Ryan Manalac has recruited a lot of young linebackers over the last couple of seasons. It’s now time to see if those efforts will pay off.
I wrote an article looking into the future of the Pitt linebacking corps when Brandon George entered the transfer portal earlier this week, but obviously, with Bangally Kamara entering the portal himself Wednesday, that changes quite a few things.
Pitt will now be without Shayne Simon, Bangally Kamara, Brandon George and Aydin Henningham in 2024. That’s two two-year starters (one of which was a captain) and a quality backup who played a lot of football in 2023. And it leaves Pitt with some serious questions entering the offseason.
The main concern last offseason was whether or not Pitt would be able to replace SirVocea Dennis, but the room as a whole was pretty deep and relatively experienced. Pitt is dry at Mike linebacker and dangerously young on the outside this time around.
Kamara’s exit opens the door for increased snap counts immediately for the young linebackers on the outside, as he took just over 1,100 snaps in the last two seasons, but there’s still a hole at Mike linebacker — one that cannot be filled as it currently stands.
Of course, that could change throughout the offseason as the coaching staff molds that rather deep and talented collection of young linebackers. SirVocea Dennis wasn’t shy in voicing his enjoyment of playing outside, but he filled a pressing need inside as a Mike linebacker, who was capable of playing all three spots.
A young linebacker typically begins his career at Pitt as a Star linebacker, adapting to the defense at a position that fits a lot of the safety-hybrids that Pitt tends to recruit. And over time, they’ll cross-train at both Star and Money. It’s not uncommon for a linebacker to be able to switch fluidly between Star and Money or Mike and Money; it’s less common for a linebacker to be able to play all three spots.
The Mike linebacker serves as the communicator of the defense, bridging the gap between the defensive line and the secondary and providing a unique mix of run-stopping and pass-rushing. I don’t know if Solomon DeShields fits that role.
Jordan Bass, Braylan Lovelace, Kyle Louis and Rasheem Biles all saw the field last season, with Bass and Louis even earning a start in 2023, but it remains to be seen whether any of the four will be moved inside. I think the most likely course of action is to continue to develop the young ‘backers on the outside. The answer inside will likely come externally.
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It’s hard not to be excited about the young linebackers. Lovelace and Bass are football players, which is how Pat Narduzzi describes the players he admires, and they’ll only get better with full offseasons in the system. Lovelace arrived early last winter, and it did wonders for his development. Bass didn’t. The sky is the limit for his game — likely able to play all three spots at some point.
Biles didn’t receive as much opportunity on the defensive side of the ball as his classmates, just eight snaps, but he blocked three punts and starred on special teams. His time is coming sooner than later.
Louis, who unfortunately suffered a mid-season injury that held him out of the lineup for a few weeks, is another young linebacker who made serious strides last season. He should factor into both outside linebacker spots, too.
But there should be tempered expectations when it comes to the unit. It’s going to be a very young unit, even if there are portal additions, and that’s OK. The experience from this past season will pay dividends when it comes to development this offseason and into the summer. All four should be expected to play quite a bit.
If there’s an area where the unit needs to improve, it’s in the run defense. Poor run fits, shoddy communication and straight-up missed tackles plagued the unit in 2023. If the defense wants to get back to the heights it achieved in previous seasons, serving as one of the best run defenses in college football, it will require an improvement from the linebackers.
There will be growing pains in 2023, certainly, as the unit is still quite young, but the in-game experience gained this season should only help Ryan Manalac’s unit grow.
Potential Linebacker Rotation
Star — Solomon DeShields — Kyle Louis OR Jordan Bass
Mike — ??
Money — Braylan Lovelace — Rasheem Biles — Nick Lapi
Cameron Lindsey — four-star linebacker from Aliquippa, Pa., 6-foot-2, 190 pounds
Jeremiah Marcelin — three-star linebacker from Miami, Fl., 6-foot-2, 220 pounds
Davin Brewton — three-star linebacker from Red Bank, N.J., 6-foot, 220 pounds
It feels unlikely that Pitt will go back-to-back seasons without redshirting a linebacker, but the class of 2024 — which will not be signed until Dec. 20 — is very strong on paper. And as previously mentioned, there’s a hole at Mike for someone like Brewton and on more opportunity on the outside for Lindsey and Marcelin.