SirVocea Dennis has only been gone for about nine months now, but he’s left a hole in the heart of the Pitt defense that isn’t easily replaced. His production and leadership are one thing, but his ability to play all three spots in the linebacking corps is another.
If you ask Pat Narduzzi, while Pitt doesn’t have a Dennis — right this second — in that regard, almost all of Pitt’s linebackers can play at least two spots right now.
“Our outside linebackers are interchangeable on the outside, and Shayne (Simon) can play inside and outside,” Narduzzi said before Friday’s practice. “And so can Brandon George. The guys in the box can play those two spots. The guys on the outside can play field and boundary.”
Dennis played Mike because that’s where Pitt needed him most. He had success at both Star and Money, but Pitt needed his leadership and signal-calling from the heart of the defense. And he thrived there. But he admittedly liked playing outside more.
Simon is sliding inside this season — like Dennis — because Pitt has a need. But he also has said that he likes playing inside maybe even a bit more than outside. Both Simon and George are capable at Mike and Money, but they form a very, very experienced duo at Mike this season. There is a lot of versatility on the outside.
“There are guys that can play in space and guys that can’t,” Narduzzi said. “The other linebacker I didn’t mention (earlier) is Braylan Lovelace, who is another freshman. I guess I don’t look at him as a freshman because he was here in the spring.”
Lovelace came in as an early enrollee in the winter, impressing throughout the spring so much that Narduzzi named him Pitt’s most impressive defensive early enrollee, and he slid immediately into that Star linebacker role. It’s where most of Pitt’s freshmen begin their careers. It takes a certain athlete to play at Star, but that initial work leads to chances at the other slots in the linebacking corps.
Bangally Kamara is back for his second season as Pitt’s starting Star linebacker, expecting to take a leap as he’s fully immersed himself in the defensive playbook and knows what’s expected of him when it comes to positioning and his role in the defense, but it’s his size and strength at Star that is uncommon.
Kamara is 6-foot-2, and he’s all of 230 pounds. He packed on about 10 pounds since last season, looking like he would fit in with the Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers when they arrive back from St. Vincent this week. He arrived as an athlete, having played across his high school’s defense, and that was a major draw.
When Solomon DeShields arrived at Pitt, he wasn’t 100% sure if he was going to play wide receiver or linebacker at the next level. It’s that sort of versatility that Pitt’s coaching staff values.
“That’s always been our deal,” Narduzzi said. “Wherever I’ve coached, we’ve always wanted athletes. I’d prefer a linebacker that played tailback. Our linebackers do the same thing that tailbacks do — tailbacks get the ball, and what do they do? Find a hole. Linebackers do the same thing. We want guys that know how to find the hole and fill it and hit the guy that’s got the ball.”
Kamara and DeShields weren’t running backs in high school, but they were certainly athletes. Lovelace, however, was a star running back at nearby Leechburg High School. Jordan Bass was an All-State wide receiver in Virginia, and Rasheem Biles was a versatile playmaker on offense and special teams in high school. Versatility is the name of the game for Pitt’s linebackers.
“There are different characteristics in all of those guys,” Narduzzi said. “The Star linebacker is playing in space most of the time versus all the spread offenses. Our offense is a little combination of spread and some two back and tight end pro sets. So, there are definitely some changes as far as what they do athletically. The Mike linebacker is going to be bigger. And again, we’d like to play with three guys. You know SirVocea can play three, so you’re recruiting more athletes that can play it all and then that bigger athlete can play inside and play in the box.”
Lovelace is already easing into a spot behind Kamara at Star linebacker. His experience in the spring, and continued development this summer giving him the upper hand over his classmates. Bass and Biles have impressed since they arrived over the summer, and they may have roles to play, but Narduzzi isn’t sure when — or if — they’ll make an impact this season.
“Saturday’s scrimmage and how they progress, you never know,” Narduzzi said. “We have enough depth at linebacker that you’d like to hold them if you could because they’re going to be great players in the future, and you’d hate to just sprinkle them in. But you never know how the injury bug will hit you.”
Bass is someone who, down the line, could be the next Pitt linebacker who’s able to play all three spots in the linebacking corps. That’s what he’s learning now. It will likely be hard to keep him off the field in 2023 as his development continues. Biles and Kyle Louis have made strides this summer, too. Learning both outside linebacker spots.
The trio of Kamara, Simon and DeShields are primed for a big season together, and George is going to be a big factor off the bench. Or maybe even as a fourth starting linebacker, as Pitt utilized last season with Tylar Wiltz.
Regardless, the first wave of big, athletic linebackers have already arrived with Kamara and DeShields, and the likes of Lovelace, Bass, Biles and Louis are firmly on the way.