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A Look Into Pitt’s 2023 Defense As Summer Camp Begins



The Pitt linebackers core is turning into one of the best in the country

It’s finally here. Pitt’s summer camp is about to kick off, signaling the beginning of the 2023 season.

There is a ton of expectation surrounding Pitt football in 2023, and while the defense lost a lot of production from the last few seasons, there is an expectation that the youth movement in 2023 will allow Pitt to avoid a rebuild. It’s just reloading.

A lot of familiar faces have moved on, which includes All-ACC and All-American players, team captains, emotional leaders, you name it, but that’s the nature of Pitt football. Players step up.

“I’ll put it this way, Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver graduated, and we led the country in sacks the next year, so we expect the next guy up,” Randy Bates said at the start of spring ball. 

So, let’s dive into the 2023 defense.

2022 Stats

Points/G — 24.3 (8th)

Yards/G — 329.9 (4th)

Pass Yards/G — 231.9 (9th)

Rush Yards/G — 98.0 (1st)

Key Losses: Calijah Kancey, SirVocea Dennis, Erick Hallett, Brandon Hill, Haba Baldonado, Deslin Alexandre, John Morgan

Key Additions: Donovan McMillon

If there’s a reason for optimism surrounding Pitt’s defense this season, it’s the youth. If there’s a reason for pessimism, it’s also the youth.

If Bates’ squad is going to repeat as one of the best defenses in the ACC, and lead college football in tackles for loss and sacks, it will be because of the strides made by young players rising across all three phases of the defense.

Calijah Kancey and SirVocea Dennis and Erick Hallett and Brandon Hill are not walking out onto the field at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex this month. It’s time for a next wave of Pitt defenders to take the torch and continue the tradition established by those who came before them.

There will not be a change in philosophy. Pat Narduzzi’s system is iron-clad. The emphasis on stopping the run will lead to the defensive backs being left on islands on every single play. And it will not be possible if Pitt’s defenders are not where they need to be — and know what they need to do — one every single play. Positioning is very, very important.

The desire to be a hero, to make the big play, often times must be pushed aside in order to make the correct play. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be game changers.

It starts on the defensive line. Charlie Partridge’s defensive line.

It doesn’t need to be said that Pitt lost a lot of production and leadership over the offseason. A lot. David Green and Devin Danielson are still around, utilizing added eligibility, but Dayon Hayes needs to be a leader on this defense — on and off the field. He’s no longer the kid with all the upside in the world. He’s the oldest guy on the edge now. He has to be a leader.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Dayon Hayes (50) September 1, 2022 David Hague PSN

Hayes battled injuries and off-field issues last season, limiting his time on the field and even with the team, and that cannot happen again. He’s flashed his immense potential, standing at 6-foot-3, 265 pounds now, but it’s been about consistency. Stringing together good day after good day after good day. Pitt needs him.

Nate Temple and Bam Brima will play a lot outside in 2023. Each battled injuries in 2022 though. If Partridge wants to roll with the young guys, he has options there, too. Samuel Okunlola and Jimmy Scott have spent a year in the system, and each has earned rave reviews from the coaching staff. Okunlola is someone who I could see making a legitimate impact next season.

But it’s Nahki Johnson, who has waited his turn and grown within the system, who will likely line up across from Hayes on the outside. And I’m very excited to watch his growth this summer.

Green and Danielson will likely start the season together on the inside, the veterans who rotated alongside Kancey last season, and their veteran leadership will be crucial. But neither is a true difference-maker. Even when accounting for Tyler Bentley and Deandre Jules, it’s Sean FitzSimmons, Elliot Donald and Isaiah Neal who garner excitement.

If I had to guess right this second, I’d say it’s Green, Danielson, Bentley, Jules and FitzSimmons inside and Hayes, Johnson, Temple, Brima and Okunlola outside.

Position 2022 Snaps Career Snaps
David Green DL 410 1,047
Devin Danielson DL 305 1,263
Tyler Bentley DL 247 930
Dayon Hayes DE 237 521
Bam Brima DE 154 218
Deandre Jules DL 144 298
Elliot Donald DL 45 50
Nahki Johnson DE 43 56
Nate Temple DE 32 100
Sean FitzSimmons DL 18 18
Samuel Okunlola DE 17 17

The losses at linebacker are just as serious. SirVocea Dennis is going to be nearly impossible to replace next season, a season during which he will be playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Bates isn’t worried about it.

“Oh, (another Dennis will) be out here, I guarantee it,” Bates said in the spring. “We’ve found him, we’ll find another one, we’ll move guys around, and we’ll figure out who that is. Did you guys know who Calijah Kancey was five years ago?”

It’s a fair assessment. Kancey was a three-star recruit out of Miami who didn’t receive an offer from Miami, Florida State or Florida — or even UCF. Dennis was a two-star recruit whose only Power Five offer came from Pitt. And Pitt does have some experienced linebackers.

