2012 Pitt Preview - Defense
Pitt DT Aaron Donald
Pitt DT Aaron Donald
Posted May 13, 2012

CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Pittsburgh Defense

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2012 - Defense

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- 2012 Pitt Defense | 2012 Pitt Depth Chart

What you need to know: First-year defensive coordinator inherits a defense that returns just four starters, and is shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3. The front seven, in particular, is getting an extreme makeover with six new regulars in the rotation. The lone returner is a good one, DT Aaron Donald, who's just disruptive enough to vie for All-American recognition. The cornerstone on this side of the ball just might be a secondary welcoming back three starters, including all-conference contenders Jarred Holley and K'Waun Williams, and two talented Michigan transfers, Cullen Christian and Ray Vinopal. The Panthers' ability to rebuild on the fly will hinge on the new defensive ends and linebackers. Up front, sophomores Bryan Murphy and T.J. Clemmings are itching to contribute after sitting out 2011. And at linebacker, there's cautious optimism that Dan Mason can make a triumphant return from a wicked knee injury that has shelved him for almost two years.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Jarred Holley, 67
Sacks: Aaron Donald, 11
Interceptions: Multiple, 1

Star of the defense: Junior DT Aaron Donald
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior LB Shane Gordon
Unsung star on the rise: Junior CB K'Waun Williams
Best pro prospect: Williams
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Donald, 2) Holley, 3) Williams
Strength of the defense: Inside pressure, the secondary, run defense, forcing punts
Weakness of the defense: Edge pressure, turnover in the front seven, takeaways

Defensive Line

After one year in a 3-4 alignment, Pittsburgh is shifting back to a more familiar 4-3. It's going to be a difficult transition right away since the unit lost a lot of playmakers to graduation. The catalyst for the front four will be 6-0, 270-pound DT Aaron Donald , who delivered an improbable breakout year in 2011. Despite starting just five games, the junior parlayed 47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 11 sacks into a spot on the All-Big East Second Team. Reminiscent of current San Diego Charger Melvin Ingram, Donald lacks ideal size and length, but compensates with an explosive burst through the gap, and a terrific motor.

At the nose, the Panthers are poised to insert squat, 6-0, 295-pound sophomore Khaynin Mosley-Smith into the starting lineup. He played sparingly in 2011, making seven stops in 13 games, but has the strong base to evolve into an effective run-stopper.

The coaches will spend a lot of time in the offseason trying to develop an effective pass rusher off the edge. Coming out of spring, fingers were crossed that 6-4, 255-pound Shayne Hale might finally approach his prep buzz, when he was a five-star recruit back in 2008. He was unable to succeed in impressing head coaches Dave Wannstedt or Todd Graham, collecting just four tackles in three. Maybe the third staff, Paul Chryst's, will be the charm for the senior.

Hale will continue his battle with sophomore T.J. Clemmings in the summer. At 6-6 and 295 pounds, he has ideal strongside size, but has also missed the mark so far. He used 2011 as a redshirt year, getting a little bigger and a lot stronger in the weight room. The Panthers still have high expectations for No. 90.

Like Clemmings, sophomore Bryan Murphy is hoping to go from idle in 2011 to a starting job in 2012. He was academically ineligible, a humbling experience he used to get in the best shape possible. He's a physical and relentless pass rusher, but at only 6-3 and 250 pounds will need to use his technique to avoid get enveloped on running plays.

Watch Out For .... the Hale vs. Clemmings duel to get very interesting during the summer. Neither player has lived up to the high school hype, with the senior, Hale, facing a far greater sense of urgency. There's an obvious need for one—or both—to step up and provide some heat from the perimeter.
Strength: Donald. At least for now, the D-line looks as if it's going to be the sophomore and everyone else. He's a nightmare for slow-moving interior linemen, beating them off the snap en route to the backfield. Donald is going to require so much extra attention from the other team that it's going to make life easier for the teammates around him.
Weakness: Edge pressure. The pass rush, particularly from the outside, will be one of the defense's biggest concerns during the offseason. Sure, the Panthers were third nationally in sacks a year ago, but Donald no longer lines up at end, and Brandon Lindsey and Chas Alecxih have graduated. Out of Hale, Clemmings and Murphy, someone needs to warrant occasional double-teams this fall.
Outlook: Donald is back, and better than ever, but the Pitt D-line is unlikely to be as feisty as it was a year ago. The program lost too much veteran talent to graduation. The staff is banking on a collection of sophomores that includes Clemmings, Mosley-Smith, Murphy and LaQuentin Smith to play above their pay grade this fall.
Rating: 6.5


