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2013 Pitt Preview - Defense

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 11, 2013


CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Pittsburgh Defense


Pitt Panthers

Preview 2013 - Defense


- 2013 Pitt Preview | 2013 Pitt Offense
- 2013 Pitt Defense | 2013 Pitt Depth Chart

What you need to know: A new year, another coordinator. The Panthers have endured a revolving door on the defensive staff lately, with Matt House being the latest to earn an internal promotion. House won’t change much, and shouldn’t have to with a group that returns nine starters. Pitt will clearly be led by the D in its first season in the ACC, leaning on a unit that’s especially capable up the middle and in the defensive backfield. It’ll be difficult to throw on a group that has Jason Hendricks at free safety and Lafayette Pitts and K’Waun Williams at cornerback; even tougher when DT Aaron Donald is harassing the quarterback. However, if the Panthers are going to duplicate last year’s efforts in a tougher league, they’ll need the linebackers to remain healthy and the defensive ends to make some noise. Ends accounted for just six sacks in 2012.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Jason Hendricks, 90
Sacks: Aaron Donald, 5.5
Interceptions: Jason Hendricks, 6

Star of the defense: Senior DT Aaron Donald
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Bryan Murphy
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Lafayette Pitts
Best pro prospect: Senior CB K’Waun Williams
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Donald, 2) Senior FS Jason Hendricks, 3) Williams
Strength of the defense: Inside pressure, the secondary, preventing big plays, red-zone D
Weakness of the defense: Edge pressure, durability of linebackers, third-down D

Defensive Line

For one final year, the Panthers will look for frenetic DT Aaron Donald to provide the spark up front. While only 6-0 and 275 pounds, he’s lightning quick off the snap, often too fast for opposing linemen to handle. He also has the long arms of a much taller player, allowing him to shoot the gap with explosive swim moves. After elevating from Second Team All-Big East in 2011 to First Team All-Big East a year ago, Donald is excited to be bringing his brand of chaos and disruption to the ACC. Even double-teams couldn’t prevent the senior from amassing 64 tackles, a league-best 18.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2012.

Joining Donald on the inside will be 6-4, 300-pound NT Tyrone Ezell . The senior started 12 games in 2012, laying the foundation for what could be a breakout finale. For a big man, he shows good quickness and burst, collecting 39 tackles, seven stops behind the line and 3.5 sacks a year ago.

The Panthers need more production from their ends, beginning with 6-3, 255-pound junior Bryan Murphy . Yeah, he started all but one game in 2012, but he only produced 27 tackles, 4.5 stops for loss and two sacks. His intensity and his motor are where they need to be, but the results have to start matching the effort on the field.

The staff is hoping for a jolt of energy and excitement out of a first-year transfer, former Ohio State Buckeye David Durham . The fullback in Columbus is reinventing himself in Pittsburgh, bringing a spirited attitude and a non-stop motor to the defensive side of the ball. The staff has thus far been impressed by the way he approaches the game.

If Murphy or Durham fails to deliver, the coaches will go to 6-4, 235-pound sophomore Devin Cook without hesitation. Quick off the snap and determined to get into the backfield, he excelled as a pinch hitter off the bench in 2012, making 14 tackles, eight stops for loss, a sack and two forced fumbles. As a situational rusher, he has undeniable value to the Panthers. Pitt’s first tackle off the bench will be 6-0, 305-pound junior Khaynin Mosley-Smith . The squat space-eater has played in all 26 games of his career, making eight stops last season.

Watch Out For .... it to be tough to get Durham off the field. Is he going to be the end version of Donald? No. But the coaches like the way he plays, bringing an infectious level of want-to and intensity to the huddle and the field. Unless he’s totally neutralized by bigger tackles, Durham has a standing offer in the rotation.
Strength: Donald. Ezell is a nice player, but the divide between Donald and the next best Panther lineman is huge. He’s so tough to block, striking fear into opposing blockers. Even double-teams are rarely effective, and at worst give the other Pitt players surrounding No. 97 an easier path to the backfield.
Weakness: The ends. The Panthers D-ends largely form a pedestrian, mediocre group until further notice. Durham is a converted fullback. Murphy was a mild disappointment a year ago. And Cook is not considered a three-down player. Considering how much attention the tackles receive, a lot more is going to be expected from the edge rushers.
Outlook: The tackles are terrific. The ends? Not so much. It’ll be a tale of two extremes for the Panthers, which will shoot gaps with Donald and Ezell, yet too often shoot blanks on the edge. The D-line is close to being a quality unit, but it desperately needs one of the ends to step up, exploit man-to-man blocking and notch five or six sacks.
Rating: 7

