had a better season last year. Terrish Webb began the season as the other starter and played well until he was lost for the season with an ankle injury. Through the first eight games he had 33 tackles, a tackle for loss, a fumble recovery, 3 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. Pat Amara took over for Webb and performed very well, especially for a true freshman. He ended up with 18 tackles, a tackle for loss, one pass breakup, and an interception.
Bottom line: Thanks to Mitchell's successful move and the development of true freshman Maddox and Amara, this unit was actually pretty good. They finished No. 21 in pass defense, No. 34 in pass efficiency defense, and No. 39 in third down defense. On the downside, the Panthers finished No. 74 in interceptions.
Last Season's Final Grade: C
This Season's Preseason Grade: C-
Midseason Grade: C-
Final Grade: B-
Overall: This defense finished No. 28 nationally in total defense but they weren't nearly that good. When you look at the personnel and some of the stats it's amazing that they managed to rank so highly. The defense had no touchdowns, and they were also No. 113 in fumbles recovered, No. 65 in red zone defense, No. 110 in sacks, No. 121 in tackles for loss allowed, and No. 107 in turnovers gained. That's quite awful.
On the bright side, the secondary was good and could get much better next season. Also, the young players on the team seem to already be better than the upperclassmen.