Justin K. Aller
The defense should be the strength of next season's football team
Earlier this month we had an offensive preview. Today, the defense is highlighted and Pitt should be one of the top defensive teams in the conference next season. There is talent and experience throughout each unit. If you can't tell, I'm really pumped about their potential for 2013.
If there is a weak unit, it would have to be at defensive end, where there doesn't seem to be much depth. Bryan Murphy will start at the strongside defensive end while Devin Cook will likely start at the other. But after those two and Jack Lippert, there isn't much else on the current roster (although Paul Chryst is bringing in a couple of ends with this year's recruiting class). 2013 recruit Shakir Soto, who will join the team in the spring, figures to have a leg up on the other incoming freshman Luke MacLean. It does seem that some of these new guys will get a decent amount of playing time.
Moving inside the four-man front is where Pitt should be at their best, assuming that Aaron Donald remains at Pitt for his senior season. Donald led the Big East and was 6th nationally in tackles for loss and should continue to build on that next season. He and Tyrone Ezell will likely start for Pitt next season, with Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Darryl Render backing them up. Redshirt freshman Terrell Jackson also figures to see some time. The Panthers will also get Tyrique Jarrett in the spring, who spent the past season at Milford Prep.
For the first time in a few seasons, the linebackers may not be a question mark coming into the season. All three starters return with Shane Gordon, Todd Thomas, and Eric Williams. Thomas is the player I'm most excited about for 2013 - with a full year of strengthening and preparation (he spent last offseason recovering from knee surgery), I think he's due for a big season. Pitt will also likely have the services of highly touted Ejuan Price and Dan Mason, who hopefully will be able to see more action next season after everything he has been through.
Moving back into the secondary, Pitt loses veteran leader Jarred Holley, which is a big loss. His starting spot is going to be a position battle to watch throughout camp, though I think in the end we should be seeing Ray Vinopal get the starting job. Lafayette Pitts is going to have a big season next year. As a redshirt freshman, he was arguably Pitt's best defender against the pass, with nine breakups and a pick. Opposite him will be K'Waun Williams, who had many big plays, including a pick in the end zone against Notre Dame that nearly won the game for the Panthers. At safety, Jason Hendricks will spend time at free safety, where he had six interceptions last season.
I really think that this unit has a chance to be near the top of the ACC's Coastal Division. A lot of experience is returning and there isn't an offense, outside of Florida State's, that Pitt will face in conference play that worries me. If everyone stays healthy, and Pitt actually manages to hire a defensive coordinator, the Panthers should feature another top 25 defense.