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Predicting the fall depth chart: Defense

Written by Sam Werner on .

Earlier this week, we took a look at what Pitt's offensive depth chart will likely look like when the Panthers start fall camp in August. Today, we'll move over to the defensive side of the ball. Keep in mind that, as with the offense, this is assuming that all parties are healthy come August. I'm also not going to include freshmen here, but will note any who could contribute in my comments.

Defensive end
1) David Durham (RS Sr., 6-1, 255 lbs) OR
Ejuan Price (RS Jr., 6-0, 230 lbs)

Defensive end
1) Shakir Soto (So., 6-3, 255 lbs)
2) Luke Maclean (RS Fr., 6-5, 250 lbs)

With regards to the two different defensive end positions, the first one (with Durham and Price) is usually going to be the weak-side end, and won't always line up in a three-point stance. During the spring, we saw Durham acting as almost a pseudo-linebacker coming in as a standup rush end. I'm going out on a limb for the first time and guessing that Durham and Price will be listed as co-starters this fall. That might not, technically, end up being correct, but it's probably going to be pretty accurate with regard to their usage if both guys are healthy. Price missed pretty much all of the spring due to injury, and has dealt with injury problems throughout most of his career. If he's healthy, his ceiling is probably a little bit higher than Durham's. That's a big "if" though. Durham, though, did win the Ed Conway Award as the defense's most improved player this spring. 
The second end position is more of a traditional defensive lineman, coming in from a three point stance and taking on offensive linemen at the point of attack. At this one, it's Soto, then a whole lot of questions and inexperience. Soto finished last year with 20 tackles, including 4.0 for loss. I know the staff is really high on him, but he's going to have to produce if Pitt's defense is going to excel this season. Defensive end is probably the thinnest position on Pitt's roster right now (especially given Price's injury history). Maclean has some potential, but likely isn't totally field-ready at this point. Another interesting guy to factor in here is redshirt junior Devin Cook, who has shown flashes in limited playing time, but has had a career plagued by injury and inconsistency. If he can stay healthy and at least be a solid rotational player, that would go a long way towards solving Pitt's issues along the defensive line.

Defensive tackle
1) Darryl Render (Jr., 6-2, 285 lbs)
2) Justin Moody (RS Fr., 6-3, 265 lbs)

This is the position with undoubtedly the biggest shoes to fill, as this is the group replacing Aaron Donald in the middle of the defensive line. It's never easy to replace a guy like Donald (and Paul Chryst has said multiple times that Pitt won't just "replace" his production) but the Panthers are actually set up about as good as you could hope for. Render has played in 24 career games over the past two years and was a guy that the Pitt coaching staff felt they could rely on by the end of last season. No, he won't be what Donald was last year, but he's absolutely good enough to anchor Pitt's defensive line and has taken on more of a leadership role within the unit this offseason. Plus, you can't discount the value of Render learning from Donald over the past two years. Moody is a guy who came on nicely at the end of this spring, but would probably be best served seeing only limited action this fall. There won't be many plays next year where Render comes off the field, but Moody (along with some different defensive line combinations) should give him a rest every once in a while.

Nose tackle
1) Khaynin Mosley-Smith (RS Jr., 6-0, 305 lbs)
2) Tyrique Jarrett (So., 6-3, 340 lbs)

While everyone is fretting about how the Panthers will replace Donald, it's worth noting that they have to also have to fill the void left by nose tackle Tyrone Ezell. He didn't garner the attention of the guy playing next to him, but Ezell turned in a solid senior year last season, and his presence helped Donald be as productive as he was. Like receiver Ronald Jones, Mosley-Smith has drawn a lot of praise from coaches about how he handled his year-long suspension last season and his work ethic now that he's back in the fold. He practiced with the first team for pretty much the whole spring, and looks poised to play a big role on the defensive line this season. While these two interior positions (defensive tackle and nose tackle) are technically different, I think we'll see a lot of mixing and matching in the rotation along the line this year. Render, Mosley-Smith and Jarrett will likely be the biggest contributors in that group, with Moody subbing in at times. LaQuentin Smith, who missed a good chunk of spring due to injury, could also play a role. As Chryst said in the ACC conference call this week, Pitt doesn't have any one guy on the roster to replace Donald, but the Panthers do have numbers to try and replace him by committee.

