Pitt’s offense stole the spotlight in 2021, and for good reason as Pitt’s offense ranked among the very best in college football, but the defense is loaded with premier talent.
The offense will once again demand the spotlight in 2022, but Pitt’s defense is yet another veteran unit loaded with top-tier talent and high-quality young talent that will fight for starting spots.
Pitt has four starting spots to replace entering the 2022 season, at defensive tackle, Star and Money linebacker and cornerback, but there are options at all four positions — even if a couple of those spots are somewhat barren. It’s more of a case of reloading as opposed to rebuilding in most cases, but Pitt is very thin at linebacker.
It’s a unit led by Randy Bates as defensive coordinator, but someone like defensive line coach Charlie Partridge has his voice felt across the unit. Pitt’s defense will be similar but very different in 2022.
So, let’s dive into the storylines following Pitt in 2022.
Who Lines Up Next to SirVocea Dennis?
With first-year linebackers coach Ryan Manalac at the helm, Pitt’s linebackers were a strength in last season’s defense. However, through the transfer portal and graduation, Pitt’s depth is virtually non-existent.
Starting Star linebacker Cam Bright transferred to Washington, and key reserve/spot starter Johnny Petrishen has graduated. Phil Campbell III also graduated, leaving another vacancy at the Money spot. Only SirVocea Dennis returns from last season’s starting unit.
Depth options in Chase Pine, Wendell Davis Jr., A.J. Roberts and Leslie Smith either graduated or entered the transfer portal, leaving Pitt especially thin at the position. So, who’s going to start?
Well, Dennis is a lock. Notre Dame transfer Shayne Simon was the big offseason addition on defense, likely figuring into Pitt’s defense at the Money position. And homegrown Bangally Kamara appears poised to take the next step as a starter, but it will be interesting to see if he’s actually given reps at the Star position.
Brandon George (29 tackles (18 solo), five tackles for loss and a pass defended as a reserve last season) is another name to look at for the open Star linebacker slot.
It’s very, very thin behind the four.
Solomon DeShields (who will likely backup Simon) recorded eight tackles (four solo) in six games last season, and that’s about the extent of Pitt’s returning production in 2022.
Aydin Hemmingham (a 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker who redshirted as a sophomore in 2021) could challenge for playing time, and Marquan Pope (a 6-foot-1, 205-pound three-star in the class of 2022) being on campus for spring practice could give him an edge at making an impact — already practicing as a Star linebacker. Walk-on Abe Ibrahim, a former wide receiver/safety at Chartiers Valley High School in Pennsylvania, is also planning to enter the program as a Star linebacker.
It’s a shallow albeit talented unit, but it’s one that could be decided during the early days of spring practices.
Can the Secondary Replace a Few Key Losses?
The challenges of playing as a defensive back in Narduzzi’s defensive system are obvious, but there are a lot of talented corners in Pittsburgh.
Sure, Damarri Mathis is off to the NFL and leaves a hole in Pitt’s secondary, but there are some talented, young cornerbacks who will slot into the starting lineup. Both of Pitt’s starting safeties from 2021 return, with Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett II providing the veteran leadership.
Hill racked up 71 tackles (38 solo), a tackle for loss, two interceptions, five passes defended and a forced fumble and recovery. Hallett recorded 68 tackles (46 solo), 2.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, seven passes defended and two forced fumbles.
It was an up-and-down campaign for Hallett at times, but the pair return as veteran leaders and high production contributors on Pitt’s back-end. Marquis Williams started alongside Mathis in 2021 (providing 32 tackles (28 solo), two tackles for loss, an interception and three passes defended), and the search for his counterpart is on.
M.J. Devonshire and A.J. Woods both contributed in 2021, each recording an interception and double digit tackles in reserve roles, and a couple of younger players in the system are primed to challenge for the starting role.
Khalil Anderson, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound cornerback who preserved a redshirt season in 2021) is someone who’s expected to make a legitimate impact at Pitt, and with a strong spring, he could challenge for serious contributions in 2022. Jahvante Royal, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound cornerback, played in two games last season and posseses above-average size for a traditional corner.
