2007 Pitt Preview - Defense

Posted Jun 12, 2007

Preview 2007 Pitt Panther Defense Preview


Pitt Panthers

Preview 2007 - Pitt Defense

- 2007 Pitt Preview | 2007 Pitt Offense Preview
2007 Pitt Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Pitt Preview 

What you need to know: Last year’s defense had big names, like H.B. Blades and Darrelle Revis, with poor results.  This year’s defense is devoid of stars, but might wind up being statistically better.  The key will be stopping the run, something that vexed the Panthers throughout the second half of the 2006 season.  The difference this fall will be a defensive line that’ll be much deeper than last year, and capable of creating inside-outside pressure with junior tackle Gus Mustakas and senior end Joe Clermond.  Although replacing Revis won’t be a snap, the secondary is busting with potential from future all-Big East players, like sophomores Aaron Berry and Elijah Fields.   

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Kennard Cox, 51
Sacks: Joe Clermond, Chris McKillop, 5.5
Interceptions: Several with 1

Star of the defense: Senior DE Joe Clermond
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior LB Scott McKillop
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Aaron Berry
Best pro prospect: Clermond
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Clermond 2) DE Gus Mustakas 3) CB Kennard Cox
Strength of the defense: Line, creating turnovers
Weakness of the defense: Linebacker, run defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Just like the offensive line, the D-line boasts depth and five returners with starting experience.  Leading the charge in 2007 will be senior Joe Clermond on the outside and junior Gus Mustakas on the inside.  In his first season as a starter, Clermond far exceeded expectations in 2006, parlaying 48 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks into a spot on the all-Big East second team.  After rededicating himself to the game before the season began, he went on to become one of the league’s most consistent pass rushers. 

Just 6-3 and 265 pounds, Mustakas is undersized for an interior lineman, but plays with enough passion and quickness to offset that concern.  He comes to play on every down and was virtually unblockable in the spring, prompting the staff to finger him as one of this year’s breakout players. 

At the nose will be junior Rashaad Duncan, a 290-pound run stopper that provides the meat in the middle of the Panther line.  He was shoved around at times in 2006 and needs to occupy more than one blocker while making more plays for minus yards. 

The opening at right end figures to be a fluid situation until the season begins.  Senior end Chris McKillop tied for the team lead last year with 5.5 sacks and is one of the defensive leaders.  Despite being just 250 pounds and not a superior athlete, he just finds a way to beat his man and make plays in the backfield.  

Projected Top Reserves: Although just a redshirt freshman, the Panthers are giddy about Greg Romeus, a raw talent with the physical traits to eventually be a great one.  At 6-5 and 230 pounds, he’s extremely fast off the ball, has a bounce in his step and displays keen instincts for a kid that played just one year of high school ball.  If the coaches can refine his technique, Pitt could be harboring a hidden gem of a pass-rusher. 

Sophomore Doug Fulmer started three games as a freshman last fall and was supposed to challenge for the starting job before suffering injuries to ankle and knee.  While he’s expected to contribute at some point this season, it won’t be before the start of the year. 

Providing depth at tackle this year will be sophomores John Malecki and Mick Williams.  Malecki was a regular in the rotation as a true freshman, gaining experience that’ll serve him well in 2007.  Williams has the quickness and the motor to be a factor if he can get healthy by the summer and stay healthy all year.  

Watch Out For… JUCO transfer Tommie Duhart.  One of the nation’s most coveted junior-college prospects, Duhart is big enough to clog the middle and quick enough to move outside and rush the passer.  His skill set will earn him immediate reps in the rotation this fall.
Strength: Inside-outside pass rush.  With Clermond building on last year’s big season and Mustakas poised to make a lot of noise, the Panthers should improve markedly at getting after the passer in 2007.
Weakness: Interior size.  The Panthers lack a wide body in the middle of the line that can take on two blockers and jam up the line of scrimmage.  That could explain why they were 107th nationally against the run in 2006.
Outlook: Once everyone gets healthy, the defensive line will better than last year, but still not where Wannstedt needs it to be.  While it’ll improve on last year’s 21 sacks, problems with the run defense won’t go away overnight.
: 6.5


Projected Starters: It’s going to be a massive rebuilding year for the linebackers who’ll be replacing standout H.B. Blades, Clint Session and Brian Bennett.  The unit is young and experienced which is why junior Scott McKillop is being counted on to be its leader.  A returning letterwinner that backed up Blades last year, he’s a fundamentally sound run defender that’s had as good an off-season as any Panther defender.  Wannstedt craves athletes at linebacker that can fly all over the field and make plays.  He’ll have a few of those, but their experience will be very limited.  At outside linebacker, while sophomore Shane Murray and junior Adam Gunn have played a lot of football, they’ve yet to start a game. 

Murray moved from strong safety, playing well last spring and earning an edge at weakside.  Only 6-1 and 210 pounds, he isn’t all that big or fast, but, like McKillop and Bennett, just seems to be around the ball a lot.

 At strongside, Gunn needs to step up after earning letters on special teams the last two years.  He moves well at 6-2 and 225 pounds and provides a little more than the other linebackers.              

Projected Top Reserves: The second-string outside linebackers, sophomore Dorin Dickerson and redshirt freshman Nate Nix are terrific athletes that need to be molded into more polished defenders.  One of the prizes of the 2006 recruiting class, Dickerson was moved from offense to get his speed and power on the field in 2007.  Now up to 225 pounds, he’s one of the strongest linebackers and the kind of athlete Wannstedt can’t wait to turn loose at weakside once he’s more comfortable in his new role. 

