DEFENSIVE LINE: All-star defensive end Ejuan Price is gone, as are starting defensive tackles Tyrique Jarrett and Shakir Soto. That's the bad news. The good news is that there's a lot of raw talent remaining, especially at tackle.
First, at end, where 6'4" 260 pound redshirt junior Dewayne Hendrix should finally get his chance to shine. The former Tennessee transfer has NFL potential, but because of his transfer, and then an injury in the opener last year, he has barely played in the last two seasons. With a big season, he could be a high NFL draft choice, so the incentive is there to have a big year. Now he just has to live up to his massive potential.
At the other end, the position looks wide open. Redshirt senior Rori Blair, 6'4" and 245 pounds, has started 20 games in his three seasons, but he still hasn't been better than mediocre. He had 5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, but then had 5 sacks the next two seasons combined. Another 6'4" 245 pound senior, Allen Edwards, has only been on the field for one season because he came from the junior college ranks, but he started 4 games last season, and looked promising at the end of the year. He came up with 1.5 sacks in that time, but also 13 tackles, which is only 9 fewer than Blair. Redshirt junior James Folston, 6'3" 245 pounds, also lettered last year, and will be in the mix.
Those three will be pushed by at least two redshirt freshman, and maybe four. The two for sure- Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver- have ideal size. Jones is 6'5" and 250 pounds, and Weaver is 6'5" and 255 pounds. Both have a lot of promise, and Weaver, a former Michigan commit, got the attention of Pitt of Pitt coaches in practices last year. The third, 6'1" 240 pound Zack Gilbert, is one of two wildcards. He has great potential, but sat out last season because of a heart condition. If he gets a clean bill of health, he will be a possibility to see the field.
Another wildcard is redshirt freshman Kaezon Pugh. Recruited as a linebacker, there has been some talk that he is moving to end. If he does, he better be bigger than the 6'1" 210 pounds that he was listed at this past season, because that will not be big enough this year to play at that position. If he gets up to 230 pounds before the season, though, then he could be a major contender for playing time.
Two incoming freshmen- 6'4" 250 pound Deslin Alexandre, and 6'5" 240 pound Carson Van Lynn- will be redshirted, but should have bright futures.
At tackle, things look a little more promising. In fact, things are getting downright exciting. Holdover Jeremiah Taleni, a 6'2" 290 pound redshirt senior, was recruited from the state of Hawaii by former Pitt coach Paul Chryst a long time ago, but to his credit he stayed, and now he's finally getting a chance to be a major part of the defense. Despite playing in just 7 games last year, and starting only 3, he still came through with 24 tackles and 3 sacks.
At the other tackle spot, it may come down to two highly recruited players that came to the Panthers last year- 6'3" 280 pound sophomore Amir Watts, and 6'4" 280 pound redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp. Watts played sparingly in 6 games last season, and in what little time he was on the field, he showed that he can be a bull. I predict big things from him, maybe as soon as this year. But to do so he will have to beat out Camp, who also has big time potential
But there is more on the defensive line than just those three. Redshirt junior Shane Roy, 6'4" 280 pounds, will be a veteran in the mix, and it's possible that 6'4" 315 pound redshirt junior Mike Herndon, who I mentioned in the offense article as a possibility to move back to that line. With him, it just may come down to see where he's needed more for depth.
Redshirt freshman Rashad Wheeler, 6'3" 290 pounds, also has a bright future and could be in the mix as soon as this year, and 6'4" 300 pound juco redshirt sophomore Kam Carter has the size, strength, speed, and talent to play a lot immediately. He could even start if Watts or Camp aren't ready to take over as a starter. Incoming 6'2" 315 pound freshman Jaylen Twyman will probably be a future starting nose tackle, but the depth may afford him the opportunity to redshirt this season.
Bottom line- While the experience level is very low with this group, the talent level is pretty high. There would be some questions in a starting line of Hendrix, Edwards, Taleni, and Watts, as an example, but potentially it can also be a very good starting line, especially if Hendrix and Watts live up to their potential. Carter is also capable of providing instant impact, maybe even as a starter. Then there are possible surprises like Weaver, Gilbert, Pugh, Camp, and even Edwards. As of the time of this writing, the Panthers don't have a defensive line coach, so it will be interesting to see who is named, and if he can ultimately unlock the potential of this group.
LINEBACKER: Three out of the four leading tacklers at linebacker have moved on, but that's not a bad thing. The truth is, the unit has been, at best, mediocre for years.
At middle linebacker, Matt Galambos has departed, but that means 6'2" 240 pound redshirt senior Quintin Wirginis finally gets his chance to start. He has been brought in on third down for the past few seasons, but even in limited time he was more productive than Galambos in many ways. He is also much faster and more athletic. It's likely that this will be an upgrade.
