PITTSBURGH — Pitt has a hole at inside linebacker.
While Pitt returns Phil Campbell and Cam Bright with experience at the outside spots, the Panthers lost a key cogs on their 2019 defense in Kylan Johnson and Saleem Brightwell.
Johnson played the Money outside linebacker position while Brightwell manned the middle and Bright and Campbell played the Star field-side outside linebacker.
Campbell will move to Money for 2020, but that still leaves a gap in the middle.
The obvious candidate to replace Brightwell would be Chase Pine, who returns to the Panthers for his senior season.
Pine has had a tough time fitting into the Pitt defense in his four years on campus. He came to Pitt as outside linebacker, played some in the middle, was moved to defensive end, and then shifted back to linebacker.
He has not had the full time of his tenure here at Pitt to learn the inner workings of playing in the middle of the defense. He has all the athletic tools, but the real question with Pine will be the mental side of the game.
“Coach (Bates) tells us small eyes, small keys. You know just focus on yours and go out and execute,” Pine said when asked about his mental game.
If he can learn to read his keys, Pine does seem like the front runner. Head coach Pat Narduzzi did say that with Pine it is “all consistency” and that “one play he can look an All-American and the next you’re wondering what he’s doing.”
There are some other options Pitt has to choose from, however. Redshirt sophomore Wendell Davis might be the sleeper of the bunch to fill the void in the middle. He played mostly on special teams last season, but the most important thing for Davis was his tackling ability.
He’s a sound tackler and he showed that off in drills on Friday. He kept his eyes through the ball carrier, kept his feet disciplined, and then ran his feet throughout the ball carrier once he had him wrapped up. The football IQ is noticeable for Davis. He was coaching up freshman A.J. Roberts in a route recognition drill.
Another young guy on the rise could be sophomore Brandon George. Like Davis, George did get some reps on special teams last season. And while he only had limited playing time, he proved to have some burst in his step.
But it seems that George is best suited to outside linebacker. He’s not particularly fast, but his hand usage, length, and block shedding ability lends itself to think he could be a hybrid off-ball linebacker or sub-package pass rusher.
Redshirt freshman Leslie Smith is also not a huge factor here. And it’s not because of talent, Smith has an intriguing skill set, but the real reason he will not be playing there is simply that he’s not equipped for the middle linebacker position. He looks like he is being groomed to be the successor at the star linebacker position once Bright leaves.
Solomon Deshields, the incoming freshman from New Jersey is intriuging. His build looks imposing and he’s absolutely quick and explosive. His range was shown off in team drills, too. This guy is a natural athlete and looks the part of being a linebacker. It’s early for him, and he’s raw in the mental aspect of the game, but this is a guy who can be an impact player down the line. He won’t be playing much this year, but keep an eye on him for the future.
Then the other early enrollee freshman is Roberts. In coverage drills on Friday, his hips looked tight and he was changing direction much slower than any other linebacker. That is not a death sentence at the college level, though, and it will all be about Roberts growing his football IQ and becoming a leader to really have an impact down the line. This is his third spring practice and the only thing we know is how this guy looks physically. Campbell said that he was “impressed and excited” that Roberts had come in and worked hard from day one, so that is a good sign. But as for him starting or playing in the middle this year, that will not be happening.