Although uncertainty surrounds the Pitt football program ahead of the 2018 season, one aspect of the team that has sparked some optimism is its linebacking corps, which the ACC Digital Network recently predicted would be the fourth-best linebacking unit in the conference this year.
The reason behind the optimism is the fact that Pitt will return all three of its starters at linebacker in Saleem Brightwell, Oluwaseun Idowu and Elijah Zeise. In 2017, the trio combined for 216 tackles, including 21.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. Of course, it’s worth noting that Idowu was responsible for more than 40 percent of the team’s production in each category.
In fact, 2017 was a breakout year for Idowu, who racked up a total of 94 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks over the course of 12 games. And as a result, he made the preseason watchlist for the Butkus Award, which is given to the best linebacker in the country annually.
However, while Idowu has clearly stepped into a leadership role in time for his senior campaign with the Panthers, Brightwell and Zeise also appear to be growing into players capable of chipping in at comparable clip and could significantly benefit the team in the coming season.
During his sophomore year in 2017, Brightwell had 73 tackles, including five for a loss and a sack. He also managed to record an interception, two passes defended and a forced fumble.
Zeise, who saw his first regular action with the Pitt defense last year, experienced a significant boost in production, as he went from just one tackle in one game in 2016 to 49 tackles in 12 games in 2017. That included five for a loss in addition to three passes defended as a junior.
One thing that wasn’t noted in the network’s assessment of Pitt’s linebackers was the fact that Quintin Wirginis will return after missing 2017 due to injury. In 2016, he had 28 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss and four sacks in 11 games. Many expect him to start, and his ability to get after opposing quarterbacks could indeed see him oust Brightwell or Zeise from a starting role.
The ACC Digital Network rounded out its list with Duke’s linebacking unit in third, Clemson’s in second and Miami’s in first. Each of the three teams ahead of Pitt also has at least one Butkus Award nominee this season, and Clemson has two in Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar.