2011 Pitt Preview - Defense
Pitt FS Jarred Holley
Pitt FS Jarred Holley
Posted May 11, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Pittsburgh Defense

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What you need to know: Whether it's offense or defense, the new Pitt program will be governed by the same buzzword—attack. Operating out of a three-man front, but mixing up their looks, the Panthers want to create turnovers and take quarterbacks out of their comfort zones at all times. Employing positions with catchy names, such as "Panther" and "Spur", the D will get its 11 best athletes on the field and turn them loose. While at Rice and Tulsa, Graham's units had a penchant for big plays, both making and yielding them. However, he and his staff never had this much talent in Conference USA. The Panthers welcome back eight starters and a robust 28 lettermen, enough to form an impressive two-deep. Even without all-star ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus, Pitt will be stout up front, headed by sack specialist Brandon Lindsey and tackles Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein. The approach will be different in 2011, but the results are going to be similar for a stingy Panther defense.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Max Gruder, 84
Sacks: Brandon Lindsey, 10
Interceptions: Jarred Holley, 5

Star of the defense: Senior DE Brandon Lindsey
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB K'Waun Williams
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore S Jason Hendricks
Best pro prospect: Lindsey
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Lindsey, 2) Junior FS Jarred Holley, 3) Senior DT Chas Alecxih
Strength of the defense: The defensive line, pass defense, run defense, creating pressure, limiting the big play
Weakness of the defense: Overall depth, takeaways, third down stops

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The transition to a 3-4 alignment means fewer bodies will be needed up front. As luck would have it, that's good news for a Panther front wall moving forward without talented ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus. Actually, Romeus was injured for all but a pair of games last fall, forcing the program to build depth and prep for his graduation a year ahead of schedule.

When Romeus suffered a crippling back injury, 6-2, 250-pound senior Brandon Lindsey seized the opportunity and made the most of it. An explosive pass rusher off the edge, he was named All-Big East second team in his starting debut, making 51 tackles, 17.5 stops for loss, and 10 sacks. He's ideally suited to play the new "Panther" position, a hybrid that blends the rush skills of a defensive end and the athleticism of a linebacker. Lindsey is the man on the outside, right? Probably, but he's being tailed closely by 6-4, 270-pound senior Justin Hargrove , who would not go away in the spring. He's had a quiet, injury-plagued career that's included just one start, but spent a lot of time in the backfield in March and April.

On the inside, Pitt boasts a couple of returning senior starters, 6-5, 280-pound Chas Alecxih at defensive tackle and 6-2, 290-pound nose tackle Myles Caragein . Alecxih performed like an all-star last fall even if voters disagreed, piling up a line-best 57 tackles, nine stops for loss, and 7.5 sacks. Watching him on film and seeing how quickly he beats the block and gets into the backfield, it's hard to imagine he began his career without a scholarship. Caragein is more of a prototypical run-stopper in the middle, using a strong base and good leverage to stand his ground. A one-time wrestler, who uses his hands well, he chipped in 30 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss, and a pair of sacks in his first season as a starter.

Watch Out For .... Lindsey to flourish in his new role. The senior has to be pinching himself as he prepares to play a position that looks as if it was designed specifically for his skill set. At just 6-2 and 250 pounds, he wasn't going to play a traditional end spot in the NFL, so the upcoming season will prepare to be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Strength: Getting pressure. Whether it's from the inside or the outside, the Panthers will be able to challenge the integrity of the pocket. Lindsey is a safe bet to rack up double-digit sacks once again, and Alecxih and Caragein are relentless in their pursuit of players in the backfield.
Weakness: Inside depth. Caragein and Alecxih are durable warriors on the inside, so this might not become a pressing issue, but they'll still need occasional breaks. Sophomores and spring stars Aaron Donald and Tyrone Ezell have very high ceilings at defensive tackle, but neither has played much thus far.
Outlook: Even without Sheard and Romeus, the Panthers are liable to have one of the Big East's feistiest defensive lines. Lindsey is going to play at the next level, and the two inside guys go from the snap to the whistle on every down. This trio is going to be a 60-minute workout for all 12 opponents on the Pitt schedule.
Rating: 8


State of the Unit: The competition at linebacker was ferocious at all four positions in the spring. Bank on that to continue in the summer, especially after the coaching staff withheld naming a definitive starter following the end of spring drills. The eventual winner at each position will be the Panther who shows an ability to cover a large swatch of the field and wreak as much havoc as possible.

