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2024 Pitt Football Spring Season: Defensive Storylines to Follow



Pitt defensive end Dayon Hayes.

Even though the defense wasn’t the problem for Pitt football last season, no one was happy with how the season unfolded on the defensive side of the ball.

The run defense wasn’t up to the Pat Narduzzi standard, the defensive line didn’t wreak havoc like it grew accustomed to doing and the unit as a whole was unable to make up for the sheer ineptitude of the offense. It’s a new season, and it’s a new chance to showcase exactly what the new unit will look like.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many “starters” that Pitt is replacing entering the season, but it’s a lot. The interior defensive line is going to be all-new, the entire two-deep, the linebacking corps will have two new starters and it will be an entirely new cornerbacks trio on the backend. So, yeah, it’s significant.

And the toughest loss may just be Charlie Partridge, who left for the NFL. Pitt has a lot of work to do this spring when it comes to breaking in new arrivals and seeing where the unit stands when it comes to replacing its former stars.

So, what are some of the areas I’ll be watching this spring as Pitt football hits the field again at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex?

Defensive lineman Nate Temple

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Nate Temple (6) November 4, 2023 David Hague/PSN

Can Tim Daoust continue the tradition?

Pat Narduzzi was in somewhat of a lose-lose situation when it came to replacing Partridge. He lost his best, most trusted assistant coach and likely knew that whoever he hired to replace Partridge would be under the microscope.

It’s no slight to Tim Daoust, who was hired away from East Carolina to replace Partridge, but there wasn’t any way that Pitt was going to upgrade the position.

The debate about whether or not Daoust is the right man for the job is one thing, but the comparisons to Partridge are unfair. He isn’t Partridge and isn’t going to be Partridge. But he is tasked with rejuvenating the Pitt defensive line now.

It was a down season for the Pitt defensive line in 2023, slipping from the previous highs of leading college football in tackles for loss and sacks, and while a couple of factors attributed to the lack of production, the level of talent just wasn’t there. You can only do so much with what you have. And Pitt addressed that in the transfer portal — especially at defensive end.

Pitt added Nate Matlack and David Ojiegbe to supplement the defensive ends, helping to offset the loss of Samuel Okunlola to the transfer portal, and Dayon Hayes, Nate Temple, Bam Brima and Jimmy Scott headline the returners. It’s a solid group, which will be even better if its members hit their potential.

I’m sure still a firm believer in the overwhelming potential of Hayes. He’s the leader of the unit and has locked in his starting spot. It will be interesting to see who the staff, Daoust in particular, sees emerge alongside him.

Matlack seems like the type of relentless edge who could thrive as a primarily pass-rushing edge. Ojiegbe isn’t far removed from being one of the top prospects in the class of 2023, possessing an elite blend of speed and power. Scott really came on down the stretch last season. I think there’s potential, plenty for Daoust to work with.

As for defensive tackles…

Pitt defensive lineman Sean FitzSimmons.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Sean FitzSimmons (55) September 24, 2022 David Hague/PSN

Is defensive tackle a concern? 

Yes. Yes, it is. Calijah Kancey isn’t walking through the door. Hell, Deandre Jules isn’t walking through the door. I truly do not know what to expect when it comes to the interior defensive linemen this season.

I think it was time to move on from the super-senior trio of David Green, Devin Danielson and Tyler Bentley, and while losing Jules wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t back-breaking either. He would be nice to have on the line though It’s a very inexperienced unit.

Nick James arrived from Indiana, and the former top prospect is in line to start simply because of the numbers game. He’s still rather young. He has a ton of potential, and he did showcase his skillset in limited reps with the Hoosiers.

It’s time to see if Elliot Donald can carve out a spot in the lineup. He looks the part. He’s big, physical and moves well, but he just hasn’t made the impact that many expected he would have at this point in his career. In fact, I think I’d feel more comfortable projecting Sean FitzSimmons over him at this point in time.

Nahki Johnson is sliding inside this season. I thought he’d emerge as a starting defensive end last season, but it never materialized. He’s packed on some weight, and if he can serve as an interior pass-rushing threat, it will be a major boost. But I don’t think Pitt should rely on that happening either.

Between James, Donald, FitzSimmons and Johnson, there are 472 career defensive snaps. Jules played 474 defensive snaps at Pitt last season.

