Defensive Linemen: Ejuan Price, Shakir Soto, and Tyjuan Jarrett are gone, but all is not lost. Pat Narduzzi has begun to add more talent and depth to the unit and though it's not all the way to where he wants it, it's getting there.
At end, redshirt junior Dewayne Hendrix will finally get his chance. The 6'4" 260 pound redshirt junior missed the last two years, one because he transferred from Tennessee, and one for a leg injury. If he lives up to his massive ability, it would be a huge development for the line, and the defense in general.
At the other end, 6'4" 245 pound senior Rori Blair will be the incumbent, but he will face a lot of competition from 6'4" 245 senior Allen Edwards, 6'3" 245 pound junior James Folston, Jr., 6'5" 250 pound redshirt freshman Patrick Jones, and 6'5" 255 pound redshirt freshman Rashad Weaver. Blair has played a lot in three years but has only totaled 9 sacks in his career, so he will need to improve in his senior year to be an asset. Edwards is a former junior college product that has natural pass rushing skills, but he hasn't had much of a chance on the field yet. Like Blair, next year will be his last chance to make his mark. Folston is former linebacker that played a little more at the end of the season. Weaver and Jones are good developmental players, and both showed promise as a true freshman in the practice. Big 6'6' 240 pound true freshman Carson Van Lynn will most likely redshirt. A wildcard is Zach Gilbert, who missed last season with a heart condition. Though undersized, the 6'0" 240 pound Gilbert has a lot of skill, but there's a good chance that his career is over.
The tackle situation also has some talented younger players, but more are clearly needed. Two new starters will have to come through, and one of those should be 6'3" 280 pound sophomore Amir Watts, an aggressive bull that has a very high ceiling. The other spot could be between 6'2" 290 pound redshirt senior Jeremiah Taleni and 6'4" 275 pound redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp. Taleni was brought in from Hawaii by former head coach Paul Chryst many years ago, but much to his credit he has stuck around and got better each year. He is good enough that he will at least be in the rotation next season. Camp is an elite recruit with a ton of potential. Watts, Taleni, and Camp were all listed at defensive tackle, so if two of the three start one will have to move to nose tackle. Taleni would be the best bet.
Other contenders inside include 6'4" 315 pound redshirt junior Mike Herndon, 6'4" 280 pound redshirt junior Shane Roy, and 6'3" 290 pound redshirt freshman Rashad Wheeler. Roy and Herndon were the backups to Jarrett this year, but it remains to be seen if either could hold down the spot as a starter. Wheeler is too athletic to be wasted at the nose so he will join the tackles. He has very good potential.
Because there are questions in this unit, a true freshman has the ability to play if he's good enough. At end, Tyjuan Garbutt is between Pitt and Virginia Tech, and he has big time potential. If he decides on the Panthers he has a chance to be in the two deep. At tackle, 6'2" 300 pound Jaylen Twyman, 6'5" 300 pound Kyree Campbell, and 6'3" 315 pound Fred Hansard are three of the big time tackles that are still in play, with Twyman the most likely commitment of the three. Any of the three are capable of playing right away.
You never know where else a big time lineman may come from late in the recruiting season, like Watts and Camp last year, but it's very important that at least one more big very talented end and tackle are found.
Beyond 2017: Narduzzi currently has a lot of projects in the mix, and even though one or two projects usually turn into players, more high level talent is needed. But the future still looks better than it does next year at the position since Watts, Camp, Jones, Weaver, and Wheeler are a talented bunch that will only get better and better. Gilbert would be a welcome addition if that happens, but changing the future from good to excellent depends on what the staff adds to finish out this class.
Linebackers: The Panthers linebacker corps has been below average for years, but that should be changing soon. The group will be very young next season, but they will also be much more talented than their predecessors.
In the middle, Matt Galambos will be moving on, and replacing him should be 6'2" 240 pound senior Quintin Wirginis, who (here we go again) should have been starting for the last two years. So that will be an upgrade.
On the outside, longtime lettermen Mike Caprara and Bam Bradley are also gone, and among those vying for their time is returning starter, and former walk on, 6'0" 215 pound redshirt junior Sean Idowu, and 6'2" 225 pound junior Elijah Zeise, who began the season as the starter over Idowu before going down for the year with an injury in the first game. Also returning will be 6'0" 210 pound redshirt sophomore Saleem Brightwell, who is undersized but showed good quickness when he played. He looks like he will be in the mix for the rest of his career because he looks like he could be a playmaker.
