Much of this season has been spent complaining about a Pitt defense that struggled to keep teams from scoring. The Panthers' defensive unit played a good game against FCS Villanova, holding them to only seven points and 172 yards of total offense. But since then, they've allowed 121 points to Penn State, Oklahoma State, and North Carolina.
It's easy to lump the collective problems of the defense and put all of the players into one basket. But one guy that's stood out and has done more than his fair share is defensive end Ejuan Price.
Price is not only having a great year, but four games into the season, he is the team's Most Valuable Player.
Price's season is easy to miss since we tend to focus on offense, but it shouldn't be. Through four games this year, he's proven to be one of the most dominant linemen in college football.
Before the season started, I wondered aloud if Price could put up similar numbers to his 2015 season. For the first time in his career he was healthy and made the All-ACC's First Team with 19 1/2 tackles for losses and 11 1/2 sacks. Nearly half of those sacks (five) came in a single game against Louisville and if you take that out of the equation, his numbers became much more pedestrian. But Price is proving that last year was no fluke.
Despite the fact that opposing offenses are more aware of him now after last season, he's been even more dominant than he was last year. Price already has 5 1/2 sacks, putting him on a pace to produce over one per game, and that is good for second in the FBS. His 9 1/2 tackles for losses are even better as he leads all of Division I in that category.
Price also led the nation in forced fumbles (with three) going into last week. He isn't only taking guys down behind the line of scrimmage but he's giving the defense turnover opportunities. And if that isn't enough, he also recorded a safety already, grabbing one against the Tar Heels last weekend.
Consider, too, that Price's numbers have nearly been even bigger. He leads the team in quarterback hurries with seven. Interested in knowing how many that is? No one else on the team has more than two.
Now, while Pitt's opponents have loaded up on the pass (in theory, giving him more pass rush opportunities), he's obviously been extremely impressive. And consider, as I said before, that he isn't an unknown commodity anymore. Teams are prepared for him and he's still finding a way to wreak havoc. It's similar to what Aaron Donald did in 2013 when teams routinely double-teamed him and he still beat them. Plus, Pitt's competition hasn't exactly been a cakewalk so far. In addition to the rivalry game with Penn State, both Oklahoma State and North Carolina are potential Top 25 teams.
Just how dominant is Price's year? Compare him to Donald's 2013 season when he was college football's most heralded defensive player. That year, Donald finished his season with 11 sacks and 28 1/2 tackles for losses. Those numbers, of course, are a premium since he compiled them on the inside of the line while Price is at end. But Price is on a pace to double Donald's sacks and record nearly ten more tackles for losses. There's still a lot of football to be played but Price is playing at a First-Team All-American level right now.
Many fans will be inclined to give Pitt's MVP award to this point in the year to Quadree Henderson. That's fair. I picked him to be the team's breakout player of the year and, well, he's far and away that guy right now. Henderson, as I recently wrote, leads the nation in all-purpose yardage due in large part to his special teams work. But while he's having a huge year, I'm still inclined to go with Price. Henderson is part of a diverse offense with other guys stepping up. Running back James Conner leads the team in both receptions and receiving yards while being on pace for a 1,000-yard rushing year. George Aston's three touchdowns at fullback are second only to Conner. Jester Weah's 137 receiving yards are actually also more than Henderson has.
Price, meanwhile, is in another league compared to his defensive counterparts. No one has even half as many sacks or hurries as he has on defense and some of his plays, like the safety against North Carolina, have been really big. Simply put, Henderson hasn't had to carry the same load as Price.
Pitt's defense needs quite a bit of work if the team is going to put together a successful season but there's no doubt that Price isn't part of the problem. Several Pitt players on offense, such as Henderson and Conner, are having big seasons. But four games into the year, Price is my pick for the team's Most Valuable Player.