The Panthers are going to be transitioning at linebacker like nowhere else on the roster. Four seniors have graduated, including all-star and leading tackler Max Gruder. All three positions will be up for grabs in August. There's hope that 6-2, 220-pound sophomore Todd Thomas can recover from last year's knee injury in time to nab one of the openings on the outside. The former four-star recruit as a wide receiver was productive in six starts a year ago, making 47 tackles, four stops for loss and 1.5 sacks. He's a phenomenal all-around athlete, with a high ceiling once he gets healthy.

With Thomas out this spring, 6-1, 210-pound redshirt freshman Nicholas Grigsby took most of the first-team snaps. In an ideal situation, he'll be able to earn his first letter and adapt to the speed of the game as a reserve and special teams contributor.

At the other outside spot, 6-3, 215-pound sophomore Eric Williams is currently running ahead of 6-0, 220-pound junior Emanuel Rackard . Williams was limited by injury to just three games a year ago, but has the length and raw athleticism to emerge as a playmaker once he adds more weight and gains more experience.

In the middle, 6-1, 230-pound junior Shane Gordonhas stepped up his game to take control of the position. He's only started three career games, and made just 22 tackles in 2011, but has a high ceiling that the program believes he can start reaching this fall. He's quick to the ball, moves well laterally and will explode on impact. However, he needs to attain a higher level of consistency, especially on third downs.

Battling for the backup job will be 6-0, 220-pound senior Dan Mason. He's been an inspiration to his teammates, never giving up on a dream to return to the game following a gruesome knee injury suffered nearly two years ago. He hasn't suited up since. Prior to the injury, Mason was on the verge of becoming a star on the inside for the Panthers.

Watch Out For .... availability of sophomore Ejuan Price who is on the mend following surgery to repair a chest muscle. The 6-0, 235-pounder was an instant hit for the Panthers, showing good pursuit as a five-game starter, making 27 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss and four sacks. He can play multiple positions when he returns.
Strength: Range. Thanks to the recruiting of Dave Wannstedt, Pitt boasts a coterie of terrific athletes on the second line of defense. Thomas, Gordon and Williams, in particular, play the game very fast, going from sideline to sideline with the same urgency as the team's safeties.
Weakness: Muscle. The linebackers move like safeties because, well, they look an awful lot like safeties. With the exception of Gordon, it's a group consisting of no one who weighs more than 220 pounds. In a conference, such as the Big East, that favors a blue-collar brand of offense, Pitt could struggle to hold up at the point of attack.
Outlook: The linebackers are small, quick and explosive. In other words, they're a better fit for the last regime than the current one. It'll be a very busy summer for this juggled group, with all three positions being up for grabs. There's hope that the competition, and the healthy returns of Price and Mason, will help elevate the unit to a higher level.
Rating: 6.5


With three returning starters to go along with an influx of talent from Ann Arbor, the secondary figures to be defensive strength of 2012. The best of a deep and talented group is 5-10, 190-pound senior Jarred Holley, a two-time All-Big East pick. He sat out the spring to recover from an injury, but will be back to begin his fourth year as a starter. He's the instinctive quarterback of the defensive backfield, making 67 tackles, five stops for loss and two sacks in 2011. The sure-handed Holley had just one pick last fall, because quarterbacks have learned to stop throwing in his direction.

Holley's likely successor—and spring placeholder—was 5-10, 195-pound sophomore Ray Vinopal , a first-year transfer from Michigan. The three-star recruit from the 2010 class has played well, and has valuable Big Ten experience, starting six games as a rookie.

