Preview 2007 - Pitt Defense
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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.
Kennard Cox, 51
Joe Clermond, Chris McKillop, 5.5
Interceptions: Several with 1
Star of the
Senior DE Joe Clermond
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior LB
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Strength: 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
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.