At weakside, 6-2, 230-pound senior Max Gruder is the favorite to retain a position in the lineup. One of the more versatile and reliable Panthers at the position, he had 84 tackles a year ago, tops among returning players. A starter in 26 straight games, there's a reason why he's made so many plays in the past two seasons, diagnosing and wrapping up in the open field.

Senior Tristan Roberts is battling Gruder at weakide and 6-1, 230-pound Shane Gordon at strongside. The 6-1, 235-pound Roberts has earned a letter in each of the last two seasons, making 40 tackles and 4.5 stops for loss as a seven-game starter in 2010. He's stout at the point of attack, needing to do a better job of shedding blockers. Gordon has evolved nicely since his debut, when he had seven tackles and earned a start versus Syracuse.

At outside linebacker, the favorite, 6-3, 240-pound senior Greg Williams , is battling a young challenger, 6-3, 245-pound sophomore Bryan Murphy . Williams is about to put the cap on a terrific career in Pittsburgh, starting 32 games and making a personal-best 64 tackles last fall. A fantastic all-around athlete, he has good size and the closing speed to be effective coming off the edge. A converted down lineman, Murphy has impressed the staff with his strength and quickness off the snap, making him a candidate at "Panther" in the future.

The new "Spur" position combines the skills of a linebacker and a safety. The smallest player at the second level, he's also expected to be one of the more disruptive athletes. The job is likely to go to either 6-1, 215-pound sophomore Kevin Adams or 6-3, 215-pound redshirt freshman Eric Williams . With 6-2, 210-pound redshirt freshman Todd Thomas sidelined this spring, Adams and Williams shared reps with the first team.

Watch Out For .... the health of 6-0, 235-pound sophomore Dan Mason, who's still rehabbing from last year's serious knee injury. Before getting hurt, he was looking like a rising star in the middle and a future member of the honor roll. If he can return to pre-injury form, it'll provide a major boost to the Panther D.
Strength: Range. Thanks to the recruiting of Dave Wannstedt, the Panthers now harbor a solid collection of athletes on the second level. Whoever winds up getting the start will be the new regime's kind of a player, a fierce defender who can go from sideline-to-sideline in an instant.
Weakness: Spur. Now a critical position on the Pitt D, the staff is completely unsure about its starter. Three untested underclassmen are in the mix, and one of the frontrunners, Thomas, was held out of the spring session because of an injury.
Outlook: With more "OR's" on the post-spring depth chart than the Panther crew team, the linebackers will maintain plenty of intrigue leading up to the opener. Gruder and Greg Williams are the closest things to sure-things, but that doesn't mean they won't be pushed. Mason is capable of really rocking the boat if he's able to handle contact in August.
Rating: 7


State of the Unit: The Panthers have lost a couple of seniors from the 2010 squad, none bigger than SS Dom DeCicco. An All-Big East first teamer and Pitt's leader in tackles and picks, he gave the secondary a presence and an attitude. The encouraging news is that four defensive backs who started at least one game return to a unit that was No. 19 nationally in pass defense and allowed only 15 touchdown passes in 13 games.

The new star of the unit is 5-10, 180-pound junior FS Jarred Holley, a member of last year's All-Big East second team. About to enter his third year as a starter, he's like having a third cornerback on the field. Athletic and instinctive in pass defense, he already has eight career interceptions, making 54 tackles and a team-high five interceptions a year ago.

Replacing DeCicco is the Panthers' new bandit safety, 6-0, 180-pound sophomore Jason Hendricks . He was quick out of the gate in his first year, earning five starts and making 42 tackles. While still light for the position, he has the frame to add more weight losing agility. Behind Holley, 5-11, 190-pound junior Andrew Taglianetti brings 26 games and two career starts of experience. Quick, heady, and tough, he returned from a 2009 injury to appear in 11 games and make 15 tackles last fall.

