That’s the limit of what’s truly known in Pitt’s linebacking corps in the 2022 season. That’s comforting on the level of knowing that Dennis is one of the best linebackers in the ACC, and… terrifying in all other aspects. Pitt was hit hard in both starting-caliber and depth-level linebackers, and Dennis is the only known entity left.
With Cam Bright, Johnny Petrishen, Phil Campbell III, Chase Pine, Wendell Davis Jr. and a few others exiting the program, it’s a thin unit. Brandon George (29 tackles (18 solo), five tackles for loss and a pass defended) is the second-most experienced member of the defense, and Bangally Kamara and Solomon DeShields provided depth last season.
Aydin Hemmingham (a 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker who redshirted as a sophomore in 2021) and Preston Lavant (a 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker who also redshirted 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.
However, a name that hasn’t been paraded as an answer at linebacker is safety Buddy Mack III. Mack, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound safety from Byrnes High School in South Carolina, will need to continue to bulk up, but Pat Narduzzi said that he has begun the transition to linebacker — Star linebacker specifically.
“Buddy Mack is one guy that’s moved to the outside linebacker spot,” Narduzzi said Monday. “He’s a quick-twitch guy that I think will grow into the position. We’ll watch the tape and see where he is, but we could always move him back. He’s really smart, understands the defense.”
Mack has spent the last two seasons as a special teamer and reserve safety, recording 10 tackles (four solo) in 2021, but with the need at linebacker, he’s being groomed as one of Pitt’s newest outside linebackers.
The Star position, in place of a nickel corner position, is like a third safety situationally. It’s a linebacker/safety hybrid position that combines the tough, hard-hitting linebacker aspects with the athletic, rangy safety aspects.
It’s the exact move that Petrishen made upon arriving at Pitt, thriving during his final season at Pitt as a Star linebacker. Mack could be the next of the converted-safety stars at Pitt, and it’s interesting that it’s being made at Star.
Dennis has the Mike spot locked down, Notre Dame transfer Shayne Simon has said he’s playing as a Money linebacker in Pitt’s system and the Star position will likely be decided as spring practices wear on.
Kamara, a highly-touted 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebacker from Akron, Ohio, has been ticketed for the starting lineup in 2022. He’s played as a reserve Money linebacker during his time in Pittsburgh, and with Simon likely slotting in as Pitt’s Money option, a move to Star would be his opportunity to start — a position he’s not unfamiliar with.
In 2021, Kamara played sparingly in seven games to record 10 tackles (six solo), a tackle for loss and a sack. However, he’s been lauded as a breakout performer entering the 2022 season among coaches and teammates, and Dennis spoke on it further Monday.
“Bangally made major jumps, especially from his freshman year ’til now,” Dennis said. “He’s trying to understand the defense, he’s trying to understand the concept and his role in the defense. Bangally is going to be a bright, bright young kid on the field.”
While Dennis’s comments point toward a young player with a bright future making strides in Pitt’s defense, which is very tough to crack as a young player, it does also mention how Kamara is still learning his place in Pitt’s system. Kamara has all the tools mentally and physically to do so, even if Star would be a curveball.
With Mack sliding down to make the change to Star linebacker, he provides legitimate depth at a much-needed position if he’s able to adapt quickly this spring. Kamara is a player who’s ready for increased playing time, and his speed, length and size at Star would be a potential area of strength. At the very least, the practices this spring should provide good insight into where the Star competition stands.
It may be a young, inexperienced unit at linebacker, and a young defense as a whole at some areas, but leaders like Deslin Alexandre stressed Monday how the veteran leaders — names like Dennis, himself, Habakkuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey — will need to take the younger players under their wings.
“Two words, detail and discipline,” Deslin Alexandre said. “Just the attention to detail in everything we do. The little minute things, those are the same things like a little step, a little strike but you don’t really see it on film but those are things that go a long way.”
Dennis has already taken the linebacking corps under his wing entering the 2022 season, and the youthful unit will need all the help that he and Pitt’s defensive leaders have to offer.