I can’t say I expected both Habakkuk Baldonado and John Morgan to exit the program this offseason, but that’s the reality Pitt is faced with now.
Calijah Kancey hasn’t officially announced his intentions to declare for the 2023 NFL Draft, but it’s hard to envision him returning once again; he’s done it all. Baldonado has accepted an invite to the Shrine Bowl, and Morgan has entered the transfer portal.
Deslin Alexandre has exhausted his collegiate eligibility. That’s four key players gone.
And if Devin Danielson and David Green decide they’ve had enough, choosing not to utilize their COVID-added seasons of eligibility, Pitt’s defensive line depth has evaporated. But I don’t think Pitt will lose Danielson, Green or Tyler Bentley.
There is still plenty of uncertainty, with Green, Danielson, Bentley and Chris Maloney all facing decisions on whether to return on not next season, but there is a lot of young, unproven talent waiting to break out, too.
The foursome of Kancey, Baldonado, Morgan and Alexandre combined for 104 tackles (50 solo), 31.5 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four pass breakups just in 2022. But the young talent is poised to step into itself — as Morgan implied.
If there’s a unit that is able to withstand an exodus of talent and production, it’s the defensive line. At least, Baldonado feels like it.
“I will say as long as coach (Partridge) is here, he will make sure that the standard stays,” Baldonado said back in August.
Pitt’s recruiting classes over the last handful of seasons, 2020, 2021 and 2022, have featured many high-potential defensive linemen. And some of those recruits have seen more and more playing time of late. And Partridge is still around.
But before the kids are expected to step into the starting lineup, there are some veteran options who do not have to make a decision when it comes to utilizing a COVID season.
Dayon Hayes is going to start next season. Bam Brima and Nate Temple both grew into positions of trust this season, playing key roles at times. They’ll once again be trusted as ‘leaders’ of a new unit. As will Deandre Jules inside.
“I’m happy with (Sean) FitzSimmons certainly,” Partridge said in November. “He takes everything really seriously, and that’s why he’s getting better. Sam Okunlola has tremendous twitch, and he takes things extremely seriously — he loves to learn.
“Jimmy Scott has Pat Jones type of traits, I’m not comparing him to Pat Jones, but he’s got some things that remind me of Pat. Dorien (Ford) is still continuing to evolve, Elliot (Donald), although he’s traveling with us and getting those reps, he’s still in that developmental phase and doing some nice things. There’s a lot of good things that I’m seeing from those young guys.”
So, where are these young contributors?
Nahki Johnson — R-So. DE / 6-foot-2, 260
Johnson played in four games this season, taking 36 defensive snaps. He recorded three tackles (two solo), a tackle for loss and a sack in those games.
It was an improvement off of a 13-snap debut season in 2021.
Johnson has sculpted his body over the last two seasons, adding 40 pounds of muscle throughout the course of freshman and redshirt freshman seasons.
He’s looked good in limited settings, and he’s going to be a key piece outside going forward.
Elliot Donald — R-So. DL / 6-foot-2, 265
A lot of Pitt fans have wondered where Donald has been lately, and he’s simply been developing.
Donald made a jump in defensive snaps this season, from five as a freshman to 36 as a redshirt freshman, and he added two tackles (one solo) and a pass breakup.
There’s an expectation for Donald to step in and fulfill the role of his uncle, and that’s not going to happen. But he’s a very capable player in his own right who has worked on building his consistency and being able to contribute regularly.
Depending on the returners ahead of him, Donald could have a big role to play in 2023.
Dorien Ford — R-So. DL / 6-foot-4, 305
Ford took his first two collegiate snaps this season against Rhode Island.
He hasn’t had too many chances on the field as he’s added 35 pounds to his frame to fit the mold of a run-stuffing defensive tackle. He’s big, he’s adding strength and we’ll see when he’s able to see the field.
Samuel Okunlola — R-Fr. / 6-foot-4, 240
‘Sammy O’ as he’s called by his teammates is known for his elite get-off speed. He’s wicked fast off the line.
He took just eight snaps as a true freshman, but if there’s been a single player to earn praise without steady playtime, it’s Okunlola. It’s his speed in a 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame.
If there’s anyone to capitalize off of increased opportunity outside, it’s Okunlola.
Sean FitzSimmons — R-Fr. / 6-foot-3, 290
The duo of FitzSimmons and Okunlola as early enrollees provided Pitt a chance to see a future of the defensive line. It didn’t disappoint.
The pride of Monaca has earned rave reviews all seasons, from both his coaches and his teammates, and he proved as much in limited opportunities on the field.
He played in just two games this season, nine snaps against Rhode Island and Miami each, but he picked up a sack against RI in his very first collegiate action.
At 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, he’s a big, strong defensive tackle who should be expected to make an early impact at Pitt.
Jimmy Scott — R-Fr. / 6-foot-2, 250
Scott was the top-ranked defensive commit in the class of 2022, and while he didn’t play in 2022, he certainly impressed on the practice field.
He’s the lone defensive lineman of this group yet to see the field, but that’s going to change soon. Scott has spent an entire season working with the defensive linemen, and he’s going to be a big piece going forward.
Isiah Neal — Fr. DL / 6-foot-3, 265
Neal just earned his fourth star from Rivals, an honor that sets him apart from his fellow commits in the class of 2023. He’s the only, as it stands, four-star — he’s also one of the earlier commits.
He committed after an official visit in June, and he’s made multiple visits back to Pittsburgh since. Neal is the type of commit that fits the profile of a stud Pitt defensive lineman.
Antonio Camon — Fr. DE / 6-foot-2, 250
Camon is another recruit who committed over the first weekend of June, and he’s been a steadfast supporter of Pitt football.
In his senior season, Camon racked up 53 tackles (24 solo), 16 tackles for loss, a team-high nine sacks, an interception, three pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Camon and Neal form an elite inside-outside duo in the class of 2023.
Jahsear Whittington — Future Fr. / 6-foot-2, 260
Whittington is the earliest — and only — commit in the class of 2024. He’s a big-time defensive tackle that fell in love with Pitt, and Partridge, during an unofficial visit earlier this year.
A stellar junior season at Imhotep Charter in Philadelphia, racking up 28 tackles (18 solo), a team-high 10 tackles for loss and five sacks and a fumble recovery, resulted in a PIAA state championship berth.
Whittington is a big-time talent who is seemingly all in on making his way to Pitt.
Potential 2023 Defensive Line
DE — Dayon Hayes – Nate Temple – Antonio Camon (verbal commit)
DL — Devin Danielson/David Green – Elliot Donald – Jimmy Scott
DL — Deandre Jules/Tyler Bentley – Sean FitzSimmons – Isaiah Neal (verbal commit)
DE — Nahki Johnson – Bam Brima – Samuel Okunlola