The same may be said of the other two linebacker spots. At the "star" linebacker, which is on the long side of the field, 6'0" 210 pound redshirt junior Oluwaseun Idowu returns after starting last season. The former walk on amassed 74 tackles, but didn't make a lot of splash plays. His main competition could be 6'2" 225 pound redshirt junior Elijah Zeise, who is bigger and at least as athletic. He was neck and neck with Idowu entering last season, but was lost for the season in the opener. His development is crucial for the unit.
Three younger contenders will also throw their hats in the ring. Anthony McKee, a 6'2" 210 pound redshirt sophomore, has not got on the field yet, and now is the time or he'll be in danger of getting passed over. Two incoming freshmen, 6'2" 210 pound Cam Bright, and 6'1" 210 pound Albert Tucker, can fly. Both may redshirt, because it's a tough position to play as a true freshman, but because of their topnotch speed and athleticism their future is very bright. Both are the type of star linebacker that Idowu is not, and that the defense needs, so the best case scenario is that one of them surprises in camp and works their way onto the field in their first year.
Middle linebacker and the "money" linebacker spot are pretty interchangeable, but a starter will be needed at the money linebacker to go alongside Wirginis in the middle. That shouldn't be a problem. The two main contenders here are 6'0" 210 pound redshirt sophomore Salem Brightwell, and 6'2" 220 pound redshirt freshman Chase Pine. Brightwell showed a lot of promise as a redshirt freshman last year, and had a knack for making plays. He should only get better. Pine redshirted last year, but he also has the skills to get on the field a lot this year.
A potential backup in the middle could be 6'2" 225 pound redshirt freshman Elias Reynolds, who has the potential to be a strong run stopper. Incoming freshman Kyle Nunn, who at 6'3" and 200 pounds is very athletic, will probably redshirt, but he also has very good potential.
Bottom line: This group is still a work in progress. There is some potential, but there are also still a lot of questions. Wirginis should do well in the middle, but there's no experience behind him. Brightwell and Pine should make a nice duo at the money linebacker if they can overcome their inexperience. At star linebacker, there needs to be an upgrade over Idowu, and maybe a healthy Zeise can be it. Depth on the outside is also a question, unless McKee or one of the freshman come through.
DEFENSIVE BACK: Last year, this group was a disaster. I just may get that out right away. The good news is, it should be better this season, and maybe even a lot better.
Beginning with the cornerbacks first, the leading contenders to start should be 5'9" 180 pound senior Avonte Maddox, and 6'1" 180 pound sophomore Damar Hamlin. Maddox has been a lightning rod for some fans, but that's mostly unfair. The Panthers faced an obscene amount of top quarterbacks and receivers last year, and Maddox, with little help from the free safety spot, was put in a pretty impossible position. In those situations, all but the most elite cornerbacks would struggle. He did end up with an incredible 8.5 tackles for loss, plus 3 interceptions, and 8 more pass breakups. Saying he was the best cornerback for the Panthers last year is damning him with faint praise, but he was.
Hamlin, as any Pitt fan knows, was an elite prospect when he arrived at Pitt last season, and the fans clamored for him all year. Unfortunately, Hamlin, who was behind at the beginning of the season because of injuries, was injured again once he finally did get on the field. He struggled when he was out there, but he was a true freshman, and should be much better next year. All he has to do is stay on the field.
Hamlin and Maddox are far from sure things to start, however, since there are five other candidates that will try to wrestle the starting spot away from them. The three returnees of those five are 6'0" 180 pound redshirt sophomore Dane Jackson, 5'10" 175 pound redshirt junior Phillipie Motley, and 6'0" 185 pound redshirt sophomore Malik Henderson. Both Jackson and Motley showed at times that they could develop into solid corners in the future.
Two very exciting redshirt freshman are entering the scene in 6'0" 190 pound Therran Coleman and 6'3" 205 pound Henry Miller. Coleman is a local kid that has big time athleticism, while Miller is the rare physical freak that can play cornerback at 6'3". If either, or both, play up to their massive ability this year, it would be a godsend.
Two incoming freshman- 6'0" 190 pound Jason Pinnock, and 5'11" 185 pound Damarri Mathis- have excellent length and speed. Both could be really good in the future, but the chances are great that they'll both redshirt.
At safety, things also look better. At strong safety, 5'11" 190 pound junior Jordan Whitehead returns after breaking his arm late last season. He wasn't quite as good as a sophomore as he was as a freshman, but he still has the ability to bounce back to being a possible All-American candidate.
At free safety, Terrish Webb struggled immensely last season, but he is gone, so a new starter will have to be found. That shouldn't be a problem with 6'0" 175 pound freshman Paris Ford arriving on the scene. It's not often that I pencil in a true freshman as a starter, but if Ford doesn't start the opener, he will most likely, barring injury, start soon after.
