2009 Pitt Preview - Defense
Pitt DE Greg Romeus
Pitt DE Greg Romeus
Posted May 12, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Pittsburgh Panther Defense

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Pitt Preview | 2009 Pitt Offense
- 2009 Pitt Defense
| 2009 Pitt Depth Chart
- 2008 Pitt Preview | 2007 Pitt Preview
| 2006 Pitt Preview

What you need to know: As the defense goes, so goes the Pittsburgh program. Even after losing All-American LB Scott McKillop to graduation, the Panthers are loaded on this side of the ball, especially up front. With three legitimate All-Big East contenders, they’ll control the line of scrimmage most weekends, making life easier for the linebackers and defensive backs. On the outside, Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard form one of the top 10 or so scariest pass rushing tandems in the country. Add in DT Mick Williams, a disruptive force in his own right, and Pitt has a chance to dominate most games at the point of contact. If a suitable replacement can be found for McKillop in the middle, the Panthers will hold opponents to under 20 points a game this fall.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Dom DeCicco, 56
Sacks: Greg Romeus, 7.5
Interceptions: Aaron Berry, 3

Star of the defense: Junior DE Greg Romeus
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior LB Adam Gunn
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Greg Williams
Best pro prospect: Romeus
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Romeus 2) Senior CB Aaron Berry 3) Senior DT Mick Williams
Strength of the defense: The defensive line, the pass rush, run defense
Weakness of the defense: Lapses in pass coverage, uncertainty at middle linebacker

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
: Although you might get arguments from the pass-catchers, the defensive line shapes up as the strength of this year’s Pitt team. Even without three-year starting NT Rashaad Duncan, the Panthers are loaded up front, especially at defensive end. Junior Greg Romeus has gone from a lightly-regarded 220-pounder to a 6-5, 265-pound force and one of the nation’s premier pass rushers. A terrific all-around athlete with long arms and a bounce in his step, he had 51 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks, en route to a spot on the All-Big East second team. He also blocked three kicks, further testament to his big-play ability.

The staff sort of expected a big year out of Romeus in 2008, but the same can’t be said for 6-4, 250-pound junior Jabaal Sheard
, who blossomed a little sooner than expected. A little smaller and a little quicker, he has an explosive burst off the snap that’s often too much for opposing tackles to handle. A year ago, he broke through with 45 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and a team-best 11 quarterback hurries. Best of all, he’s still peaking, a scary thought for the rest of the league.

Although he won’t post the same numbers as the outside guys, senior DT Mick Williams is every bit as disruptive. One of the program’s hidden gems, he’s only 6-1 and 285 pounds, but moves with the quickness and burst of some ends. He consistently got penetration as a junior, notching 25 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and seven quarterback hurries. He should be doubled at times, but that’s just not possible with Romeus and Sheard on the same line.

The newcomer to the starting unit is 6-2, 275-pound sophomore tackle Myles Caragein, an infrequently used reserve last season. Trading prototypical size for speed and strength, he’s a budding playmaker when not being tied up by a 330-pound lineman. A former wrestler, he uses his hands and his leverage well, and plays with a level of intensity that hasn’t been overlooked by the coaches.  

Projected Top Reserves: Although 6-3, 280-pound DT Gus Mustakas hasn’t panned out as expected, largely due to injuries, he’s an outstanding veteran to have in the rotation. He has a great motor and enough quickness to make frequent appearances in the other team’s backfield. A three-game starter a year ago, he had 14 tackles, a couple of tackles for loss, and a sack.

The Panthers have a bunch of young risers just itching to become the next Romeus or Sheard. One of those underclassmen, 6-4, 240-pound redshirt freshman Shayne Hale, has a combination of speed and strength that’ll make it difficult to keep him off the field. An elite 2008 recruit, he’s going to be a real nuisance for opposing tackles, especially on passing downs.

