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Pitt pass rush ranked No. 8 in nation by Pro Football Focus

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Pitt led the nation in sacks in 2020, with 46, but lost pass-rushers Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver to the NFL

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 18 Pitt at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Under Pat Narduzzi, Pitt has developed a reputation as one of the top defensive programs in the nation, and it appears that expectations remain high for the Panthers defense ahead of the 2021 season, as the Pitt pass-rush unit was ranked eighth in the nation by Pro Football Focus on Friday.

Oklahoma earned the top spot in the PFF national ranking, and Ohio State, Georgia, Cincinnati and Texas A&M rounded out the top five. And in the bottom half of the top 10, Clemson and Alabama ranked No. 6 and No. 7, while San Jose State and Penn State were placed behind Pitt at No. 9 and No. 10.

At first glance, the ranking could be viewed as a short-changing of an elite Pitt pass-rushing unit that led the nation in sacks and tackles for losses last season, with 46 and 111. But while the Panthers posted immaculate numbers in 2020, they also lost starting defensive ends Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver to the NFL and will have to replace them in 2021.

Jones led the team in sacks last year, with nine, and ranked second in tackles for losses, with 12.5. Weaver was tied for the team lead in tackles for losses, with 14.5, and he ranked second in sacks, with 7.5. Jones was the first Pitt alum to come off the board in the 2021 draft, as he went to the Minnesota Vikings in the third round. Weaver was selected by the Tennessee Titans in the fourth round.

Despite those key losses, there is plenty of reason for optimism at Pitt in 2021 and beyond, as the Panthers defense returns linebacker SirVocea Dennis, who tied Weaver for the team lead in tackles for losses, with 14.5, and came up with four sacks. The defense also boasts plenty of young talent, as it returns Dayon Hayes and adds Elliot Donald, Dorien Ford and Nahki Johnson. But more immediately, Pitt will rely on Deslin Alexandre, Calijah Kancey and John Morgan.

All told, Pitt is set to return 64 percent of its sack production from last season, with the only sack-producing departing players being Jones and Weaver. With that said, they were the team’s top pass rushers, with 16.5 combined sacks. But much is expected of Alexandre, who had 5.5 sacks to go with 10.5 tackles for losses in his lone season as a regular starter, and Hayes, who had 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in just five games last season.

Given the talent waiting in the wings at Pitt, there is reason to believe the Panthers defense can outperform the expectations of PFF analysts and reclaim the national lead in sacks. But with the team now reliant on less proven players to step up and replace the production of veterans, a degree of trepidation from national outlets should be expected.