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2008 Pitt Preview - Defense
Pitt PK Conor Lee
Pitt PK Conor Lee
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 9, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Pittsburgh Panther Defense

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2008 - Pitt Defense


- 2008 CFN Pitt Preview | 2008 Pitt Offense
- 2008 Pitt Defense
| 2008 Pitt Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Pitt Preview
| 2006 CFN Pitt Preview 

What you 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.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Scott McKillop, 151
Sacks: Greg Romeus, 4
Interceptions: Aaron Berry, 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB Scott McKillop
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Aaron Berry
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

Defensive Line

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 productive bookend.

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 sack. 

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 rushers.
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.
Rating: 8.5

Linebackers

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 ago.
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.
Rating: 7.5

Secondary

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 air.

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.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

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 college career.
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 country.
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.
Rating: 7.5