Weakside linebacker
1) Todd Thomas (RS Sr., 6-2, 230 lbs)
2) Nicholas Grigsby (RS Jr., 6-1, 220 lbs)

It feels like a long time ago that Thomas left the team early in training camp last offseason, only to return a week later. He was also a Conway Award winner this spring, but for his work on special teams. Chryst also praised his work at linebacker, but I think the fact that Thomas was singled out for a special teams award (mostly for his work ethic) speaks to how far he has come in his mental approach to the game since his departure last August. He had 72 tackles, including 6.0 for loss last year, and will be on the field more often than not again this season. On a defense that has to replace a lot of pieces, Thomas is one of the more experienced guys, and will likely be one of the more vocal leaders on the field, too. Grigsby, meanwhile, is pretty interesting. Based strictly on the depth chart, he's the backup weakside linebacker. He'll do a little bit more than just that, though, and move around the field a bit based on the defense Pitt is playing. Most importantly, he'll probably be asked to do some work with his hand down in some packages, to help make up for the Panthers' lack of depth at defensive end.

Middle linebacker
1) Matt Galambos (So., 6-2, 215 lbs)
2) Mike Caprara (RS So., 6-0, 215 lbs)

Given Shane Gordon's injury issues last season, Galambos saw plenty of time to help prepare him for taking over the starting role this season. He played in all 13 games and had 38 tackles as a freshman. One of Galambos' biggest assets when it comes to playing this spot is his high football IQ, which has impressed the coaches since he got on campus. He has the physical tools, but is also smart enough to direct the defense from that middle linebacker spot. There will likely be some sort of learning curve this season as he takes on the starting job full-time, but it helps that he'll have to very experienced guys in Thomas and Gonzalez on either side of him.

Strongside linebacker
1) Anthony Gonzalez (RS Sr., 6-3, 225 lbs)
2) Bam Bradley (RS So., 6-2, 230 lbs)

Gonzalez has gone through quite a transformation over the past few seasons. As recently as 2012, he was a man without a position, having bounced around from quarterback to safety to, finally, linebacker for the BBVA Compass Bowl (Part III). Now, he's arguably the most important player on Pitt's defense. Outside of Donald, he might have been the best player on that side of the ball for the Panthers last year, registering a key pick-six against Duke and a key pass breakup late in the win against Notre Dame. As we saw last year, there won't be many situations where Gonzalez comes off the field next year. Even in nickel and dime situations, Gonzalez will be out there (sometimes as the only linebacker). Bradley will be his backup, but spent much of this spring sidelined with injury. Another converted safety, he's probably still a bit raw when it comes to understanding everything the position entails, but still has potential to develop into a nice player. When he was out this spring, converted receiver Reggie Green saw time at this position with the second team (before he, too, got hurt). Barring some catastrophic injury scenarios, I don't think Green will see the field beyond special teams this fall.

Cornerback
1) Lafayette Pitts (RS Jr., 5-11, 195 lbs)
2) Trenton Coles (RS So., 6-3, 175 lbs)

Cornerback
1) Titus Howard (So., 6-1, 180 lbs)

