When it comes to Pitt’s defense entering the 2020 season, the one position group where the Panthers are dealing with a significant amount of turnover in the starting lineup is the linebacker corps.
The Panthers had two of their three 2019 starters move on through graduation, opening up holes in the middle of what should otherwise be a very experienced defense.
But Pitt had a deep group of backers in 2019 and coach Rob Harley and crew should be able to utilize that to their advantage.
While Saleem Brightwell, who started at middle linebacker last season and Kylan Johnson, who was the Money outside linebacker, have both moved on, Pitt has a pair of redshirt seniors that are ready to step up into full-time roles.
At Star OLB last season, Phil Campbell III and Cam Bright split time about evenly. Now, Campbell has moved over to the Money OLB spot and the two will bookend the Pitt front seven.
Campbell, who started out at Pitt as a safety, has made a concerted effort to continue to put muscle on and has draw rave reviews for his performance at a more physical position.
“Phil Campbell has been a beast lately,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “He’s athletic to play both. He’s more physical than Cam is. That’s no disrespect to Cam. … He’s taken the change well. But it’s so similar. It’s not like it’s some foreign position. He moved from one side of the field to the other side of the field. There’s less skill receivers over there. He’s got more opportunity to blitz. He loves to blitz.”
Pitt usually plays its Star OLB to the field side of the offensive formation, or the side with the greatest distance from the ball to the sideline, while the Money OLB plays to the boundary, or shorter side of the field.
But with Campbell having the ability to play both sides, it won’t really matter much who plays where for Pitt in 2020, and having a Money linebacker with coverage ability should prevent spread formations from taking advantage of a poor pass defender.
“There was a situation [last week] when we were on the opposite side that we should have been on, but [Bright] stepped up and did what my role was supposed to be and I did what he was supposed to do,” Campbell said. “I think with experience, we could really just line up on either side, honestly. We have a lot of speed on the outside. I think that is a key in coverage. It makes the whole defense better.”
With Bright and Campbell locked in outside, the lone battle is in the middle, where Pine is trying to hold off redshirt sophomore Wendell Davis.
Pine has more experience, but has played outside linebacker for most of his time at Pitt and will be moving to the middle first time. He is a superior pass-rusher, though Pitt does not blitz its middle linebackers especially frequently. Davis, though inexperienced, is a cerebral player that has been a quick study of Narduzzi’s defense.
“There’s a great battle at the Mike,” Narduzzi said. “Obviously, Chase Pine is in there. Chase has been doing a nice job. But to be honest with your right now, Wendell Davis is playing like he’s the real deal. This kid is focused, locked in. There’s a battle going on there. Chase being a senior, you’d love to see him crank it up and be the starter, but Wendell Davis is giving him a run every single day. It’s like ‘Watch out.’”
You can safely consider Bright at Star OLB and Campbell at Money OLB to be locks, while Pine and Davis have been battling for the middle linebacker sport.
In the middle, Pine will likely be the nominal starter, though this could easily turn into a similar situation to what Pitt had at Star OLB last season, when Campbell was the starter but Bright got nearly equal reps in the base defense.
SirVocea Dennis at Money and converted safety John Petrishen at Star should round out the two-deep, with Brandon George likely to play a large role on special teams once again. Leslie Smith has been dealing with an undisclosed lower-body injury and his status for the start of the season is unknown.
Saleem Brightwell — Graduation
Kylan Johnson — Graduation
Elias Reynolds — Transfer, Stony Brook
R-Sr. Phil Campbell III — (13 GP, 56 tackles, 8 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 PBU, 3 hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 2 forced fumbles)
R-Sr. Chase Pine — (11 GP, 19 tackles, 4 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 2 hurries)
R-Jr. Cam Bright — (13 GP, 62 tackles, 9 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 5 hurries, 1 FR, 1 FF)
R-So. Wendell Davis — (12 GP, 9 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 block)
So. SirVocea Dennis — (8 GP 1 tackle)
So. Brandon George — (11 GP, 5 tackles)
R-Fr. Leslie Smith — (4 GP, 1 tackle), Redshirted
R-So. Jackson Henry* — Did not play.
6-Sr. John Petrishen — Moved from safety.
Fr. Solomon DeShields — Millville, N.J.
Fr. Bangally Kamara — Akron, Ohio
Fr. A.J. Roberts — Staten Island, N.Y.