Linebackers

A middling group of Pitt linebackers will be buoyed by the return of two starters. At weakside, 6-2, 215-pound Todd Thomas is hoping to get on the tarmac as the second half of his career begins. The junior—and one-time four-star recruit—has been hampered by a knee injury that cost him the first four games of 2012. He returned to start seven of the final nine games, making 59 stops and breaking up five passes. When healthy, Thomas’ quickness and closing speed are defensive assets.

The team’s rock in the middle will be 6-1, 220-pound senior Shane Gordon, a veteran of 36 career games and 11 starts. Hindered by an assortment of injuries, he missed all of three games and parts of others, finishing with 48 tackles, six stops for loss and six pass breakups. He’s a steady and heady performer, but needs to avoid the dings that have shelved him in the past.

Slated to start at strongside will be junior Anthony Gonzalez , college football’s version of a utility player. One of the most versatile, unselfish and well-traveled athletes in the FBS will be lining up at his fourth position for Pitt, having already done cameos at quarterback, H-back and safety. The 6-3, 210-pounder is raw and still learning, but he’s athletic and a willing hitter, the foundations that the staff will attempt to build upon.

The Panthers are deepest at weakside, which could allow for some shifting of personnel. Behind Thomas, both 6-0, 235-pound sophomore Ejuan Price and 6-1, 220-pound sophomore Nicholas Grigsby are experienced. Price showed strong hints as a rookie in 2011, making 27 tackles, 6.5 stops for loss and four sacks in five starts, but was forced to sit out all of last year following a pectoral injury. Grigsby filled in for injured teammates twice in 2012, collecting 27 tackles as he flattened the learning curve.

Watch Out For .... it to be difficult to keep Price off the field. One way or another, the Panthers will want to find a way to get No. 5 into the mix. His body of work is small, but he made the most of that opportunity when it surfaced in 2011. Price may begin the season on the bench, but he is not the garden variety backup.
Strength: Range and athleticism. Thanks to the recruiting of the recent staffs at Pitt, the Panthers boast two lines of outstanding athletes who can track down ballcarriers in all directions. The linebackers are slightly undersized, very quick and tenacious from sideline-to-sideline.
Weakness: Durability. The situation at linebacker wouldn’t be so precarious at Pitt if everyone was able to remain off the trainer’s table. Unfortunately, that has not been the case over the past few years. Thomas, Gordon and Price missed time last season, and Dan Mason has only been healthy for eight games over the last three years.
Outlook: If everyone is healthy and plays up to his potential, the Panthers linebackers could surprise this year. More likely, though, this is a middling overall unit that’ll probably have issues with durability again in the fall. Pitt needs everything to fall into place in 2013 for the linebackers to become something more than average.
Rating: 6.5

Secondary

One of Pitt’s breakthrough players on defense last fall was FS Jason Hendricks , an exception on a unit that lacked consistency for much of the year. The 6-0, 180-pound senior returned from a shoulder injury to showcase every ounce of his versatility as a full-timer. The terrific all-around athlete paced the team with 90 tackles and six interceptions, the most picks by a Panther in a dozen years. Hendricks is a big hitter, with the instincts to often be in the right place at the right time. He does a nice job of surveying the landscape from centerfield before quickly jumping the route on the quarterback.

Completing the safety tandem from strongside will be junior Ray Vinopal . The 5-10, 190-pound transfer from Michigan lettered in his Panthers debut, making 14 tackles. He’s a heady playmaker, who takes good angles in order to be in the best position to make plays. Vinopal’s energy and fundamentals will be a plus for the secondary.

The program is thrilled that both starting corners return to a defensive backfield that ranked No. 21 nationally in pass efficiency D. The veteran is senior K’Waun Williams , who is set to begin his third season as a starter. The 5-10, 190-pounder is active when the ball is in the air, and is sticky in coverage. A year ago, he made 47 tackles and a team-high four interceptions, crafting the kind of season that warranted more all-league attention.