The situation at cornerback is a little less certain. At boundary corner, the staff appears to have settled on 5-10, 175-pound sophomore K'Waun Williams . As a true freshman, he played in 10 games, started the BBVA Compass Bowl, and was in on 14 stops. What's looking like a recruiting coup, he didn't receive another offer coming out of high school. Williams is being backed up by 5-10, 190-pound senior Saheed Imoru, a 2010 transfer from Navarro (Tex.) Junior College. A physical defender, he mostly played on special teams in his debut.

Field cornerback will be manned by one of two seniors, 5-10, 185-pound Antwuan Reed or 6-1, 180-pound Buddy Jackson . Reed is the favorite after starting all but the bowl game and making 40 tackles and six pass breakups. He has the potential to be the best cover corner on the team, but first needs to make a healthy return from last year's concussion. Jackson is a terrific all-around athlete, who needs to sharpen his coverage skills. A career backup, with 11 tackles in 2010, it would be a major promotion if he can get past Reed.

Watch Out For… Reed's status. He didn't practice in the spring, which is why he's running neck-and-neck with Jackson on the depth chart. However, when the cobwebs clear out, few doubt that he'll be the man at field corner. The Panthers need him because Jackson is better served coming off the bench than being an every-down player.
Strength: Coverage skills. Even with a pair of new starters, Pitt is going to get after the ball in the air. Both the cornerbacks and the safeties will stick to their man, breaking quickly on throws and not getting fooled on fakes. It's an agile group of pass defenders that's going to improve over time.
Weakness: Lapses. It didn't happen often last year, but when the Panthers lacked consistency, they were made to pay for it. Jordan Wynn, Jacory Harris, Zach Frazer, and Geno Smith beat them for at least two touchdown passes in four games that Pittsburgh lost in 2011.
Outlook: Despite the loss of two valuable starters, Pitt believes it can be just as stingy against the pass as it was last year. The two returning starters, Holley and Reed, are good ones, and depth shouldn't be an issue. Whether or not the Panthers can maintain a high standard in the secondary will depend on Hendricks and Williams, sophomores itching to deliver breakout years.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

State of the Unit: With the graduation of Dan Hutchins, the Panthers have been put in a position to replace both their punter and placekicker in 2011. The dual-threat on special teams held both positions for the past two years. This fall, Pitt has no choice but to employ two players to handle the two openings. It feels somewhat fortunate to be bringing back junior PK Kevin Harper, the heralded recruit from the 2008 class who's been used for long-range field goals and kickoffs. He has tremendous leg strength, needing now to improve his accuracy and consistency.

Out of the three walk-ons vying to be the punter, sophomore Matt Yoklic has edged ahead in the offseason. The biggest of the punters at 6-4 and 210 pounds, he's currently holding off redshirt freshman Drake Greer .

The return game is expected to be in the hands of senior kick returner Buddy Jackson and junior punt returner Cameron Saddler , who averaged more than 10 yards and ranked third in the Big East in 2010.

Watch Out For… Harper to be a feast-or-famine type specialist this season. The junior is the kind of specialist who'll give assistant coach Randall McCray sleepless nights this fall, nailing a game-winner from 52 yards one weekend and then hooking a couple of 36-yarders a week later.
Strength: Saddler. While only 5-7 and 170 pounds, he has game-changing tendencies once he gets out into open space. He possesses good speed for a return man and just enough wiggle to make people miss once he gets through the wedge.
Weakness: Uncertainty in the kicking game. Other than the pop in Harper's leg, the Panthers will begin 2011 with plenty of unanswered questions about their punter and placekicker. How well will the two first-time starters handle the inevitable pressure-cooker situations? Pitt won't know until after the season has started.
Outlook: Two unproven kickers. Two touchdowns allowed on returns in 2010. A new kick returner. The Panther special teams unit is getting an offseason overhaul. The development of Harper and Yoklic will be crucial for not just this group, but for the offense and defense, respectively, as well.
Rating: 5

- 2011 Pitt Preview | 2011 Pitt Offense
- 2011 Pitt Defense | 2011 Pitt Depth Chart
- Pitt Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006