And Pitt’s safety depth, with Rashad Battle, Judson Tallandier, P.J. O’Brien and Buddy Mack III all providing legitimate, is an area of little concern.
The corner position opposite Williams is officially up for competion, but with the level of talent in Pitt’s secondary, a strong spring performance could point toward increased playing time in the fall.
And with 2022 signee Ryland Gandy already in Pittsburgh as an enrollee, the future is in good hands.
Is Another Sack Leading Campaign in the Works?
Pitt racked up 54 sacks last season, without a double digit sack artist, to finish second in college football in total sacks. That shows just how deep Pitt’s defensive line depth is, and with 151 sacks since 2019, that shows how consistently dominant Pitt has been.
Habakkuk Baldonado led Pitt with nine sacks in 2021, emerging as one of the most underrated pash rushers and all-around defensive stars in the ACC. He’s back for another run. Deslin Alexandre only recorded 2.5 sacks in 2021, but he’s a veteran presence who, like Baldonado, is back for another run.
All-ACC and All-American Calijah Kancey is also back at defensive tackle for Pitt, racking up 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 2021. Keyshon Camp is heading to the NFL (maybe), but someone like David Green or Tyler Bentley is the front-runner to replace Camp.
But it’s the young, rising depth that really inspires excitment among Pitt’s defensive front.
Both Green (22 tackles (11 solo), four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks) and Bentley (20 tackles (eight solo), 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack) made legitimate contributions in 2021, but it’s top recruits like Nahki Johnson, Elliot Donald, Dorien Ford, Bam Brima that inspire confidence in the future.
Perhaps the strongest future value though is Dayon Hayes.
Hayes, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive tackle from Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, made noise as a sparingly used sophomore in 2021. Hayes racked up 16 tackles (nine solo), nine tackles for loss, three sacks, a forced fumble and a pass defended in 11 games last season. However, Hayes’ blend of speed and power in a 260-pound frame points toward superstardom.
Despite Alexandre’s return, Hayes is going to make his presence felt in 2022. The only question is which fellow Pittsburgh-area defensive line (Donald, Ford, Johnson) can make enough of an impact to join him.
And the 2022 recruiting class, while small in number, is loaded with potential impact performers. Jimmy Scott, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound defensive lineman from New York, is one of the most underrated recruits in the class. Samuel Okunlola, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound edge rusher from Massachusetts, is a four-star edge with the impact ability of getting after the quarterback. And Sean FitzSimmons, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound defensive tackle from Central Valley, Pa., was one of the most productive high school players in the country in 2021.
Regardless, Pitt’s defensive front, led by defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, should once again lead college football in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback pressures.
Can the WPIAL Youngsters Make a Jump in 2021?
There are a lot of young players on Pitt’s roster that could make an impact in 2022, with a number of them already highlighted above, but we’ll dive into the impact-level players.
With uncle Aaron coming off a Super Bowl title to cement his legacy as an all-time great defensive player in NFL history, Elliot Donald doesn’t only top prospect hype to live up to but a fellow Donald who will go down as one of the best to ever do it. Donald (6-foot-2, 270 pounds out of Central Catholic in Pittsburgh) will have the chance to showcase his talent this spring after only one appearance as a freshman in 2021.
Johnson (a 6-foot-2, 255-pound defensive lineman out of West Mifflin in Pittsburgh) played in two games in 2021, racking up three tackles in very limited playing time, but a full offseason should allow him to showcase just why he was a top recruit out of Pennsylvania — ranked Top-200 nationally — in 2020.
Ford (a 6-foot-4, 320-pound defensive tackle from Baldwin in Pittsburgh) redshirted in 2021 and didn’t play a single game, but he’s already more than built. At his current size, he could be inserted into the lineup and stuff multiple offensive linemen upfront. And he just might be in 2022.
One of the triplets with Ford and Johnson in the 2020 recruiting class, all three are that much closer to making a legitimate impact in 2022.
And, as mentioned above, Hayes has one foot on the edge of superstardom. He’s the real deal, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if his on-field play awes those in attendance.
Pitt’s defensive line is in very good hands, and it all comes through those local stud recruits.