Pittsburgh Panthers linebacker Shayne Simon (32) November 5, 2022 David Hague/PSN

The return of Shayne Simon, who will slide into Dennis’ Mike slot, is huge. He was one of the top-ranked linebackers in coverage in the ACC last season, providing a much-needed presence at Money linebacker. His leadership is important, but his production and versatility will be key in a young linebackers room.

Brandon George is the other Mike linebacker on the roster, and he will serve as Simon’s backup, but outside of his experience, Pitt’s linebacking corps is rather young.

Bangally Kamara started at Star linebacker last season, and he went through his own ups and downs, but he’s built like an NFL linebacker. And after a very strong spring, he’s earned praise from coaches and teammates alike. Kamara found himself playing outside himself at times last season. His development, which was especially on display in perhaps his strongest performance of the season against UCLA, will be pivotal for the linebacking corps.

Solomon DeShields figures to feature into Pitt’s Money role, after filling in for Simon in spells last season, and his natural athleticism and ability to rush the passer — often used in the Delta package last season — will be on even further display this season. Simon, Kamara and DeShields offer a very intriguing trio, especially as Kamara and DeShields pick up more experience.

The depth is rounded out, currently, by Braylan Lovelace and Nick Lapi. I’d imagine Jordan Bass will eventually work his way into the fold. And Kyle Louis and Aydin Henningham have been in the system for at least a year now, too. But it’s the youth in Lovelace and Bass that should have fans excited for the future of the room.

And it falls upon the linebackers — and the defensive backs, too — to be able to force the issue with opposing offenses. What better way than to force turnovers?

“We work turnovers pretty much every day,” Bates said after the spring game. “There’s a certain drill we do, we rotate ’em and we win football games by getting turnovers. And so we obviously stress it, and sometimes it doesn’t happen, but when we went back and studied last fall, the thing we felt was the biggest problem was we had a lot of 50/50 fumbles and interceptions we didn’t get. The ball hit the ground, we didn’t get on it, they did or we were reaching for the ball and they did — or nobody got it.”

While Hallett and Hill are gone, the defensive backs room is bolstered by a very deep cornerbacks unit. Marquis Williams and M.J. Devonshire combined for 1,150 defensive snaps, along with five interceptions (four returned for touchdowns) and nine pass breakups, in 2022.

The cornerback duo may be the best on the roster, and it’s bolstered by A.J. Woods, Rashad Battle, Ryland Gandy and Noah Biglow. It’s a deep unit.

The safeties may not be as deep, but there are certainly options.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Javon McIntyre (20) September 24, 2022 David Hague/PSN

Bates sees three or four guys right now fighting for those starting roles, and in today’s day and age of 14, 15, 16 game seasons, you’ve gotta have a pair and a spare. The hope is to find four or five guys to roll with, but as of the first week of spring ball, Bates is confident in three or four guys.

Pitt brought in Donovan McMillon over the winter, adding a safety to the mix, and the likes of Javon McIntyre and P.J. O’Brien saw time in the secondary last season. McIntyre, in particular, shined down the stretch for Pitt — he started the season finale against Miami and the bowl win over UCLA. Bates saw it, but he sees a lot more in McIntyre.

“The beautiful thing about Javon is he also made some not so good plays in the bowl game, and he’s really taken that to heart that he has to get better,” Bates said after the spring game. “And quite frankly he has. He has continued to be consistent.

“He and P.J. both are guys that realize they still have a long way to go, and that’s important at their age to be as good as they will be.”

McIntyre has flashed a lot of potential in his brief time at Pitt, and it’s clear that Pitt has high hopes for him. I like him leading the safeties room into the future.

McIntyre and O’Brien appear to be the starting duo at this point in time, but McMillon and Stephon Hall provide very good insurance waiting in the wings — and McMillon will certainly play quite a bit in 2023 even if he doesn’t start.

Possible 2023 Defensive Depth Chart

DE — Dayon Hayes — Nate Temple OR Jimmy Scott

DL — David Green — Tyler Bentley OR Sean FitzSimmons

DL — Devin Danielson — Deandre Jules OR Elliot Donald

DE — Nahki Johnson — Bam Brima OR Samuel Okunlola

Star — Bangally Kamara — Braylan Lovelace

Mike — Shayne Simon — Brandon George

Money — Solomon DeShields — Nick Lapi

CB — Marquis Williams — A.J. Woods

S — Javon McIntyre — Donovan McMillon

S — P.J. O’Brien Jr. — Stephon Hall

CB — M.J. Devonshire — Ryland Gandy OR Rashad Battle

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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Rob Radich
Rob Radich
1 month ago

No worries. They’ll be fine

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