DEFENSIVE LINE: This unit was pretty weak just a few years ago, but head coach Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, and defensive line coach Tom Sims have turned them around. Defensive end Ejuan Price returns for his sixth season after having 11.5 sacks last year. If he stays healthy again he should have another good season, but the fact that he's in his sixth season shows you that health is not a sure thing with him. The starter on the other end is Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix , a redshirt sophomore with a huge ceiling. If healthy they could be one of the best defensive end tandems in the country.
Behind Price and Hendrix, three juniors- Rori Blair, Allen Edwards, and James Folston- provide very good depth. Blair is a former starter who showed promise two years ago as a redshirt freshman, but did not perform well last year. If he rebounds, it will be a huge development for the Panthers. Edwards is a former junior college transfer that redshirted last season, but has the physical potential to develop into a very good pass rusher. Folsom is a former linebacker that also has good speed and athleticism. True freshmen Rashad Weaver is physically ready to play right now, but the Panthers should be able to redshirt him. Another true freshman, Patrick Jones, came to Pitt early but the head start probably isn't enough to avoid a redshirt.
At tackle, things aren't quite as good, but they are also not nearly as dire as many think. Giant 6'3" 335 pound Tyrique Jarrett has enough talent that he could be a bonafide NFL draft pick if he has a big year, and he is more than capable of that. The other starter inside is former defensive end Shakir Soto, who was forced into being a starting end at the beginning of his career, but has now bulked up to 290 pounds as a senior. He should prove to be a tackle than end.
The most intriguing backups to Jarrett and Soto are true freshman Keyshawn Camp and Amir Watts. Expect them to play a lot as both have star potential. Another former defensive end, Shane Roy, has bulked up (to 280 pounds), and he will also be in the mix, as will 315 pound redshirt sophomore Mike Herndon and redshirt junior Jeremiah Taleni, who played a little last season and performed solidly. A sleeper at the position is another true freshman, Rashad Wheeler, because he already has good size and is mobile.
Summary: This unit has a chance to be very good, especially because of the deep and talented ends. Price has already proved that he can reach double digit sacks and Hendrix has NFL written all over him. As for tackle, many have worried that the Panthers have lost Khaynin Mosley-Smith, Mark Scarpinato, Darryl Render, and Justin Moody, but none of the four were even close to all-star ability. So while numbers were lost, the raw talent is even better because of Camp and Watts. Will they do enough as true freshmen to offset the lack of experience and numbers? It's possible, and at the very least you can do a lot worse than any rotation that has Jarrett, Camp, and Watts in it. If I broke up the ends and tackles the ends would get an A- and the tackles would get a C- since there are questions until they are answered. Grade: B-
LINEBACKER: The coaching staff seems to like this unit much more than most, and the vast majority of talent is still a year or two away from contributing. One player that the staff really loves is starting middle linebacker Matt Galambos, a tough, experienced senior. Galambos has moments when he's really good, but he's also had times when he hasn't been. He's especially lacking with highly athletic teams since he only has average speed, at best. Behind him is junior Quintin Wirginis, who appears to have more ability than Galambos, but for whatever reason has never been given the starting job.
At the two outside spots, the Panthers call the positions the star and the money. Generally, the star linebacker is faster and operates in more space. He's almost like a linebacker/safety hybrid. The money linebacker is more involved in the strong side of the field and has to operate in tighter spaces.
The starter at money linebacker is redshirt senior Mike Caprara, who started as an undersized, supposedly slow late signee that turned into a pretty good linebacker last season. Behind him is another redshirt senior, Bam Bradley, who failed in his bid in camp to be the starting star linebacker. That star position will be manned, at least at first, by walk on Seun Idowu. He's being pushed by former wide receiver Elijah Zeise, a redshirt sophomore that is intriguing because of his athletic gifts and because of the position switch.
Redshirt freshmen Anthony McKee and Salem Brightwell, as well as true freshmen Kaezon Pugh, Chase Pine, and Elias Reynolds will be the next wave of Pitt linebackers but none may get that chance this year.
Summary- Of the six linebackers on the two deep, none are stars- at least yet- but as a unit they have the potential to be at least somewhat productive because Narduzzi and Conklin will put them in positions to be. The Panthers linebackers will fly around and make big plays at times, because that's how the defense is set up, but if they also get lit up too often, it will all even out in the end. Until I see otherwise, I assume that's how it will be. Grade: C
Defensive Back: This is another unit that was hurting badly just a few years ago, but this is also Narduzzi's specialty so it's no surprise that the position is quickly becoming a strength.
The secondary, as well as the defense in general, is led by sophomore strong safety Jordan Whitehead. The fast, muscular Whitehead is already all-conference and is a possible All-American as early as this season. The starting free safety is underrated senior Terrish Webb, who quietly had a good season last year. Former starter, redshirt senior Reggie Mitchell, will give excellent depth, and redshirt sophomore Dennis Briggs should do a good job spelling Whitehead for a small amount of time.
At cornerback, junior Avonte Maddox has already started for the past year and a half, and despite his small size, he has toughness to go with his great speed. The staff asked a lot of him last season, and sometimes it didn't work, but he will only get better and should be well above average this season.
The other corner is much more up in the air. The starter in the opener will be fifth year senior Ryan Lewis, who has been a reserve his entire career, but has great size and speed. If he fails to keep the job, there are many others ready to step in, especially redshirt sophomore Philipie Motley, redshirt freshmen Dane Jackson and Malik Henderson, and true freshman Damar Hamlin. Motley, Jackson, and Henderson are fast and have good ability, but Hamlin has future star written all over him so he will be hard to keep off the field. Incoming freshmen Bricen Garner, Therran Coleman, Henry Miller, and Phil Campbell are the future but they all may redshirt this season unless they can definitively prove that they are a better option than the many players currently above them.
Summary: The one cornerback spot is suspect until, and unless, someone comes through there, but the unit also possesses three really good starters, including a possible All-American. There is also good depth, numbers, and raw talent. For those reasons, I see no reason why this can't be at least a good unit. Grade: B
SPECIAL TEAMS: This is another unit that has struggled over the years, but with a ton of experience amongst the kickers and a potential star returning kicks and punts, it could quietly become a strength this year.
Amazingly, kicker Chris Blewitt is a senior already, and he will be the starting kicker for his entire career when the season is over. Unfortunately, despite some highs, Blewitt's junior season was his worst so he will need to rebound for him to go off on a high note. As a freshman Blewitt made 77.8% of his kicks, as a sophomore he made 76.2%, and last year he dropped to 65.2%.
Redshirt junior punter Ryan Winslow will be the starter for the third season, and at 41.1 yards a punt last year, he still has room for improvement.
Electrifying sophomore Quadree Henderson will return both punts and kicks, and as he showed last year with 28.0 yards a kick return this is a good thing. If he's banged up, Maddox is currently the next in line, and that's not much of a drop off. Tre Tipton, Whitehead, and true freshman Maurice Ffrench are just some of the others that can do the job if need be, and that's a far cry from when the Panthers would put kids in to mainly just catch the punt.
Redshirt senior Pat Quirnin returns as the long snapper.
Summary: Blewitt and Winslow have been doing this forever and it's time to take the next step. They certainly have the talent to do so and if they don't then it will be very disappointing. The return game could be exceptional. Grade: B