Partnering with Williams will be 5-11, 195-pound sophomore Lafayette Pitts. He started all 13 games of his first year, contributing 35 tackles and a team-best nine pass breakups. The four-star recruit from the 2011 class is an exciting all-around athlete who will continue to improve as he earns more reps. Pitts has a career trajectory that could end in the NFL if he keeps honing his coverage skills.

The Panthers’ most experienced backup corner will 6-0, 195-pound junior Cullen Christian , who like Vinopal, started his college career at Michigan. In his debut in Pittsburgh, the nation’s third-rated cornerback of 2010 started a pair of games and made 16 stops. He’ll provide valuable experience of the bench, before vying for a starting gig in 2014. In order to beef up depth at safety, the staff has moved 6-3, 215-pound junior Eric Williams back a level. Now behind Hendricks at free safety, he started 11 games at linebacker in 2012, making 52 stops.

Watch Out For… NFL scouts to spend a lot of time watching tape of this group. Hendricks and Williams are both looking to use 2012 as a launching pad to a payday. And Pitts isn’t far behind, despite being only a sophomore. The Panthers house next-level talent in the secondary, all of which will get a new test in the ACC this fall.
Strength: Limiting the big play. Yeah, it helped to play a Big East schedule in 2012, but the Panthers boast a nice assortment of pass defenders in the secondary. The team was third in the league in both interceptions and touchdowns allowed, and was 16th nationally at just 6.1 yards per attempt yielded. Only Teddy Bridgewater-led Louisville threw for more than 300 yards on Pitt last year.
Weakness: Depth. The Panthers are going to be a little light this year after the starters, a key reason why Williams was shifted to free safety prior to spring. Christian is a nice player to have coming off the bench at cornerback, but Pitt could be forced to use rookies at some point this year if injuries become a factor.
Outlook: The secondary will be the strength of the Pitt D, if not the entire team in 2013. The starting lineup is terrific, especially at cornerback, where Williams and Pitts will be fun to watch against some of the ACC’s better receivers. The talent is in place for this unit to prove that last year’s stingy numbers had more to do with the talent in the locker room than the competition on the other side of the field.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

The encouraging news is that the Panthers have a returning punter, senior Matt Yoklic , who’s back for his third year as the regular. Coming off a career-best 41.8-yard average, the 6-4, 215-pounder has his sights set on earning all-league honors in 2013.

The concern on special teams is that steady PK Kevin Harper must be replaced. Coming out of spring, redshirt freshman Brad Lukasak held a lead over junior Drake Greer. Greer was the backup last season, but Lukasak has shown slightly more consistency so far during the offseason.

While the Panthers are searching for new punt returner, sophomore Lafayette Pitts is back to handle kickoffs. He averaged 24.3 yards in 2012, good for No. 4 in the Big East.

Watch Out For… the arrival of the rookies in the summer. Yoklic, Lukasak and Greer are going to have more competition in August. Pitt built for the future on Signing Day in February, landing the nation’s fourth-ranked punter, Ryan Winslow, and the sixth-rated kicker, Chris Blewitt . Unfortunate surname aside, Blewitt has a chance to have an immediate impact in his debut.
Strength: Competition. Head coach Paul Chryst knew he needed to upgrade his special teams unit, and recruited accordingly in February. By landing Winslow and Blewitt, he provided an immediate jolt to the talent pool and the competitive atmosphere at punter and placekicker, respectively.
Weakness: Punt coverage. The Panthers will need to initiate a complete reversal on punt coverage after ranking a dismal 118th nationally in 2012. Pitt gave up more than 13 yards a return, and was one of only eight programs to yield at least two touchdowns on punt returns.
Outlook: There’s a good reason why Chryst devoted so much time and effort into special teams on Signing Day—the unit aged him last season. And it might not be a heck of a lot better this fall. This sector of the Panthers is facing a lot of question marks entering 2013, specifically at kicker, which could tip the scales one way or the other in a few tight games in the fall.
Rating: 5.5

- 2013 Pitt Preview | 2013 Pitt Offense
- 2013 Pitt Defense | 2013 Pitt Depth Chart