News came out this morning that Pitt defensive end Ejuan Price will miss the entire 2014 season following surgery to repair a torn left pectoralis muscle. He was hurt during workouts this week and, according to a release from the school, was set to have surgery today.
This is just the latest in a string of tough-luck injuries for price. He missed the last seven games of last season with a back injury, and needed surgery on his right pectoral that kept him out of the entire 2012 season. In theory, Price will be almost certainly be able to apply for a medical redshirt following the 2015 season and get one more year (because he lost two full seasons due to injury).
For now, though the more immediate concern, from Pitt's perspective, is how to replace Price's unique contributions to the defense. He could line up with his hand in the ground or from a stand-up position and added a lot of versatility to a pass-rush that is trying to figure out how to replace the production of Aaron Donald. In the six games he played last year, Price had 23 tackles, including four tackles for loss and one sack.
Strictly from a depth chart perspective, this further weakens the Panthers at an already thin position. David Durham and Shakir Soto are the starters at defensive end, and Devin Cook is the only backup option with any sort of playing experience. Cook is coming off a knee injury that cost him most of last season, but played in all 13 games in 2012. He's shown flashes, but will probably have to be a somewhat consistent player for Pitt this season. Beyond that, redshirt freshman Luke Maclean will get a chance to carve out a role for himself. He backed up Soto at the strong-side spot during spring, but Price's injury might force him to move around a little bit on defense. The freshmen ends (Rori Blair, Shane Roy and Hez Trahan) might also get some cracks, with Blair having the inside track since he enrolled early and practiced with the team this spring.
In terms of filling Price's more specific niche as a stand-up rush end, the most likely scenario is that Nicholas Grigsby will take on that role. He did that towards the end of last season and during spring, so it was probably going to happen anyways, but this will mean plenty more snaps for him. I also wouldn't be surprised if Price's injury means Grigsby lines up as more of a traditional hand-down defensive end more frequently, too.
Finally, I actually don't think this news will change James Conner's role on the defense very much, if at all. Conner is a running back, first and foremost (and a good one, at that). Whatever role he plays on defense was always going to be determined by the workload he can physically handle, and that's still the case. Unless the coaching staff has a very different vision for Conner's future, I have a hard time believing they'd take a guy that ran for 799 yards as a true freshman and move him to the other side of the ball just to fill a numbers hole. He might have more of an opportunity to play some snaps based on Price's injury, but I don't think it means Conner will become a regular in the defensive end rotation.