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Summer Study: The Nitro Defense, DL & LB

After exploring Pitt’s high-octane offense last week, this week we turn our attention to its equally explosive counterpart, the Nitro Defense.  Nitro refers to nitroglycerin, the volatile, combustible compound commonly found in dynamite. Head coach Todd Graham, originally a defensive coach in his early days, has described a defense that should resemble just that, full of blitzes, explosiveness, and lots of uncertainty for opponents.  Sounds great to me, assuming he can pull it off.  Who will be the players Graham turns to in order to carry this out?  Today we’ll look at the front half of the defense: defensive line and linebackers.

Defensive Line

Pitt will be shifting from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense (kind of), so lots of responsibility will fall to the defensive tackles up front.  Luckily, in my opinion, the defensive line will be the Panther’s strongest position in 2011.  After turning out nationally-lauded defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus last year, the pipeline of talent will continue, with two redshirt seniors, Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein, returning as starters to anchor the unit.  Alecxih was menacing to opposing quarterbacks last year, racking up 57 tackles (9 for losses) and 7.5 sacks.  Caragein had 30 tackles (4.5 for losses) and two sacks.  Sophomore Aaron Donald, who recorded 11 tackles and two sacks as a reserve, will likely assume his first starting role by filling the third spot on the line.  The depth is rich here, with Tyrone Ezell, Khaynin Mosley-Smith, Shayne Hale, and my personal favorite, T.J. Clemmings all lurking on the depth chart.  Redshirt senior Brandon Lindsey will transition from defensive end to the "Panther" position, a standup defensive end who can drop back or blitz.  Lindsey replaced the injured Romeus last year, and had a spectacular season, recording 51 tackles, including 17.5 for losses.  He also had 10 sacks, three forced fumbles, and earned second team All-Big East honors.  Lindsey has been named to four award watchlists, including the Walter Camp Award, given to the nation's best overall player.  Wow.  This group is full of talent, size, power, and depth; barring any severe injuries, they should be a dominant force in college football and have an exceptional year for Pitt.  Others appear to agree.  


In addition to Lindsey at "Panther", the defense will sport three linebackers called "Spur", "Sam", and "Will".  Redshirt senior Greg Williams will be the Spur linebacker, with 32 career starts under his belt.  The Florida native had 64 tackles in 11 starts last year.  Redshirt senior Tristan Roberts and redshirt sophomore Shane Gordon will compete for the starting job at Sam.  Roberts is the more experienced player, recording 40 tackles in eight starts a year ago.  He’s also a bit bigger than Gordon, so my money is on Roberts to start.  The third spot, Will, goes to redshirt senior Max Gruder, the celebrated veteran of the bunch.  He’s collected 175 tackles over the past two years as a starter.  Gruder, always a personal favorite of mine, has been named to the Butkus Award watchlist.  I expect the starting trio to be okay, if not solid, for the Panthers this year.  Depth, however, is a concern of mine.  If one of the starters goes down with an injury, not much exists in terms of experience or exceptional talent on the bench.  Dan Mason’s horrific knee injury still seems to be lingering, meaning he probably won’t see the field in 2011, stretching the linebacker corps extremely thin.  If they can stay healthy, though, linebacker shouldn’t be a problem for Pitt. 

The more scrutinized part of the defense, safeties and cornerbacks, are up next time in the Summer Study series.