Yes, Pitt only has three cornerbacks on the roster (not counting incoming freshmen Avonte Maddox and Phillipie Motley). That's the bad news. The good news is all three of these guys are capable of playing, and playing well, for the Panthers this season. In fact, I could easily see any two of these three starting for Pitt against Delaware. Pitts is coming off a somewhat disappointing 2013 season, one which he even admitted was below his expectations. He should benefit from new defensive coach Troy Douglas re-emphasizing press coverage, which allows Pitts to play more aggressively on opposing receivers. Of these three, his starting job is probably the most secure, but I wouldn't call it rock solid by any means.
Howard, meanwhile, was praised by Douglas as the best cornerback the Panthers had in spring camp this year. He played in 11 games last year, and even though there were some up and down moments, got valuable experience. He's a little bit taller than Pitts, which Douglas likes in his cornerbacks. Howard and Coles started off the spring switching up reps with the first team, but by the end of camp, Howard had pretty much locked down the first team reps opposite Pitts. Coles got banged up early on, but returned to finish out the spring on the field. He might be the most intriguing of these three options, with enticing raw talent, but thus far unfulfilled potential. For that reason the summer session might be most important for him. He wasn't shy about stating his intentions of winning a starting job for next year, but will have to unseat either Pitts or Howard to make it happen.
Regardless of who the "starters" are, all three of these guys will likely play a good deal next year. Whichever one is the odd man out will almost certainly be the starting nickelback and, especially against the spread offenses Pitt will face in 2014, that's a package that will see plenty of time on the field.
The name missing here, obviously, is Jahmahl Pardner, who decided to leave the team during spring practices. It's too bad, as Pardner seemed to be working his way back from his ACL tear in 2012 to finally become the player he was before he got hurt. He wouldn't have started this year, but could have seen time in certain packages, and would have been some nice injury insurance at this spot.

Free safety
1) Ray Vinopal (RS Sr., 5-10, 200 lbs)
2) Ryan Lewis (RS So., 6-0, 195 lbs)

Defensive backs coach Troy Douglas had an good quote earlier this spring, when he said that if the defensive line make a mistake, the linebackers can make a tackle. If the linebackers make a mistake, the secondary can make the tackle. If the secondary makes a mistake, though, the band is playing the fight song.
Vinopal had a rough beginning to 2013, when he became the whipping boy for a lot of Pitt's defensive troubles. It's tough to play safety because you're usually going to appear to be the guy "beaten" on a big play, even if you weren't the one who made a mistake on that given play. Vinopal wasn't perfect, but certainly redeemed himself as the year went on (especially with his two picks to seal the win against Notre Dame). He heads into 2014 as an unquestioned starter and one of the leaders on the defense. Especially with a young guy playing next to him, it'll be up to Vinopal to make all the calls from the back end of the defense (a role that usually went to Jason Hendricks last year). It's a role Vinopal said he enjoys and is looking forward to playing.
I'm not quite sure what to make of Lewis. He traveled to most of the road games as a true freshman in 2012. Even though he didn't play, that's usually a sign that the coaching staff is high on a guy (Adam Bisnowaty did the same thing that year). But last season, Lewis' action was limited almost exclusively to special teams. With Vinopal ahead of him, I don't think Lewis is due for a big bump in playing time this year, but this season could be a chance for him to prove he deserves a starting gig in 2015.

Strong safety
1) Terrish Webb (So., 5-11, 170 lbs)
2) Reggie Mitchell (RS. So., 6-0, 185 lbs)

 

Webb definitely struggled at times as a true freshman last season, but, as I said earlier, that experience will only help him now. He had a nice spring, and Chryst identified him as one of the more improved guys on the league conference call this week. It'll help having an experienced guy in Vinopal next to him as Webb grows into his role as a starter in the back end of the defense. I also, though, don't think his starting job is rock solid, and wouldn't be surprised to see some guys (including Mitchell) pushing for that spot in the fall.
Mitchell was one of the risers up the "depth chart" this spring, as his role on the defense increased more and more as practices wore on. By the end, he was working routinely with the second team and had found his way into the first unit in certain sub packages. Beyond the three cornerbacks, Mitchell appears to be the next defensive back off the bench (especially now with Pardner out of the picture). He'll likely have a role in the dime package and other rotations, as well. There's one grouping, in particular, that has Vinopal lined up immediately behind the defensive line as a blitzed with Webb and Mitchell manning the back end of the defense. Especially as a guy who didn't play last year, it'll be interesting to see how Mitchell defines his role in training camp next fall.

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