That sort of speaks to the situation brewing at Pitt. It would be unfair to expect all four to break out. I think there’s talent across all four, but it won’t be a seamless transition into a run-stuffing, pass-rushing interior defensive line. It would seriously help if one of the defensive tackles stepped up, and two more turned into heavily used rotational pieces, a la Calijah Kancey and David Green and Devin Danielson in 2022.

It’s hard to crack the lineup as a freshman at Pitt, but this is the unit where it might be possible. Isaiah Neal has the experience, spending a season in the system already, and Francis Brewu is working his way into the system now. Jahsear Whittington will arrive this summer. An impact freshman isn’t out of the question.

Pitt linebacker Solomon DeShields.

Pittsburgh Panthers linebacker Solomon DeShields (23) November 16, 2023 David Hague/PSN

What does the linebacking corps look like? 

Despite the losses of Shayne Simon and Bangally Kamara, I feel pretty good about the present — and future — of the linebacking corps.

Brandon George initially hit the portal, but when he decided to return, he added a veteran leader who can offer valuable snaps at Mike. But it’s not his return that should have fans excited. It’s the youth movement. Keye Thompson is likely going to start at Mike, with George backing him up, and that’s a solid veteran duo. I’m high on Thompson.

But the outside linebackers have limitless potential. There’s Jordan Bass, Kyle Louis, Braylan Lovelace and Rasheem Biles. Jeremiah Marcelin is likely the Mike of the future, and Cameron Lindsey will arrive this summer as a ‘backer capable of playing all three spots.

I think Solomon DeShields has a spot locked down, whether that’s Star or Money. Maybe Money? He looked good at Star, too. Kyle Louis could start at Star, as could Bass. I think Lovelace could, too. Biles seems like a very capable Money ‘backer. I guess the point is, there are a lot of young, talented outside linebackers who could play either spot, and it’s a good problem for the coaching staff.

I think the duos of Thompson and George at Mike, Louis and Bass at Star and DeShields and Lovelace at Money. But it’s interchangeable. It doesn’t even account for Biles. Or the freshmen.

If there’s a breakout candidate, in my eyes, it’s gotta be Bass. He’s huge, weighing in at 230 pounds now, and he’s going to have a full offseason for the first time in his college career. The sky is the limit.

It will be fun watching the linebackers fly around this spring.

Pitt cornerback Ryland Gandy.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Ryland Gandy (18) September 24, 2022 David Hague/PSN

Who’s up next at cornerback?

It’s a good thing that Archie Collins and Cory Sanders have some experience in flipping units on a season-by-season basis. The safeties were expected to be one of the weakest units on the roster last season, but the trio of Javon McIntyre, Donovan McMillon and P.J. O’Brien Jr. emerged as one of the most rock-steady units.

Could they have made a few more splash plays? Sure. Will their presence help the new cornerbacks? Absolutely.

Pitt has lost an awful lot of experience and production to the NFL this offseason, over 3,000 defensive snaps and 12 interceptions over the last two seasons, and all three starting spots are wide open. It’s going to be an actual competition to see who steps up.

Ryland Gandy feels like he’s as close to a lock as there is. He’s an early candidate for the Ed Conway Award — most improved defensive player of the spring. He got a bit of a trial run at the end of last season. He’s a smooth, fluid athlete who has worked as a gunner over the last two seasons. He’s ready. Who else?

Tamon Lynum is a long, rangy cornerback who excelled in limited snaps at Nebraska. I think he’s going to be given a shot to take playing time. Rashad Battle has barely played over the last two seasons due to injury, but he’s been lauded as a leader in the room this offseason. He’s very, very rangy — maybe it’s his time to step up.

Noah Biglow and Tamarion Crumpley are often mentioned together. They’ve served mainly as special teamers during their time at Pitt, but they’ll both work an increased load this spring. They’re both fourth-year juniors now — among the oldest in the room.

If there’s a young cornerback to keep an eye on though, it’s Shadarian Harrison. It’s hard to crack the lineup as a freshman, even a second-year freshman, but he’s a very talented young man.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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1 month ago

The talent is there. It’s going to be a matter of playing the best guys, which was not the case last season.

1 month ago

It is Pat Narduzzi’s defensive system that is the constant. This system has proven to be successful. It has even been used this past season by Brian Flores in the NFL with some variation but still with success. The players names change every year but the style does not. This style requires a certain type of D-lineman, linebackers and D-backs. Pitt recruits the players to play a Narduzzi style defense. Much of this is predicated on confusing the opposing QB and Offensive coordinator. Just looking at the QB’s in the ACC in 2024 none appear to be first round draft… Read more »

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