Pitt Linebackers Ready to Step Up with Departures of Veterans
PITTSBURGH — SirVocea Dennis commanded Pitt linebackers for the last three seasons, leading the group to play as one of the best on the team.
Dennis led the team in tackles the past three seasons as well with 57 in 2020, 87 in 2021 and 94 in 2022. He finished his four year career as a Panther with 233 tackles, 36.0 tackles for loss, 15.0 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles as the mike linebacker.
The job of the “mike” or middle/inside linebacker, is to command the defense on both sides, both on defensive line, while also maintaining communication with the defensive backs and most importantly, his fellow linebackers.
Dennis chose to forgo his final year of eligibility with the COVID-19 year and enter the NFL Draft. He participated in the NFL Combine Wednesday in front of many NFL scouts, who saw his talents on full display.
Also leaving Pitt’s linebacking core is Tylar Wiltz, who arrived as a graduate transfer from FCS school Missouri State. Wiltz functioned as the “star” or outside linebacker, meaning that he worked more in coverage and provided help over the middle and against receivers for the defensive backs.
Wiltz made 50 tackles, fourth most on the Panthers, four tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception in 2022.
With those two departures, the remaining linebackers will need to fill in those roles and provide a similar level of play if the Panthers are to reach the same success on defense they had last year.
Redshirt senior Shayne Simon has one last season with the Panthers to prove his leadership off the field and quality on it.
Simon spent his first four seasons from 2018-21 with Notre Dame, playing in 32 games and starting eight at linebacker. He chose to transfer to join Pitt for the 2022 season last year, which he started 12 games at money linebacker.
Money linebacker is for linebackers that are generally smaller, but possess great qualities in pass protection, like a safety. They are strong tacklers, great at blitzing and are flexible to change with what fits best in the defensive scheme they are in.
Simon, though, isn’t a small player, as he stands at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds. That is bigger than Dennis, who stood at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds. Once Dennis announced his decision to go into the 2023 NFL Draft and skip the Sun Bowl, Simon filled that “mike” or middle linebacker spot in that bowl game.
Regardless of the position, Simon said that there isn’t too big of a change between the money and mike linebacker positions and that he sees many similarities. The change is something he is working on especially with his communication and shifting the focus from the defensive backs to the defensive line.
“I’d say you get more communication with the safeties with the outside linebackers,” Simon said on March 16. “They have more coverage responsibilities. In the mike, you have to know everything a little bit because you never know when you might be implicated in certain things. Definitely, there’s more communication between the mike and defensive line because you gotta control the guys in front of you.”
Simon has settled in for his second season at Pitt and he feels at home now, compared to when he joined last season. He will continue to take over Dennis’ spot at middle linebacker for 2023 and is working on becoming the leader that Dennis was.
“Anytime you lose a two year starter or somebody that’s been All-ACC, All-American, you gotta fill that role,” Simon said. “I’m taking it upon myself to be more of a leader at least, but I think everybody’s trying to fill that gap, fill that role. We’re all trying to step our game up, step our voice up, be more vocal and trying to fill that role for him.”
Redshirt junior Solomon Deshields and senior Bangally Kamara are the most likely to make the jump up to full-time starters this year. DeShields will feature at the money linebacker and Kamara will play at star linebacker. Star linebackers function both as a linebacker and a defensive back, making them incredibly valuable in pass protection.
DeShields has prepared to step up in that role and said that his understating of the game has grown immensely.
“The game has slowed down for me this year,” DeShields said Tuesday. “I know what play is coming. Just out of formation and tendencies. Seeing what the quarterback is doing before the play. The game has slowed down for me and it’s easier for me to make plays this year.”
Still, DeShields believes that there are many parts of his game he wants to improve on, as he mainly played a part in the Delta package on third down for the Panthers.
The “Delta” refers to two players substituting in at linebacker. The 3-3-5 nickel defensive package has three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. This scheme allows the defense to confuse offenses with a varying array of blitz packages
Now that DeShields will be a part of the 4-3 base package that is less based on a “high risk, high reward” style of defense and more focused on shutting the offense down earlier on in the drive.
“That’s something that I want to improve on, like my run game,” DeShields said. “Not just being in on delta for the pass game. Learning more block defeat, more pash rush moves. Just learning the formations of what runs can come, like counters and a lot of other stuff. Just learning the tendencies of the offense.”
Redshirt senior Brandon George is also looking to increase his snap counts this season with the departures of Dennis and Wiltz. George played only three regular season games, which came in late September, and also the Sun Bowl due to injury.
George is incredibly excited to get back on the field and is ready to take on his opponents, although he still has five months until the home opener against Wofford on Sept. 2.
“There’s always that drive because I play linebacker and I wanna hit someone in the mouth any chance I get,” George said March 21. “I was grinding at the bit a little bit to get back to the game, but I needed to take my time away for a little bit. Now we’re back and ready to rumble.”
George looks to contend with Simon for that middle linebacker spot and he has the physical features to do it, standing at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds.
Simon will still be in line to start, but George will continue to battle for snaps throughout the season. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said that both players will feature at mike and money linebacker spots and that the best players will see the field regardless.
“They’re both really good players,” Narduzzi said Tuesday. “On Saturday, Shayne [Simon] started at mike and then played some money as well. Today Brandon played some of the money. Those guys are interchangeable and will make sure we play the best three guys all the time.”