Despite Naquan Brown’s exit from the program, entering the transfer portal Wednesday after his true freshman season, Pitt’s depth options — and future star power — remain strong.
While Brown committed to Pitt as part of a super foursome of high school defensive linemen in 2020, he didn’t see the field as a freshman. Not many freshmen line do and their impact is minimal, but with a lot of depth ahead of him, perhaps Brown decided it was best to look for opportunities elsewhere.
The remaining trio from Pitt’s 2020 recruiting class remains in Pittsburgh, knock on wood, and all three appear to be just on the cusp of making an impact in Pitt’s defense. And the elder statesman of the trio, a rising sophomore, appears to be even closer to making a true impact next season.
Pitt’s defensive line has always been a strength, and it doesn’t appear that’s going to change any time soon.
Dayon Hayes – Sophomore defensive end
Even with Deslin Alexandre’s return to Pitt for his super senior season in 2022, Dayon Hayes should — and will — play a huge part in Pitt’s defense.
The ultra-talented rising sophomore hasn’t played a whole lot for Pitt through the first two seasons of his college career, but he’s made an impact when he’s been on the field.
In Hayes’ first college appearance, he racked up two solo tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks with a forced fumble against Austin Peay. Hayes only played in two games as a freshman, but he made 11 appearances last season — coming on late.
With very light playing time, Hayes recorded 16 tackles (nine solo), nine tackles for loss and three sacks with a forced fumble and recovery. And in Pitt’s final three games, he racked up 6.5 tackles for loss and all three sacks.
As Alexandre missed the Peach Bowl with injury, Hayes stepped up and made his presence felt all game. He recorded three tackles for loss against the Spartans, including an excellent red zone play in the second quarter.
With Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne running a read-option against Hayes, he correctly identified the play and burst into the backfield and dragged Thorne down for a big loss in the red zone.
— SportzStew Ⓥ (@sportzstewcom) December 31, 2021
Michigan State would miss an ensuing 33-yard field goal attempt, and Hayes’ key tackle for loss would up saving three points — not that it really matters in the end.
At 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, Hayes is freakishly athletic and moves much faster than his size would imply. It’s not at all unlikely that Hayes turns in a monster junior season on the way to college stardom.
A four-star recruit out of Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, one of the highest-ranked City League recruits ever, Hayes is a true homegrown star — a theme on this list.
Elliot Donald – redshirt freshman defensive tackle
The name Donald carries a certain level of fear and respect in Pittsburgh, and it’s because of former All-American Aaron Donald. But his younger nephew Elliot Donald is actually a higher-ranked recruit coming out of high school.
A four-star defensive tackle from Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Donald was rated as a Top 100 recruit nationally by Rivals and ESPN. He’s one of the Top 15 highest ranked recruits in Pitt history according to 247Sports.
If there’s a pedigree and expectation for anyone on Pitt’s roster to produce at a high level, it’s Donald.
While Donald didn’t record any stats as a true freshman last season, only dressing for the New Hampshire game, he’s not far from contributing. With a 6-foot-2, 255-pound frame and excellent speed and athleticism, Donald looks and plays like his cousin.
It remains to be seen if Donald will produce like Aaron, and it’s unfair to expect anything close to one of the best college defenders of all time, but Elliot should be able to carve out his own legacy at Pitt when it’s all said and done.
Nahki Johnson – redshirt freshman defensive end
The second of Pitt’s star trio of 2020 class of defensive linemen, Nahki Johnson is a defensive end who will look for increased opportunities in 2022.
Johnson saw the field a couple of times as a true freshman, playing late against New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and recorded three tackles (two solo).
Johnson arrived at Pitt as a four-star out of West Mifflin High School in Homestead, Pennsylvania as a 6-foot-3, 225-pound edge rusher, but he’s already listed at 250 pounds on the official Pitt rosters.
While Johnson hasn’t seen enough playtime on the field to judge who he’s able to use his bigger, stronger frame, it’s encouraging. Already an explosive athlete out of high school, his long, lean frame should translate well to getting after opposing quarterbacks.
It might not be a huge year for Johnson in 2022, but he’s primed for a strong upperclassman finish once his name is called.
Dorien Ford – redshirt defensive tackle
The final member of Pitt’s young defensive line trio, Dorien Ford is already a big presence who should only grow bigger and stronger over the course of his time in Pittsburgh.
A three-star recruit out of Baldwin High School in Pittsburgh, Ford entered the program as a 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive tackle. He’s already added 15 pounds to his frame, spending his true freshman season as a scout team player.
Ford didn’t dress for any games this season, but with an added season of offseason growth and development, he could begin to make an impact among Pitt’s depth linemen.
However, Ford’s true impact appears to be at least a season away from realization.