Watch Out For… Williams. Most people fixate on numbers, which means Romeus and Sheard will always get more pub than Williams. Too bad. Those who watch Pitt film can’t help but rave about Williams, who’s going to be an all-star in his final year, especially if opponents spend too much time on the outside guys.
Strength: Pressuring the quarterback. With the speed of Romeus and Sheard on the outside, and the push of Williams and Caragein up the middle, the Panthers are going to be hell on quarterbacks. After finishing No. 2 in the league in sacks, they’re poised to move up a notch this fall.
Weakness: Proven depth at end. Sure, there’s loads of potential with the likes of Hale and sophomores Tony Tucker and Brandon Lindsey, but are they ready to produce today? All three are still green and significant drop-offs from the starters.
Outlook: If, indeed, it all starts up front, the Panthers will be in great shape on defense this season. Pitt has enough talent on the defensive line to dominate other teams and force quarterbacks into mistakes. The Big East doesn’t have many quality passers as it is, so the Panthers will enjoy a huge edge in most games.
Rating: 9


Projected Starters: A strange group, the linebackers lose two starters from 2008, but welcome back two 2007 regulars, who missed almost all of last season with injuries. One of those returners, 6-2, 230-pound Adam Gunn, is being counted on to replace All-American Scott McKillop at middle linebacker. Slated to be in the lineup, he missed all but the opener last year with a neck injury. While not nearly as instinctive as his predecessor, he’s one of the best athletes on the defense, bringing more explosiveness and range to the position.

At weakside, 6-2, 235-pound sophomore Max Gruder has had an outstanding offseason, earning the team’s most improved defender of the spring. A versatile player, who seen time at all three positions, he’s drawn comparisons to McKillop for his work ethic and instinctive behavior. After making five stops as a reserve and special teams performer, he could be ready for a standout season.

The lone returning starter from 2008 is 6-3, 225-pound sophomore Greg Williams, who’ll be holding down the job at strongside. Thrust into the lineup after Gunn was injured, he stepped up with 47 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and a pair of picks. A fantastic all-around athlete, he can be used on blitzes or dropped back into pass coverage. After surviving mostly on athleticism, he’ll be ready to flourish with a year of experience behind him.   

Projected Top Reserves: Behind Williams at strongside is 6-3, 235-pound junior Nate Nix, a two-time letterwinner, who had 14 tackles as a reserve a year ago. Blessed with a good mix of size and speed, he has the range and the experience to make plays all over the field.

Senior Steve Dell is another long-time Panther, who brings much-needed experience to the opening at middle linebacker. A 6-1, 235-pound veteran of 30 games, he has a great feel for the defense, and won’t freeze up if he gets an expanded role in his final year.

Senior Shane Murray is back after missing all but one game due to a knee injury. As a starter on the weakside, the 6-1, 220-pounder had 60 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, and three forced fumbles. A former safety earlier in his career, he’s adapted well to linebacker, and provides steady depth to more than one position.

Watch Out For… plenty of shuffling. The Panthers have a mess of interchangeable parts, many of whom would be comfortable with a starting role. Only three can be on the field at the same time, but as many as seven or eight are light to earn letters this season.                            
Strength: Veteran depth. With the returns of Gunn and Murray from injury, the Panthers are well-stocked in the two-deep, even after the graduations of McKillop and Austin Ransom. A concern heading into the 2008 season, Pitt now boasts a slew of players, who are no strangers to meaningful minutes.
Weakness: Lack of star power. For the first time in years, the Panthers don’t have a bona fide All-Big East player at middle linebacker. McKillop was a two-year beast, and before him, H.B. Blades was a perennial all-star. There’s no one on this roster, who looks capable of approaching either player this year.
Outlook: The last two years, McKillop made a million plays, while many of his teammates got a good view of the action. This year, however, the linebacker corps will be more of a group effort with a number of players capable of amassing 50 or more tackles. If Williams and Gruder erupt a year earlier than expected, the grade for this unit goes north.
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters: Provided off-field issues don’t complicate matters, the secondary returns virtually intact, with the exception of S Eric Thatcher. While 5-11, 175-pound senior CB Aaron Berry is the star of the group, he was suspended at the end of spring practice for a violation of team rules. A second team All-Big East selection, the Panthers need his lockdown ability and athleticism in the last line of defense. In his best season at Pitt, he had 41 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, and a team-best 10 pass break ups.

Opposite Berry at boundary corner is senior Jovani Chappel, a three-time letterman entering his second year as a starter. Last season, he notched 45 tackles and a couple of picks, but should have had more big plays considering how much attention he received. At 5-9 and 180 pounds, he’s at an instant disadvantage when locked up with more physically imposing receivers.

