PITTSBURGH — The day after watching Johnny Petrishen and Phil Campbell III, who combined for 135 tackles (58 solo), 16 tackles for loss, nine sacks, four interceptions, a pass defense and a defensive touchdown in 2021, put together strong efforts during Pitt’s 2022 Pro Day, Pitt is still searching for replacements.
Pitt hit the fields outside at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex Tuesday morning on the South Side, and on a chilly, overcast morning along the water, the linebackers continued to work with not only linebackers coach Ryan Manalac but head coach Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Randy Bates.
SirVocea Dennis remains the unquestioned leader in the heart of Pitt’s defense, the lone starter from the 2021 linebacking corps, and the search for the linebackers flanking him remains one of the biggest storylines of the 2022 spring practices. Narduzzi said the linebackers weren’t where he would have liked last week, but he also said he’s happy with the depth in the room.
So, there’s still a lot of work to be with the linebacking corps, and it was clear during the drills available to the media Tuesday that the linebackers will be heavily coached throughout the spring.
Bates and Narduzzi were involved with drills Tuesday morning, teaching moments with Bangally Kamara and Buddy Mack III standing out as the linebackers went through block shedding and tackling drills. The two young linebackers, along with players like Solomon DeShields, Marquan Pope, have been competing for the Star linebacker position — as Shayne Simon appears to have locked down the Money linebacker spot.
The Star position is the hybrid safety/linebacker slot, which converted safety Petrishen thrived in in 2021, and it’s a difficult position to integrate into as the coverage skills required to truly compete at the position are often much greater than traditional linebackers tend to be tasked with.
Kamara, who played mainly at Money linebacker in 2021, will need to continue to refine his coverage ability to step into that Star role. He’s a big, strong linebacker, but his fluidity can still be improved and increased, to an extent, as the spring practices roll on.
Pitt’s defense has made it a priority to increase splash plays in 2022, racking up even more sacks and tackles for loss in 2021 and being able to create more chaos at the line of scrimmage in batting down balls and forcing turnovers. Pitt’s defensive line remains a strength, with Habakkuk Baldonado, Deslin Alexandre, Dayon Hayes and a plethora of potential youthful contributors looking to breakthrough, and the secondary must replace Damarri Mathis at boundary corner — who also was a clear winner after Pro Day — but retains three starters.
But the linebacking corps remains the biggest area of concern as spring practices continue. Dennis provides an experienced, talented leader of the unit, and the unit is loaded with athletic, skilled players, but it’s a young, relatively inexperienced group.
DeShields has been someone that has earned a lot of praise through spring practices, playing bigger and stronger than he did in 2021, and Pope’s development as an early enrollee has impressed his coaches and teammates.