Like with offense yesterday, I’m going to take a guess at who will be starting on defense next season. Pitt once again loses a lot of senior starters, and unlike on offense, that may be a good thing. Pat Narduzzi needs to upgrade the talent on defense and his recruiting efforts have reflected that.
Like with yesterday’s article, I’m not including any of the recruits that are unsigned. I think we all know there’s one player on Pitt’s commitment list that could very well start next season.
Projected Starter - Dewayne Hendrix, Rori Blair
Top Contenders - James Folston, Allen Edwards
Pitt will be without all-everything Ejuan Price next season. Price was one of the best defensive players in college football in 2015 and 2016. He recorded 13 sacks this past season, and his presence will be missed big time in the pass rush. They will have some experience returning and some promising younger players competing for snaps.
Rori Blair has been in the mix at defensive end for the past three seasons. He has totaled 10 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in that stretch. His best season was his freshman year, and the past two have been a bit inconsistent. The staff needs him to take a leap for his senior season. Pitt fans will finally get to see Dewayne Hendrix in action. The Tennessee transfer was expected to give Pitt a lot this past season before a season ending injury in the opener. Hendrix was a big time recruit out of high school, and Pitt needs him to play like one in 2017.
Allen Edwards and James Folston both rotated in at defensive end this season, and will again next season. Neither player made huge impacts, but Edwards did make a few nice plays against Clemson. Two players I have an eye on will be redshirt freshmen Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver. We’ll see if they can unseat any of the upperclassmen.
Projected Starters - Jeremiah Taleni, Amir Watts
Top Contenders - Shane Roy, Keyshon Camp
Pitt will lose starters Tyrique Jarrett and Shakir Soto. Jarrett missed time down the stretch that opened the door for some younger guys. Soto probably had the best season of his career in his first year playing inside instead of at defensive end. Both players seem replaceable however, and there’s some exciting young players in the program.
Jeremiah Taleni only played in seven games, but finished with three sacks in 2016. He had a great game against Clemson and made some big plays that game. Going into his senior year, I think he has the leg up on a starting nod. Still not a sure thing however. Amir Watts played as a true freshman, and didn’t make a huge impact after fighting some injuries. He was a four-star recruit a year ago, and obviously Narduzzi thought he was ready to play. I expect he will be a big part of the defense next season.
Pitt brought in two other big time defensive tackles with Watts in the last recruiting cycle, and look for Keyshon Camp and Rashad Wheeler to be involved in next year’s rotation. Mike Herndon and Shane Roy will be entering their junior seasons, and they will be in the mix as well.
Projected Starters - Quintin Wirginis, Saleem Brightwell, Elijah Zeise
Top Contenders - Seun Idowu, Chase Pine, Anthony McKee Jr.
Pitt is set to lose Matt Galambos, Mike Caprara, and Bam Bradley. All three players logged a lot of snaps the past four seasons, and the Panthers will have a new look at linebacker this season. Pitt needs more athleticism at this potion, and that’s exactly what the staff has been recruiting. They brought in three linebackers last year, and they have three committed currently. It’s a position that certainly needs an upgrade.
Senior Quintin Wirginis should assume the role as starting middle linebacker. I’ve always felt he deserved more playing time than he received, and I look for him to have a solid senior campaign. He’s more athletic than Galambos, and that extra speed should help the defense all around. Wirginis recorded four sacks this past season in limited playing time.
Saleem Brightwell made some huge plays this season, and I think he locks down one of the starting jobs next year. Brightwell was a solid recruit a few years ago, and I think he’s ready to be a full time starter in 2017. He had a huge interception against Clemson that he returned 70 yards that helped lead to the upset over the Tigers. He also had a pair of sacks and 28 tackles this year.
There was a competition last season between Oluwaseun Idowu and Elijah Zeise for the starting job that went back and forth, but Zeise won it in only to get injured in the Villanova game. Idowu finished third on the team in tackles as the full-time starter at Pitt’s “Star” position. He will have a chance to retain his job, but it’s not set in stone.
The trio of Chase Pine, Kaezon Pugh, and Elias Reynolds all took redshirts last season, and should be competing for jobs this season. There’s talks Pugh could play defensive end next season, but Pine looks like he should have a chance to compete at linebacker. Anthony McKee Jr. is another name to remember, as he was a big recruit a few years ago.
Projected Starters - Avonte Maddox, Damar Hamlin
Top Contenders - Dane Jackson, Therran Coleman
This position has been highly discussed all season. It was flat out terrible, and there’s nowhere to go but up I guess. Pitt will move on without Ryan Lewis, but everyone else is back. There are a lot of promising young players in the fold, and they should get every opportunity to play.
Avonte Maddox had an injury riddled season in 2016. He had some good moments, but other times where he got picked on by bigger and better receivers. Maddox will have every chance to start at one corner, but could shift to nickel if a younger guy seizes the job. I’m going to say a healthy Damar Hamlin grabs the one job. He was injured most of the season and never got into the flow. He was Pitt’s prized recruit last year, and will be given every chance to play next year. He has the talent to take the job.
Dane Jackson appeared in 12 games as a redshirt freshman. He will be in the mix to win a starting job as well. Jackson, like most of the other corners, had moments but was inconsistent. I’m also looking for Therran Coleman to make an impact. He redshirted this past season, but he looks like he can be a very good player.
It will be interesting to see what happens with Henry Miller. He was a big recruit, in terms of both size and ranking. Miller is a 6’3” corner, and many have speculated a position change could come for him.
Projected Starters - Jordan Whitehead, Jay Stocker
Top Contenders - Dennis Briggs, Bricen Garner
Jordan Whitehead is Pitt’s best defensive player, and they will need him to play like it all season long. Whitehead had a slow start to 2016, but returned to his freshman All-American type self towards the end of the season before injuring himself against Clemson. Whitehead is a special talent, and will likely be on many preseason watch lists.
Opposite of Whitehead will be one to monitor, Terrish Webb and Reggie Mitchell are both gone leaving that position wide open. Dennis Briggs may have a leg up, but I’m projecting Stocker passes him up. Also like I mentioned before, I’m not including recruits that aren’t signed yet, but you can take a guess who eventually will be starting next to Whitehead.
I’m looking forward to seeing Bricen Garner. I think he is going to be a good player, and he could be in the mix after taking a redshirt in 2016.