PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s defense will have a lot of new faces when the Panthers take the field for the first time this season on Saturday against Youngstown State.
From the final depth chart of the 2016 season, here’s what’s happened to Pitt’s defensive starters.
Rori Blair (dismissed)
Tyrique Jarrett (Denver Broncos)
Shakir Soto (Denver Broncos)
Ejuan Price (Los Angeles Rams)
Mike Caprara (Pitt graduate assistant)
Matt Galambos (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Ryan Lewis (Arizona Cardinals)
Reggie Mitchell (graduated)
Terrish Webb (Pittsburgh Steelers)
There are just two returning: redshirt junior linebacker Seun Idowu and senior cornerback Avonte Maddox.
As a result, Pitt’s training camp was punctuated by position battles at nearly every spot as the team replaced nine regulars from a defense, that to be honest, wasn’t all that great a year ago.
Dewayne Hendrix will start at defensive end. A 2015 transfer from Tennessee, Hendrix has played one quarter of football with the Panthers, having suffered a season-ending injury in the first quarter against Villanova last year.
Defensive tackle Keyshon Camp, a redshirt freshman, will be making his collegiate debut as a starter. On either side of him, Shane Roy and Allen Edwards have taken the step from part-time player to starter.
At linebacker, Elijah Zeise is in the same shoes as Hendrix. A former wide receiver, he moved to linebacker before the 2016 season and was lost for the year on the season’s first series. Saleem Brightwell will be a first-time starter and playing a new position, as he’s been moved to middle linebacker.
In the secondary Jazzee Stocker and Dennis Briggs will be new starters at safety, while true freshman Damarri Mathis looks to have beaten out Dane Jackson for a corner spot.
But that lineup is only made out in pencil. With so many changes and so many young or inexperienced players playing big roles, Pat Narduzzi expects to use a lot of defensive players against the Penguins.
“We’re putting our starting guys in there. They’ve earned the majority of the reps,” Narduzzi said Thursday. “But I could see us using eight guys (on the defensive line). … At the linebacker spot, I could see using four or five guys, not six. In the secondary, probably four safeties and probably four corners. We feel good with those guys and we need to find out what we’ve got.”
The big thing that Narduzzi is looking for, aside from a win and good health, is pretty simple.
“You’re looking for execution,” he said. “You want to see guys play like you’ve seen them play in practice and in scrimmages. I’m sure we’ll be disappointed. I’m not one of those guys that see his team and thinks we’re going to have a perfect Saturday. There will be things that we’ll need to correct and fix.”
While the defense is young, it’s also a lot more athletic than it has been in the past, particularly at the linebacker position. But of course, athleticism only goes so far. A quick player going the wrong way is simply going the wrong way even faster. The development of those three players — Brightwell, Idowu and Zeise — will go a long way to determining whether the revamped defense will be a success or failure in 2017.
Here’s linebackers coach Rob Harley and Zeise with more about the development that group has made so far and what they have to do on Saturday.