The 2020 Pitt defense returns a lot, with returning starters or co-starters at nearly every position. But the one place Pitt needs to fill a hole is the middle of their defense at linebacker. The Mike linebacker position currently has no declared starter prior to the season, following the graduation of Saleem Brightwell, who took over for Elias Reynolds — who left the team — midseason in 2019.
It seems that the guy that will inevitably fill that hole is senior linebacker Chase Pine. Pine, who has played outside linebacker, defensive end, and middle linebacker in his time at Pitt, will be switching to inside linebacker full-time for the first time in his collegiate career in 2020.
Can Pine rise to the occasion and be a quality player in the middle of the Panthers defense in 2020?
So, Pine has had some reps as of last year in the middle of the defense. Most of those notable reps came against Ohio, and that game was a lot of good for Pine. The first thing that jumped out on Pine’s tape was that he certainly had the size and mass to work in the middle of this defense. Pine is a big football player and weighs up to 250 pounds as it stands right now. that can be a positive and a detriment. He certainly has the mass to take on blocks and lineman, but he is not a fantastic athlete. Downhill he appears to be fine, but laterally, he is a bit stiff and can sometimes be a sitting duck in coverage at times.
However, the first of the key traits that Pine showcases on film is just how vocal he is out there. If there is one obvious trait that an inside linebacker has to be, it is the ability to lead and signal to his defense adjustments on the front and changes to the play call. The fact that Pine is doing this on tape is nice to see and a big boon to the presence that he can be to stabilize the middle of the Panthers defense. This was not the only time that Pine was calling out commands from the middle linebacker spot.
Another one of those key aforementioned traits is football IQ. Pine is pretty good in this area, really. Despite moving around a lot in his time at Pitt, Pine has developed a keen sense of what is happening on the football field. That speaks to his film study and hard work, of course. Those are two key traits that Pat Narduzzi and Randy Bates would love to have in the middle of the defense. Pine reads the guard’s combo block expecting a potential second-level climb, but he also does a nice job of keying in on the running back who never leaves the backfield. As such, he identifies the draw, works downhill, and makes the tackle.
Pine is working from the outside linebacker spot here, but still does a really nice job of filling his gap and bringing a strong run fit. He feels the guard and uses his length to keep his positioning and leverage here to then stack and shed to make this tackle in the alley. In the middle of the defense, stacking and shedding blocks is a key trait to have since the linebacker will naturally be facing climbing lineman.
The ability to take on blocks is specifically a very key worry for Pine on tape. That is where Pine struggles and where the worries come with him playing inside at linebacker. He has all the physical tools to be effective at taking on blocks. The functional strength, length, and will are all there to do it. However, his hand usage is just not there and he plays with a high pad level, which allows him to lose the leverage battle and get driven back, just like on the play above. He meets a lineman in the hole, plays too high, and can not stack and shed to make the tackle.
As stated earlier, Pine is a little bit of a question mark in coverage. He seems stiff and labored when flipping his hips and being asked to drop into zones. Pine can, however, read route combinations and cause some havoc over the middle of the field as he does here. Even if this is not a bad throw and a dropped interception, Pine reads the drag route and is going to make this tackle playing downhill. Pine is at his best when working downhill and not backpedaling in coverage.
The Verdict on Pine
In terms of playing the middle of the defense, Pine has the size, strength, and leadership ability to be that guy in the middle of the field. Combined with a high football IQ, and Pine certainly can fill that role. However, with downsides in coverage and his inconsistencies when stacking and shedding blocks, there is a limit to the upside that Pine can bring to the middle of the defense. That certainly means that he does not have this spot locked up yet based on the film he put out last year. However, he has the traits to be a fine inside linebacker in the middle of the defense if used correctly.