2010 Pitt Preview - Defense
Pitt DE Greg Romeus
Pitt DE Greg Romeus
Posted Jul 18, 2010

CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Pittsburgh Defense

Pitt Panthers

Preview 2010 - Defense

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What you need to know: Although Pitt has suffered some heavy losses on defense, quality units have a knack for reloading. The Panther D is one such example. Of course, the departures of five starters and four all-stars were somewhat mollified by the return of DE Greg Romeus, who could be on an NFL depth chart today. He and Jabaal Sheard form one of the country's better bookends up front, which has a way of making everyone else better. After finishing No. 2 in the league in total and scoring defense, Pitt has a good nucleus to work around and at least one budding playmaker at each level. While DT Myles Caragein, LB Dan Mason, and FS Jared Holley are anonymous outside Western Pennsylvania, they're collectively going to make a ton of plays in 2010. The Panthers are recruiting and developing talent so well these days, rebuilding in not in their defensive vocabulary.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Max Gruder, 91
Sacks: Greg Romeus, 8
Interceptions: Jarred Holley, Dom DeCicco, 3

Star of the defense: Senior DE Greg Romeus
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Antwuan Reed
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Dan Mason
Best pro prospect: Romeus
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Romeus, 2) Senior SS Dom DeCicco, 3) Senior DE Jabaal Sheard
Strength of the defense: The ends, the pass rush, the safeties, run defense, limiting the big play
Weakness of the defense: New cornerbacks, depth on the front seven

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The program caught a huge break back in January, when star DE Greg Romeus opted to return for his senior year rather than turn pro. One of the game's best pass rushers, he's been All-Big East the last two seasons, making 43 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and a career-high eight sacks in 2009. An unheralded 220-pounder coming out of high school, he's now a 6-6, 270-pound force off the edge, with the long arms to obstruct the quarterback's vision.

On the other side is a familiar face, 6-4, 260-pound senior Jabaal Sheard. While not quite as gifted or productive as Romeus, he's taken advantage of his surrounding the last two years, starting all 26 games and making 21 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Smaller and quicker than his Sunshine State partner, he gets an explosive burst out of the gates and has the closing speed to track down like a predator.

Lost on a line that had so many all-stars was the play of 6-2, 275-pound junior Myles Caragein in a reserve role. Despite starting just a single game, he still contributed 35 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and five sacks, laying the foundation for a starting gig at nose tackle. While a little undersized for the position, he has a nice blend of speed and power in a non-stop motor. A one-time wrestler, he uses his hands well and changes direction like some linebackers.

Junior Chas Alecxih has the difficult task of filling the shoes of Mick Williams, a first team all-leaguer and co-Defensive Player of the Year. As the first man off the bench last season, he played rather well in 12 games, making a dozen stops, five tackles for loss, and four sacks. A former walk-on, who has beefed up considerably to 6-5 and 275 pounds since arriving, he got a well-earned scholarship in 2008.

Projected Top Reserves: By this time next year, 6-2, 240-pound junior Brandon Lindsey will be in a position to win a starting job at defensive end. For now, he'll be one of the first reserves off the bench and a situational pass rusher. Showing outstanding speed and a sudden first step, he chipped in 18 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks as a sophomore.

Alecxih's stiffest competition will come from 6-4, 265-pound junior Justin Hargrove , a scratch last season who lettered in 2008. While not very big for the inside and a potential liability on running downs, he possesses the speed and quickness to shoot the gap and get backfield penetration.

Watch Out For .... plenty of alley fights on the inside. Caragein and Alecxih are not household names, but opponents are going to know their numbers following games. Both play with a warrior's mentality and are going to battle for 60 minutes. Neither quits on a play, and with the ends getting so much attention, there will be plenty of chances to make plays for minus yards.
Strength: Pressure. Few schools in America were better at wreaking havoc than Pitt, which was No. 1 nationally in sacks and No. 9 in tackles for loss. Even without Williams, the trends won't change. As long as Romeus and Sheard are on the outside and Caragein and Alecxih are battling on the inside, the Panthers are going to pile up plays behind the line.
Weakness: Proven depth. Williams is an exception on a second unit that hasn't accomplished very much. Shayne Hale and Tyrone Ezell, for instance, have very high ceilings, but the program isn't quite ready to give the underclassmen more than the occasional cameo.
Outlook: Everything does indeed begin up front, good news for a Panther team that might again boast the Big East's best front wall. There'll be no easy solution for opponents this fall. Sure, they can devote two or three blockers to Romeus, the leading man, but that'll only create a clearer path to the backfield for Sheard, Caragein, and Alecxih.
Rating: 9