Back for a final year at strong safety is 5-11, 190-pound Andrew Taglianetti , a veteran of 39 career games and six starts last season. The try-hard Panther had 49 stops, and continued to excel on special teams, where he's blocked a school-best six punts. He's a sure tackler on running plays, but is vulnerable to getting exposed on passing downs.

Hanging close to Taglianetti at strong safety is junior Jason Hendricks . The 6-0, 185-pound was actually the starter a year ago, making 36 stops in seven games, before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. He looks like a corner, but hits like a linebacker, and will be a prominent piece of the defensive backfield.

The team's best cover corner will be 5-10, 190-pound junior K'Waun Williams , a young Panther on the verge of contending for all-league honors. He's a true shutdown corner, with the toughness to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and the hips to stick to them on routes. Ever-active in the secondary, he was third with 64 tackles, adding five stops for loss, six pass breakups and three forced fumbles. Williams is one of the program's budding stars that few people are talking about in the preseason.

The team's other former Wolverine, 6-0, 190-pound sophomore Cullen Christian is bucking to become the Panthers' other starting cornerback. He was the nation's third-ranked corner of 2010, but chose to move closer to his Penn Hills, Penn. home. He got a taste of action in 10 games as a Michigan rookie, making six tackles and gradually adapting to the speed of the game. He also has the size, speed and leaping ability to handle the pressure of playing opposite Williams.

Watch Out For… Williams to face a tough career decision in December. The junior is going to be that good, prompting him to at least test pro waters with the help of the NFL Advisory Committee. Not only are his cover skills top-notch, but he's one of those rare corner who plays with the edge and toughness of a much bigger defender.
Strength: Keeping the play in front of them. Pitt didn't allow many big plays a year ago, and don't figure to this season either. The 2011 edition ranked third in the Big East in yards per completion and touchdown passes, yielding 11.1 and 16, respectively. The Panthers' cover skills are above average, especially if Christian can hit the ground running.
Weakness: Takeaways. Pitt is way too athletic and aggressive in the secondary to duplicate last season's feeble results. The Panthers produced a league-low eight interceptions, and only five among defensive backs. Those are unacceptable figures that the new coaching staff is hoping to reverse in 2012.
Outlook: The defensive backfield is going to feature a nice mix of steady veterans, like Holley, Taglianetti and Hendricks, and up-and-comers in Williams, Christian and Vinopal. While it's a small unit that will be vulnerable against some of the Big East's rangier pass-catchers, most quarterbacks will need to be extra careful when facing the Panthers. If the two Michigan imports deliver early results, the secondary will have the parts to be the backbone of the D.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

There'll be a very different feel on special teams than there was a year ago, when the Panthers were adjusting to two new specialists. This season, the opposite situation applies. Senior PK Kevin Harper did a solid job as the successor to Dan Hutchins, hitting 21-of-31 field goal attempts, and scoring 95 points. A little shaky beyond 40 yards, he went 14-of-17 inside that range.

Junior P Matt Yoklic outlasted two other walk-ons in the summer, and went on to finish second in the Big East at 41.2 yards per punt. The 6-4, 205-pounder has pop in his leg, and will be helped by having last season under his belt.

The program will use the summer to decide on its return men.

Watch Out For… Harper to improve his consistency as a senior. He's been erratic throughout his career, which is why it took three seasons to capture the starring role. However, his mechanics are crisp enough to expect his conversion rate to go from 68% a year ago to somewhere north of 75% in 2012.
Strength: The coverage teams. Hey, if the Panthers can even approach last season's success, it'll be an enjoyable season for the coaching staff. Pitt boasted the Big East's stingiest unit in 2011, ranking 11th nationally in kickoff returns and 18th in defending punts.
Weakness: The return game. Paul Chryst & Co. are taking their time naming primary return specialists as they look to light a fire under a special teams sector that fizzled out when it got its hands on the ball last fall.
Outlook: The new staff will look to build on what the old one created in 2011. The punter and placekicker are no longer green, and the coverage teams will be boons to the defense. If the return can pop a big one every so often, Pittsburgh might have a chance to stake a claim to the Big East's best special teams unit.
Rating: 7

- 2012 Pitt Preview | 2012 Pitt Offense
- 2012 Pitt Defense | 2012 Pitt Depth Chart