Preview 2008 - Pitt Defense
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2008 Pitt Defense
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need to know:
After finishing fifth nationally despite having little in the
way of star power, the Panther D hopes to raise the bar even
higher. Led by Scott McKillop at middle linebacker, Pittsburgh
honored the staff’s wish to tackle better and become more
physical. Few starters are lost, and the ones that are, such as
DE Joe Clermond, will be replaced by a quality player, such as
sophomore Greg Romeus. Even the departure of coordinator Paul
Rhoads was eased by the hiring of Phil Bennett, a veteran with
a successful track record as a coordinator. DT Gus Mustakas was
poised for a huge season before tearing his ACL in Week 2. His
return, along with the emergence of Mick Williams, should
provide a huge lift to the run defense.
Tackles: Scott McKillop,
Greg Romeus, 4
Interceptions: Aaron Berry, 2
of the defense:
Senior LB Scott McKillop
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DT Mick Williams
Best pro prospect: McKillop
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McKillop 2) Sophomore
DE Greg Romeus 3) Williams
Strength of the defense: The front seven
Weakness of the defense: Creating turnovers
Projected Starters: At one defensive end spot,
sophomore Greg Romeus is on the tarmac and preparing for
career lift-off. A Freshman All-American a year ago, he had 41
tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks despite not
getting a start. A superb all-around athlete at 6-5 and 250
pounds, he gets off the ball in a hurry and has the bounce and
arm length to obstruct the quarterback’s vision.
Romeus’ partner on the other side will be junior Doug Fulmer,
who sat out all of 2007 recovering from knee surgery. It was the
second straight year that an injury kept the 6-4, 245-pounder
speed rusher from reaching expectations that began to form in
his freshman season. Finally healthy, Fulmer hopes to become a
At the nose, senior Rashaad Duncan is back for his final
season as the Panthers’ best defender against the run. At 6-2
and 295 pounds, he can clog lanes and occasionally shoot the gap
to make a play for minus yards. He’s coming off his best year
with the program, making 40 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and
a couple of sacks.
No matter who wins the battle at defensive tackle between
juniors Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas, both are
going to play plenty this fall. The Panther staff loves the
upside and engines of both players. Williams has long been
considered one of the program’s secret weapons, a hidden gem
with the burst to live in opposing backfields. A few months
after making 29 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and three
sacks, the 6-1, 290-pounder was virtually unblockable in April.
Mustakas was one of last year’s spring stars, but tore an ACL in
September, limiting him to just two games and 11 tackles. A
little lighter than Williams at 6-3 and 280 pounds, he relies on
a great motor and outstanding quickness to make plays and
command more than one blocker.
Projected Top Reserves: Coming out of spring, the
No. 3 defensive end was Jabaal Sheard, a 6-4, 240-pound
sophomore who lettered as a true freshman. He spent much of the
offseason adding muscle and honing his pass rushing skills,
while not sacrificing the speed and burst that has the Panther
staff so excited.
At 6-4 and 290 pounds, former JUCO transfer Tommie Duhart
brings size and experience to the tackle position. In his first
season out of Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College, he started
three games and had 24 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a
Watch Out For… Romeus to emerge in a big way. On
raw physical ability alone, he was second on the team in tackles
for loss and sacks. With that first year out of the way, he has
a chance to become one of the Big East’s most fearsome pass
Strength: Inside depth. Now that Mustakas is
almost back from injury and Williams is breaking out, the
Panthers have four interchangeable tackles capable of starting a
game. Opposing teams will have a rough time running the ball on
a quick and aggressive group that’s about to peak.
Weakness: A complement to Romeus. Yeah, Pitt likes
Fulmer, but he still has to prove he can stay healthy for an
entire season and produce. Behind the starters, Sheard and
redshirt freshman Tony Tucker still have a way to go
before being ready.
Outlook: Dave Wannstedt has been building for this
moment, when he goes two-deep with linemen ready to make plays
at this level. If everyone can stay healthy at one time, the
Panthers have a chance to be an exceptional, tone-setting unit
that can dominate some games.
Projected Starters: In his debut as the starting
middle linebacker, Scott McKillop replaced H.B. Blades
about as well possible racking up a nation’s-best 151 tackles,
nine tackles for loss, three sacks, and seven passes broken up.
A no-brainer on the All-Big East First Team, he’s instinctive,
fundamentally flawless, and one of the hardest workers on either
side of the ball. Almost as good in pass defense as he is at
stopping the run, the 6-2, 240-pounder could be targeting an
All-American campaign now that he’s not such a well-kept secret.
Back at the outside linebacker spots will be junior Shane
Murray and senior Adam Gunn at strongside. Although
just 6-1 and 210 pounds, Murray has adapted well since being
moved from strong safety, making 60 tackles, four tackles for
loss, and three sacks, and three forced fumbles. A harder
hitter than his size might indicate, he’s also an asset in pass
coverage from his days in the secondary.
At 6-2 and 230 pounds, Gunn brings more size and outstanding
range to the other position. Although he played well in his
first year as the starter, making 59 tackles and six tackles for
loss, even more is expected from one of the Panthers’ best
athletes. He’s getting pushed by thirsty underclassmen.
Projected Top Reserves: Gunn’s biggest threat
comes from redshirt freshman Greg Williams, a 6-3,
215-pound converted running back coming off a breakthrough
spring. He’s raw and facing his own challenge from classmate
Brandon Lindsey, but it’s clear he has all of the physical
tools be a force once he gains more experience.
Sophomore Nate Nix has a razor-thin edge over redshirt
freshman Tristan Roberts in the battle for the No. 2 job
behind Murray. Nix lettered on special teams a year ago, and at
6-3 and 225 pounds, has a nice mix of speed and power that help
him overcome the occasional mental mistakes.