Projected Starters: A Pitt middle linebacker has been named first team All-Big East for an unprecedented five straight years. Sophomore Dan Mason will try to make it six in-a-row, as he replaces the departed Adam Gunn in the lineup. The 6-0, 225-pounder may not have the name recognition to earn the honor, but talent is not going to be an issue. He showed plenty of flashes and speed in his first year, starting three games and making 26 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks.

While Mason is aggressive, 6-2, 230-pound junior Max Gruder is a more patient and cerebral defender at weakside, waiting for the play to come his way. He has kept getting better since arriving on campus, drawing comparisons to former Panther Scott McKillop for his diagnostic skills and work ethic. In his debut in the lineup, he racked up a team-high 91 tackles and 4.5 behind the line.

Back for his third season as a starter at strongside is 6-3, 240-pound junior Greg Williams . He wasn't at full-strength for the entire year and it showed in his production, which slipped to just 33 tackles and four tackles for loss. Still, he's a terrific all-around athlete, with the big-play ability that led to three touchdowns in the last two years. If he can become more of a student of the game, all-conference honors and an NFL career could be the prizes.

Projected Top Reserves: Behind Williams at strongside is 6-1, 235-pound junior Tristan Roberts, who is sneaking up and bucking for more time in the rotation. Mostly a special teams performer up to this point, he was never really healthy in 2009, suffering a shoulder separation in August. He's had the type of offseason that could project to more snaps on defense.

Gruder's caddy at weakside will once again be 6-1, 225-pound sophomore Manny Williams. He played in a dozen games as a rookie, mostly on special teams, making eight tackles and adapting to the speed of the game. A great combination of speed and power, he has the lateral quickness and read and react skills to eventually make plays from sideline to sideline.

Watch Out For .... Mason to have a breakthrough first season as a starter. Yeah, he'll over run the ball from time to time and needs to play with better discipline, but his skill set and upside are undeniable. While he may not become the program's sixth straight all-star middle linebacker, he'll make lots of stops and lay the first few bricks of an outstanding career.
Strength: Range. Since Dave Wannstedt first arrived, Pitt has done an excellent job of attracting good athletes at the position and coaching them into outstanding linebackers. All three of this year's starters will cover a lot of ground and wrap up when reaching their target.
Weakness: Proven depth. Pitt's a little thin on the second unit, putting a lot of faith on players who haven't played a ton of football at this level. Williams, Roberts, and redshirt freshman Shane Gordon in the middle have loads of potential, but just two letters and no starts between them.
Outlook: Provided the first-liners remain healthy, the Panthers are well-stocked with playmakers on the second line of defense. All three have All-Big East potential, and the mix of Gruder's instincts and Mason and Williams' explosiveness will prevent backs from breaking long runs into the secondary.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: The departures of Aaron Berry and Jovani Chappel leave Pittsburgh searching for two new starting cornerbacks, the biggest defensive concern. The veteran of the group and a possible budding star is 5-10, 190-pound junior Antwuan Reed, a letterman in each of the last two years. In 2009, he played in all 13 games, making 13 tackles and getting a better feel for the pace of the game. Voted most improved defensive player of the spring, he's flashed improving cover skills, which will be tested in September.

Coming out of spring, 5-10, 190-pound junior Saheed Imoru held an edge at the other cornerback opening. A first-year transfer from Navarro (Tex.) Junior College, he's a strong and physical defender, who will make tackles in the open field. Remaining on top of the depth chart through the summer will require him to get a better grasp of the defense, while holding off more seasoned Panthers.

Safety, on the other hand, is a far more stable situation. At strong safety, 6-3, 230-pound Dom DeCicco returns for his senior year, fresh off earning a spot on the second team All-Big East team. The enforcer of the secondary, he was second on the team with 88 tackles, adding three interceptions. Not only will he deliver the payload like a linebacker, but he has soft hands and the field awareness to be in the right place at the right time.