But there are other good safeties in the mix, too. Backing up Whitehead at strong safety should again be 5'10" 190 pound redshirt junior Dennis Briggs. Competing with him for time will be 6'1" 195 pound redshirt freshman Phil Campbell. At free safety, battling Ford for minutes will be 6'2" 185 pound redshirt sophomore Jay Stocker, and 6'1" 175 pound redshirt freshman Bricen Garner. Stocker got some time on the field at the end of last season, while Garner has a nose for the ball.
Bottom line- It's going to be hard to convince some people that the secondary could be a lot better, but I have to say anyway that there's a real possibility that the secondary could be a lot better. If Whitehead returns to form, and Hamlin and Ford live up to their potential, there will be an enormous improvement. And these are three elite talents so it's not unimaginable.
Also, last year's underclassmen, like Jackson, Motley, and Stocker, should get better now that last year's shellshocked season is over. Throw in some very talented redshirt freshmen like Coleman, Miller, Campbell, and Garner, and you can see that there may be light at the end of the tunnel sooner than people think.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Chris Blewitt and his unfortunate name are gone so a new placekicker will have to be named. The most likely option will be 6'3" 180 pound redshirt freshman Alex Kessman. He arrived at Pitt as a gray shirt last season, and he now will be on scholarship. He has a great leg, but what he does under pressure is still to be determined. Giving him some competition will be preferred walk on freshman Grant Kersh.
For the fourth straight year the punter will be 6'5" 210 pound redshirt senior Ryan Winslow. He was 35th nationally in net punting last year but his career 41.3 yard career average is mediocre. It will be tough to beat out a player about to be a four year starter, but Winslow will be pushed by incoming 6'1" 210 pound freshman Kirk Christodoulou. What's most interesting about Christodoulou is that he's from the Australian training facility that is cornering the market on excellent punters, not only in college football, but also in the NFL.
The return man on punts and kicks will again be 5'8" 190 pound junior Quadree Henderson, and since he was a consensus All-American at the position last season, it's safe to say that this is a team strength.
CONCLUSION: Once again, on paper, the defense looks to be behind the offense. It was very apparent that former head coach Paul Chryst recruited much better on offense than on defense, so the offensive side of the ball was much further ahead in Narduzzi's first two years. But surprisingly, Narduzzi's staff is also recruiting better on offense, than on defense, at least as far as players that are ready to play early in their career. Put another way, on the offensive side, the staff is recruiting more established talents, whereas on the defensive side, the players being brought in are more developmental.
That's not to suggest that the defense won't be very good soon, maybe even this year. There's a lot more talent, athleticism, and speed than what the defense had when Narduzzi arrived, but few of those players have actually established themselves on the field yet.
Whitehead is still the only known commodity on the defense. Maddox should at least be solid, while others, like Wirginis and Taleni, were good during spot duty, but now have to be better as full-time starters.
After that small group, there's a lot of players with raw talent that so far in their careers have done little, or nothing. Of course, in most cases it's because they are too young to do anything, so it's not a criticism as much as it is a fact.
On the defensive line alone, the senior Edwards, and the junior Hendrix, have potential to take a major step up next year as sack artists, but they haven't done it yet. Youngsters like Watts, Camp, Carter, Wheeler, Weaver, Twyman, Jones, Pugh, and maybe Gilbert if he comes back, are loaded with potential, but again, they have yet to do anything. That means there could be as many as twelve linemen that are very talented, but that still have questions about just how good they will be. Some of this group will develop next year, the only question is, how many will develop, and just how good will they be?
At linebacker, like defensive end, the staff has not brought in a lot of players that are ready to play early. Raw talent, yes, but it's mostly developmental talent. Pugh moving to end has not helped a linebacker unit that's been struggling for years now. Wirginis, Zeise, Brightwell, and Pine will have to live up to their potential to finally get this unit above mediocre.
If the pass rush becomes more consistent and the secondary improves, the defense will take major strides. I don't like to put too much pressure on a freshman, but I really do believe that Ford will make the secondary significantly better, which will also make the defense as a whole significantly better. Last year's free safety, Terrish Webb, missed making a play an alarming number of times. Ford is many steps above Webb is speed and talent, and he should make an immediate impact. A highly talented free safety like Ford will help Whitehead regain his form, and with strong safeties, the cornerbacks should be better. Helping the unit is that the much ballyhooed 2016 defensive back class should now start to make an impact.
Bottom line, the defense is very inexperienced, very young, and very untested, but also very talented and athletic. The defense will eventually be very good with all of this talent, but there may be too many questions that need to be answered to make such a drastic step up in just one season. But if the staff gets enough of these young, talented kids to reach their potential early, a step or two up is definitely possible.
As for the special teams, Henderson's returns are an enormous plus, but the kicking game is a major question mark until Kessman actually starts making some kicks.