The enforcer of the secondary is junior Dom DeCicco, a 6-3, 220-pound strong safety wrapped in a linebacker’s body. He excelled in his first season as a starter, making 56 tackles, breaking up seven passes, and pulling in a team-high four picks. For a player his size, he has good hands and surprisingly keen instincts as a pass defender.

Junior Elijah Fields is expected to be elevated into the opening at free safety. Like DeCicco, he has great size at 6-2 and 220 pounds, and will make receivers think twice about crossing through the middle of the field. He played a reserve role last year, starting a pair of games, and chipped in with 18 tackles. If he can begin to put it all together in 2009, he’s got the physical gifts to spend next year auditioning for NFL scouts.  

Projected Top Reserves: Putting some heat on Chappel is 5-9, 175-pound junior Ricky Gary, who’s basically like having a third starter at cornerback. He’s been in the lineup eight games over the last two seasons, making a dozen tackles and five starts in 2008. He has good cover skills, and at worst, brings experience and quickness to nickel packages.

Last year, 5-11, 175-pound sophomore Andrew Taglianetti established himself as a special teams prodigy, blocking punts against Iowa, Notre Dame, and Cincinnati. This year, he’s the first safety off the bench, serving as the backup to Fields. Quick, tough, and about as smart as any player on the team, he’s got a knack for being close to the action.

Watch Out For… the status of Berry. Everything changes if for some reason his suspension keeps him away from the field. He’s the best pass defender on the roster, and the type of cornerback, who can cut off half the field for opposing quarterbacks.
Strength: Pass defense. Little has been lost from a team that was a solid 35th nationally in pass efficiency defense a year ago. With Berry, Chappel, and Gary clamping down on receivers, there usually isn’t a lot of room for quarterbacks to make plays.
Weakness: Inconsistency. In total, the Panthers did a solid job in pass defense, but there were too many lapses and big plays yielded. In a four-game stretch from Oct. 25 to Nov. 22, Pitt allowed a whopping 13 touchdown passes. Yet, in the final three games, including the Sun Bowl, it allowed none. Go figure.
Outlook: If they can avoid some of the breakdowns that plagued them last year, the Panthers are in nice shape in the defensive backfield. There’s a good mix of athletes, with Berry and Chappel, to go along with the thumpers, DeCicco and Fields. Throw in the rush that’ll be generated up front, and it’ll be very tough throwing on Pitt this year.
Rating: 8

Special Teams

Projected Starters: If the season started today, junior Dan Hutchins would be a very busy—and important—young man. Until proven otherwise, he’s slated to succeed Conor Lee and Dave Brytus at placekicker and punter, respectively. Lee is the most accurate kicker in school history and Brytus was a two-year starter. Hutchins, in contrast, is a walk-on with no relevant experience at this level.

Providing stiff competition at kicker will be redshirt freshman Kevin Harper, one of the top-rated kickers of the 2008 class. He flashed a dynamite leg in high school, kicking for distance and accuracy, and routinely forced touchbacks on kickoffs. He still needs some fine-tuning, but is quickly gaining ground on Hutchins.

Watch Out For… senior punt returner T.J. Porter. Porter made the most of his 16 returns a year ago, turning them into 184 yards and a Big East-best 11.5-yard average. Dangerous in space, he’s capable of aiding the Panther offense, provided he can make it back to the team following a spring suspension.
Strength: Blocking kicks. Pittsburgh had 10 last season to lead the country and establish a new school-record. Opponents better put an extra man on DE Greg Romeus and DB Andrew Taglianetti, who got their hands on three each.
Weakness: Uncertainty at kicker and punter. Replacing both in the same year is tough, especially Lee, who was often the next best thing to LeSean McCoy in terms of offensive weapons. Hutchins has been around for a while, patiently waiting his turn, but is he ready to handle one, let alone two key jobs on special teams?
Outlook: It’s a tale of two worlds for the Panther special teams. On one hand, no one really knows what to expect from the new kicker or punter. On the other, however, Pitt will block a ton of kicks, does an exceptional job in covering kicks, and has one of the league’s top punt returners. Hutchins and Harper are huge. If one of them is consistent on field goals, this group will have few worries.
Rating: 7.5