Watch Out For… redshirt freshman Max Gruder.
Although Gruder will only be used in blowouts and emergencies,
he’s being groomed as McKillop’s successor in the middle. He has
a lot of the same characteristics as his mentor, and a chance to
grow in all facets before taking over in 2009.
Strength: Run defense. With McKillop setting the
standard, the Panthers do an exceptional job of shedding
blockers, finding the ball, and making the stop. The three
returning starters were also Pitt’s top three tacklers a year
Weakness: Proven backups. Sure, Williams, Gruder,
and Roberts have sizable potential, but not one of them has
played a down yet for the Panthers. It’s imperative that the
starters remain healthy long enough for the kids to get some
reps and start building some confidence.
Outlook: Now that McKillop has established himself
as one of the nation’s top linebackers, he needs to get more
help from Murray and Gunn. With teams looking to stay away from
No. 40, the two outside guys have to step it up and make more
big plays, especially on passing downs.
Projected Starters: Not only did Pitt survive the
graduation of CB Darrelle Revis, it thrived, finishing third
nationally in pass defense. Most of that defensive backfield
returns, headed by junior Aaron Berry, the starter at
field cornerback. In his first season as regular, he took some
lumps, but did flash the athleticism and hips that portend
brighter days in the second half of his career. At 5-11 and 175
pounds, Berry yielded a few too many big plays over the top,
finishing the year with 19 tackles and five passes broken up.
Opposite Berry at boundary corner will be junior Jovani
Chappel, who was a reserve and special teams contributor,
totaling 17 tackles without a single batted ball. He’s quick and
aggressive, but at only 5-9 and 185 pounds, he’s also vulnerable
to tall receivers who’ll get physical when the ball’s in the
At free safety, senior Eric Thatcher is currently riding
a streak of 17 consecutive games as the starter. A heavy hitter
despite being only 5-9 and 195 pounds, he had a career-high 53
tackles, and was third on the Panthers with 35 solos.
After lettering as a true freshman on special teams, second-year
SS Dom DeCicco is on the verge of winning a spot in the
starting lineup. One of the few big bodies in the defensive
backfield at 6-3 and 200 pounds, he’s an outstanding athlete
with the frame and sure-tackling of a future linebacker. DeCicco
showed in the spring that’s he’s ready to become one of the
playmakers of the secondary.
Projected Top Reserves: The Panthers get a big
boost from the return of sophomore strong safety Elijah
Fields from a season-long suspension. At 6-2 and 215 pounds,
he’s an enforcer out of the secondary who can deliver the
payload and make opposing receivers think twice about crossing
the middle. He needs to stay out of trouble because he has the
potential to play this game for money in a few years.
Although sophomore Ricky Gary is only 5-9 and 175 pounds,
he showed enough as a three-game starter in his rookie year to
be considered the first man off the bench and a threat to win a
job in the summer. He’s got improving cover skills and the
confidence of having held up well in his first chance to play.
Watch Out For… the battle between DeCicco and
Fields at strong safety. They both bring a noticeable presence
to the secondary, but unless DeCicco shifts to free safety, only
one can be on the field at the same time. It’ll be tempting, but
the coaches like the steadiness and veteran leadership that
Thatcher brings to the group.
Strength: The safeties. Between Thatcher, DeCicco,
and Fields, Pitt has a nice mix of young and old, and size and
speed. If DeCicco and Fields deliver, as expected, this will be
a dynamite group of safeties that’ll support the run and light
up unsuspecting receivers.
Weakness: Size of the cornerbacks. To put it
bluntly, they’re just too darn small, averaging about 5-9 and
175 pounds across the two-deep. It’s no wonder that when Pitt
was getting victimized for long plays, it was usually over the
heads of one of the undersized corners.
Outlook: Sure, there’s a lot of potential with
this group, but there’s also a lot to be concerned about. The
Panthers need to limit the big plays and start picking off a few
more passes after taking away just eight a year ago.
Projected Starters: Senior Conor Lee is the
jewel of the Pittsburgh special teams, a laser-straight kicker
who’s rarely off target. Entering his third-year as the regular,
he’s nailed 30-of-36 career field goals and all 75 of his extra
points. While the 5-11, 195-pounder is virtually automatic on
the intermediate kicks, the Panthers have never asked him to
make an attempt beyond 50 yards.
At punter, senior Dave Brytus was a mild disappointment
in his debut with the program, lacking consistency and averaging
just 39.6 yards a punt. The 6-4, 230-pounder did, however,
improve his hang time, as more than one-third of his punts had
to be fair caught.
While the Panthers are searching for a replacement for kick
returner Lowell Robinson, no such problem exists on punt
returns. Junior Aaron Berry is back a year after
finishing third in the Big East with a modest average of 8.5
yards a return.
Watch Out For… Brytus. He’s built like a
linebacker and spends offseasons as a mixed martial arts
fighter, a unique character who’s way too strong to be churning
out a measly 40-yard average on punts. He has been working hard
on his technique, and should be ready for the best year of his
Strength: Lee. A luxury for the unpredictable
offense, he’s been automatic over the last two seasons on field
goals and extra points. While Lee doesn’t drive the ball like
some of the country’s premier kickers, he’s the guy you want on
the field when the game is on the line.
Weakness: The coverage teams. The Panthers were
second-rate on punts and kickoffs a year ago, which the staff
has been trying to address over the past few months. They were
particularly generous on punts, finishing 91st in the
Outlook: While Lee gives Pittsburgh a solid
foundation to build around, the program needs more from the
return game and Brytus in order to become one of the Big East’s
better special teams units.