Pitt football head coach Pat Narduzzi spoke at the ACC’s football media day this past week covering a range of topics. One unit he really broke down a little was the defensive line.
The line, of course, was a major strength for the team last year. But with the loss of their top two pass rushers in Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver to the NFL, the Panthers could conceivably be in for a dropoff this season. That pair combined for 16 1⁄2 sacks last year and the two easily led the team.
Not everyone expects a major dropoff this year. Pro Football Focus, for example, just put the Panthers’ pass rush for 2021 in their top ten. Still, questions — and even Narduzzi acknowledges the obvious losses.
“With Patrick Jones heading to the Vikings, Rashad Weaver to the Titans, we lost a lot of firepower there,” Narduzzi said.
Despite that, it’s worth pointing out that the Panthers have been building depth on the line and the Panthers have even had success with lower-ranked recruits.
“I’m happy with the depth,” Narduzzi said. “I’m happy with the development. It all comes down to development. Patrick Jones was a two-star player out of Virginia that I don’t want to say nobody wanted, but we were able to get. He only had two stars.”
Pitt seems to have this uncanny ability to just plug and play a little bit once they lose key players. And for what it’s worth, the Panthers didn’t even miss a beat on the defensive line last year when it was unexpectedly announced that star Jaylen Twyman would be sitting out the season. So count me out on the idea that the unit will struggle this season. I just have a good amount of faith in the next group of guys. Reaching the heights of 2020 might be a bit difficult, but I don’t think the unit will fall off of a cliff.
So who are those next guys in line? For Narduzzi, a few names came to mind — specifically, defensive ends Deslin Alexandre, Habakkuk Baldonado, and John Morgan.
Morgan and Alexandre played fairly big reserve roles last year with Alexandre even getting a pair of starts with three sacks. Morgan recorded four sacks and seven tackles for losses. Baldonado missed time last year due to injury but should factor into the mix. You can look for Dayon Hayes, too. As a freshman last year, Hayes made a fast impression, recording two sacks and a forced fumble against Austin Peay in the season opener before taking a backseat most of the year as a backup.
But the Panthers will also get pressure aside from the ends. One of those sources could be from the emerging tackle Calijah Kancey. Kancey was a Freshman All-American last year and became a starter down the stretch of last season. He was even recently placed on the Bednarik Award watch list for 2021. Narduzzi also talked about using his linebackers more this year to gain an advantage in the pass rush.
“We’ll have to blitz a little bit more, bring more linebackers,” he said. In terms of pass rush, the Panthers had a strong three-headed monster last year in Phil Campbell, Cam Bright, and newcomer SirVocea Dennis. The trio recorded a total of 12 1⁄2 sacks and 28 1⁄2 tackles for losses. All three are back this year and should help with the pass rush as well.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Panthers have some highly touted players coming in as true freshman, including four-star recruits Nahki Johnson, Elliot Donald, and Naquan Brown. Johnson and Donald could figure into the line and Brown could gain reps at linebacker. Three-star lineman recruit Dorien Ford was another big recruit that’s also right there.
I wouldn’t count those guys out for playing time this year. Narduzzi has shown he’s got zero problems with playing true freshman in major roles if they deserve to play. Where those incoming players fit in this year remains to be seen but they will hopefully be nice building blocks for the future at a minimum.