Nix is another chiseled specimen that’s filled out to 6-3 and 220 pounds.  He is, however, very raw and still prone to being out of position every so often.  With more reps, he’ll push Gunn for playing time throughout the season.         

Watch Out For… McKillop to break the century mark in tackles.  He has sharp football instincts, and flanked by a couple of novices, will be the first man to the ball plenty of times this fall.
Strength: Athleticism on the outside.  All four linebackers on the two-deep move well laterally and possess the quickness to be real effective in pass defense.
Weakness: Proven players.  Not a single linebacker on the roster has ever started a game for the Panthers, putting more pressure on the front four to impede the progress of backs before they get to the second level.
Outlook: McKillop is poised for a solid season, but after him, Pitt fans will be holding their breath that Dickerson and Nix blossom into defensive playmakers.  If not, the unit will be a liability, especially against the more dynamic offenses.                      
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: Despite the early departure of Darrelle Revis to the NFL, the Panthers feel good about the secondary now that the last couple of recruiting classes have begun to ripen.  Although just a sophomore, cornerback Aaron Berry already has the look and feel of a future Big East star.  Blessed with the flexible hips, good feet and confidence inherent to top corners, he’ll blossom into a shutdown corner with more reps and a few more pounds of muscle. 

Berry will be joined by senior Kennard Cox, the cagey veteran of 35 games and 12 starts.  While not even the best cover guy on his team, he makes up for a lack of ball skills with big hits and solid run support. 

The return from injury of junior Eric Thatcher greatly solidifies the safety position.  While built more like a cornerback at 5-9 and 190 pounds, he can deliver the payload and was playing as well as anyone before fracturing his ankle in last year’s fifth game. 

Senior Mike Phillips, who has played every secondary position in his career, will line up at strong safety in 2007.  A big hitter with good cover skills, he has started games in each of the last three seasons and brings an element of leadership to a young unit.  

Projected Top Reserves: Lurking behind Phillips at strong safety is Elijah Fields, a big-hitting sophomore with a world of potential.  An intimidator at 6-2 and 210 pounds with good ball skills, he has a chance to be special sooner than later. 

The Panthers’ top backup at corner will be sophomore Jovani Chappel who lettered as a true freshman, cutting his teeth on special teams.  Like Berry, he’s undersized, yet has the athleticism, attitude and aggressiveness to overcome a slight build.     
Watch Out For… the emergence of Fields.  Although a violation of team policy temporarily slowed his progress in the spring, he played lights out after returning.  A tenacious tackler, Fields is just what the feeble run defense needs.
Strength: The future.  The secondary will be good this season, but even better in 2008 when Berry and Chappel are third-year corners and Fields and Thatcher are sizing up unsuspecting receivers.
Weakness: Size.  Of the six primary defensive backs, only the two strong safeties are taller than 6-0, making the unit really vulnerable over the top.  Against the Big East’s more physical receivers, Berry and Chappel are liable to get pushed around.
Outlook: Although there will be some inevitable rough patches at times, it’s going to be fun watching the young Panther defensive backs make plays and grow up. The potential is there for a breakout year across the board.
: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Special teams was a strength for the Panthers in 2006, largely because of the play of placekicker Conor Lee.  In his debut as the starter, the junior connected on 12-of-14 field goals, including all ten beyond 30 yards, and displayed above average leg strength.  Without the pressure of having to win a job this season, a confident and settled Lee will be even more effective in 2007. 

At punter, the Panthers lose four-year starter Adam Graessle, however, the situation isn’t dire now that Purdue transfer Dave Brytus has sat out his mandatory season.  A linebacker-sized lefty, he has tremendous leg strength and hang time and the experience of having punted in the Big Ten.  A Ray Guy Award candidate as a sophomore in West Lafayette, he should pick up where he left off this season. 

Senior Lowell Robinson is back to handle kickoff returns after leading the Big East and finishing No. 9 nationally a year ago with a 27.8 per return average.  A replacement, however, needs to be found for Darrelle Revis on the punt team with Derek Kinder and Aaron Berry as the primary candidates.                          

Projected Top Reserves: The kicking game is pretty much set unless Lee or Brytus flops at some point before or during the season.  That could open the door for redshirt freshman Dan Hutchins, sophomore Lucas Stone or junior Cody Sawhill at kicker and Stone at punter.  All three are walk-ons with limited chances to earn a starting nod.                      

Watch Out For… Brytus.  It’s never easy losing a punter like Graessle, but Brytus has the leg speed and strength to turn it into a smoother-than-expected transition.  He and Lee will make the kicking game an asset for the Panthers for the next two seasons.
: Lee’s consistency.  With a new quarterback at the controls, the Panther offense could be slow out of the gate, making Lee’s arrow-straight kicks a vital part of the scoring attack.
Weakness: Clutch kicking.  Lee’s next attempt with the game hanging in the balance will be his first.  He was solid throughout his sophomore year, but we still have no idea how he’ll perform in the waning moments of a tight game.  Only one Panther game was decided by less than ten points last year.

Outlook: Lee will help prop up the offense when it struggles, while Brytus will develop into an all-Big East punter now that Graessle, Rutgers’ Joe Radigan and Syracuse’s Brendan Carney have graduated.  Pitt’s special teams will be rock solid throughout the year.
Rating: 7.5


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2007 Pitt Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jun 12, 2007
2007 Pitt Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 31, 2007
2007 Pitt Preview - Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jun 12, 2007

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