The most intriguing part of this unit is the players that haven't seen the field yet. Redshirt sophomore Anthony McKee is also undersized at 6'0" and 210 pounds, and it's a little disappointing that he hasn't made a move yet with such untalented upperclassmen, but he's young and has physical skills so it's obviously too early to give up on him. In the middle, 6'2" 225 pound redshirt freshman Elias Reynolds will try to be the backup to Wirginis.
But the three most promising linebackers are 6'1" 220 pound Kaezon Pugh and 6'3" 230 pound Chase Pine, both redshirt freshmen, and 6'1" 210 pound incoming freshman Cam Bright. Pugh and Pine should definitely be in the mix, if not start, and even though he's a true freshman, Bright has the speed and explosiveness that makes him a possibility, too.
Incoming freshman Kyle Nunn is not yet big enough at 6'3" and 190 pounds, but he should be a factor in the not too distant future. Floridian Albert Tucker played linebacker on a loaded high school team, but at 6'3" and 205 pounds he will move over to linebacker. Like Nunn, he will probably redshirt. And big time recruit, Nathan Proctor, is still a possibility.
Beyond 2017: This unit is finally starting to look interesting, mostly because Pine, Pugh, Bright, and Brightwell will be around for a long time, and Nunn, Tucker, and McKee could be good players eventually, too. More are needed, but they are off to a very good start for the future.
Defensive backs: Where do we start? Well, Ryan Lewis and Terrish Webb struggled more than anyone in the secondary this year and both are gone, so that has to be considered a plus. Reggie Mitchell will also be gone, and he's another player that regressed.
Replacing Lewis permanently (starting maybe this season) should be 6'1" 185 pound sophomore Damar Hamlin, who the staff thinks has a very high ceiling. On the other side, 5'9" 175 pound senior Avonte Maddox will probably get the call again. Others joining the mix will be 6'0" 180 pound redshirt sophomore Dane Jackson, 6'0" 190 pound redshirt freshman Therran Coleman, 6'0" 185 pound redshirt sophomore Malik Henderson, and 5'10" 175 pound redshirt junior Philipie Motley.
Only Coleman didn't play this season, and the other three all struggled, but they were also very young and inexperienced. They will obviously get better, the only question is, how much and how quickly?
The obvious huge get is Lamont Wade, who would start immediately, but if I had to guess I don't think he will end up being a Panther. If he does choose elsewhere, the staff will have to either find a hidden gem or hope that another top level back springs open somehow. But with the Panthers adding so many cornerbacks last year it was always going to be add more this year.
At safety, 5'11" 190 pound junior Jordan Whitehead did not have a good year, and he's probably at the wrong position. He needs to have a comeback next year because he has All-American potential. His backup should again be 5'10" 190 pound redshirt junior Dennis Briggs. The replacement for Webb at free safety should be among 6'2" 185 redshirt sophomore Jay Stocker, 6'1" 175 pound redshirt freshman Bricen Garner, and 6'0" 170 pound true freshman Paris Ford. All three have very good potential, especially Ford, an elite prospect that will be impossible to keep off the field as a freshman. I expect Ford will also get some snaps on offense, too, and if it wasn't for Quadree Henderson he would be used in the return game. In other words, Pitt will find a way to get him on the field as much as they can, even in his first year. He's that good.
Two other promising redshirt freshmen are 6'3" 205 pound Henry Miller, and 6'1" 195 pound Phil Campbell. Miller has safety size (if not linebacker size), but may have the ability to play cornerback, which would be a huge development because athletic 6'3" 205 pound corners don't come along very often. Campbell is a safety that has the ability to be good, too.
Beyond 2017: Believe it or not, this should actually be a very good unit in the future, and should be improved next year (can't really get worse). Lewis, Webb, and Mitchell are out, Hamlin, Jackson, Motley, and Henderson will be a year better, and Coleman, Stocker, Garner, Ford, Miller, and Campbell will be added to the mix. And with expected improvement around them from the younger players, Whitehead and Maddox should be able to rebound.