The game is beginning to slow down for 5-10, 175-pound sophomore FS Jared Holley, which has the coaching staff very excited about his future. He moved into the lineup last October and wound up starting eight games, making 48 tackles and three interceptions. He breaks on the ball and has the hips of a cornerback, yet does a real nice job of filling the lanes in run support. With more snaps and more weight, he has all-league potential before he's through.

Projected Top Reserves: Although offseason shoulder surgery prevented 5-9, 175-pound senior Ricky Gary from suiting up in the spring, he's expected to compete at cornerback in the summer. A seasoned veteran of 37 career games and 10 starts, he had 16 tackles and a pick as member of last year's rotation. He has the speed and the know-how to help offset rather modest size.

Also expected back from injury is 5-11, 190-pound sophomore Andrew Taglianetti , who started last year's first two games at free safety before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Quick, tough, and about as heady as any Panther defender, he's already a proven playmaker on special teams, blocking three punts in 2008. He received a medical redshirt for 2009, and is targeting a return to action in the summer.

Watch Out For… injury updates. Not only did Gary and Taglianetti sit out the spring to rehab, but so did DeCicco with a toe injury. This group has loads of potential and depth, but only if everyone is healthy by the time the team boards a plane for the opener at Utah.
Strength: The safeties. Again, assuming Taglianetti is back to full strength, Pitt will have the luxury of three starting safeties for two spots. With DeCicco as the alpha dog, this group does an excellent job defending the pass as well as supporting the linebackers in run defense.
Weakness: The corners. Although the Panthers should eventually be okay, in the early going they'll be a little more vulnerable than a year ago. While Reed and Imoru have undeniable potential as cover guys, there next start is going to be their first start, so a lack of experience is an issue.
Outlook: If Pitt can get through the first month unscathed, it should be fine the rest of the way. There's plenty of talent in the secondary, especially at safety, but it could take a few weeks before this group gels. Naturally, all eyes will be on the cornerbacks, who represent the biggest question mark on the defense this season.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Did senior Dan Hutchins deliver for the program last year, or what? Entrusted with replacing Conor Lee and Dave Brytus at placekicker and punter, respectively, he handled both with outstanding results. A former walk-on, with no relevant experience, he went 23-of-29 on field goal attempts, setting a school record for points by a kicker. He also showed a knack for being cool under pressure, nailing the game-winner in the bowl game and the Connecticut game. As a punter, he was less heroic, averaging a pedestrian 41.1 yards a boot.

The future at placekicker belongs to talented sophomore Kevin Harper, a heralded recruit from the 2008 class, with better distance than Hutchins and the pop in his leg to handle kickoffs for the Panthers.

All three of the team's primary return men are available to the special teams unit. On punts, junior Aaron Smith needs to do much better than 6.4 yards a pop, which ranked 50th nationally. Kickoffs will again be shared by sophomores Cameron Saddler and Ray Graham. Saddler was busier and more explosive, ranking second in the Big East at 25.3 yards a return.

Watch Out For… Saddler to take at least one kick back this season. He was just getting started as a rookie, nearly breaking through more than once and showing the speed and elusiveness to become one of the Big East's most dangerous special teamers.
Strength: Hutchins from inside 40. A complete unknown at this time last year, he stabilized the kicking game overnight. Not only did he nail 19-of-20 field goals from within 40 yards, earning a spot on the All-Big East second team, but he was at his best late in close games.
Weakness: Hutchins from outside 40. While every kicker's accuracy fades as he moves further from the goal posts, the drop-off for Hutchins was especially alarming. He was just 4-of-9 from beyond 40 yards, which becomes an even bigger concern with a rookie quarterback taking the reins.
Outlook: Although Hutchins has room for improvement as a punter and a kicker, he wound up being a godsend in 2009. His return solidifies a special teams unit that also likes its return men and knows it's had success at blocking kicks. The staff's biggest offseason concern will be to tighten up a pair of coverage teams that slipped a bit last fall.
Rating: 7.5

- 2010 Pitt Preview | 2010 Pitt Offense
- 2010 Pitt Defense | 2010 Pitt Depth Chart
- Pitt Previews  2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006