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August 1, 2014

I’ve been sitting down at the computer a few times over the last three days with fingers poised to write about PITT’s defense going into summer camp then the season and it has taken me some time to try to get a handle on what exactly to put out to you Blatherites.

I guess I’ll start from the very bottom and work up. Aaron Donald is gone and he ain’t coming back.  The “All-World” winner of every major award he was eligible for gave the defense its identity and leadership last year and he’ll be missed.  That isn’t cutting edge journalism folks as I just repeated what every single PITT already knows and is nervous about.

However, I’m a firm believer that in college football  players who have been in the shadows will frequently rise up and grab the reins of leadership by their play themselves.  This is what happens when underclassmen get a year or two of experience under their belts and become starters and sometimes stars.  We’ll not see anyone specific fill Donald’s shoes, he is a once in a generation player, but that doesn’t mean the staff can’t make adjustments to minimize his absence.

What I found interesting, and a bit disheartening,  is that this week Chryst stated publicly that he  heard from some of the DL kids after the season ended that they sometimes eased off a bit knowing that Aaron Donald was going to make the plays.  Here’s Chryst’s take on that and what it was like having Donald play for him.  I wholeheartedly agree that it will ‘take a village’ as Hilary says.

So, starting with the defensive line we have the following as the present situation; I like JR Darryl Render in the interior. At 6’2″ 285 lbs he was Donald’s backup and was productive in the games he played with 25 tackles and 2.5 Tackles for Loss (TFL).  Render started one game against Georgia Tech in place of Ezell and in it had seven tackles and a fumble recovery.  He’s a JR now and has played each season since being a true FR.  He’ll be one of those kids who will produce well as a starter and as a leader in the clubhouse.  I think he’ll be the “Next Big Thing” on the DL.

An enigma is SR LaQuentin Smith who will play the interior position also.  If you remember he was a pretty good backup as a true FR LB two years ago until he ballooned to 280 lbs (at the staff request mind you) to fill in gaps on the DL.  He hasn’t been seeing much playing time the last two seasons and might not this year but I’ve always liked him since he was recruited.

I think we’ll see rsFR Justin Moody get a lion’s share of playing time this year.  Moody was a solid 3* recruit with good height at 6’3 and 280 pounds.  Chryst specifically redshirted Moody based on his expectations of Moody being a multiple year starter and he could be a guy who shoots into our radar zone pretty quickly once he starts playing regularly.   Along with him we have rsJR K.K. Mosley-Smith, a football factory Milford Academy HS kid who the staff really liked in 2012.  He’s returning from a suspension this year and if that motivates this young man like it should he’ll be a 6’0’ 310 lb nose tackle this season.

On a personal basis I want to see rsFR Jeremiah Taleni get an opportunity to contribute.  I watched his high school play football when I was stationed in Hawai’i and they don’t screw around there.  That is a talented league that regularly sends players to D1 West Coast colleges.  He’s 6’2” 295 lbs and fast off the mark for a big guy.  I have a soft spot for Island kids so I’ll keep my fingers crossed he’ll see playing time and he’s could be another who might surprise this year.

Rounding out the DL are the Defensive Ends and this is the position I’m really concerned about.  rsSR David Durham is an average workhorse who is neither good nor bad in my opinion.  I think he’s a starter only by default and that’s really not very encouraging.  Now that Ejuan Price is off the board due to an injury we’ll see a guy I really like, JR  Devin Cook,  in that DE mix.  He is a converted HS TE and had eight TFLs in a reserve role in 2012 and that’s impressive due to the fact he really didn’t play much.  If he’s totally healed and camp ready we’ll see him in the opponent’s backfield a lot.

Cook will partner with SO Shakir Soto who did an excellent job at DE as a true FR last season.  Soto is a real up and comer who grew from 6’3” & 229 lbs to 270 in his first year of college. That is impressive as hell and shows a dedicated work ethic, which showed in his play on the field also.  Add to that mix true FR Luke MacLean (read his HS accolades) who people at PITT are excited about and we might see a youthful and talented DL that grows in production as the season progresses.

At linebacker we look, on paper, to be in pretty good shape.  rsSR Todd Thomas (he should have stayed on offense J) is the Will (weak side) Linebacker and rsSR Anthony Gonzalez are returning as starters and we know about their talent already.  Both are solid college LBs and should be even a bit better this year.  Gonzalez really surprised me with his increased production in his Sam (strong side) Linebacker position as he became a stalwart on defense.

The real question mark is Shane Gordon’s replacement at Middle Linebacker.  Personally, as much as I though Gordon was a pretty good football player, I also think he’s easily replaced.

This year SO Matt Galambos will have that duty and IMO he has the skills to be a real rock in the middle as a starter.  He has shown a nose for the ball having had 44 tackles while starting only two games.  Compare that with the starting MLB Gordon’s total of 56 and you can see that Galambos can get to a ball carrier.  He was 6’2” and 245lbs going into the spring practices and he’ll be a bit more solid going into this season, and he’s a smart kid out there.  Galambos played both TE and RB in high school so he can move his feet pretty well also.  I understand some fans are skeptical or worried about the MLB position but I think it’s well in hand with this kid and project he’ll be remember as one of the better MLBs we’ve had in recent history.

His competition at MLB will come from either or 6’2” 245 rsSO Devon Porchia or undersized but with a big heart  6’0” 225 Mike Caprara.  I think the player on the on-deck circle will be Caprara… but that’s a guess.  I suppose SO LB Bam Bradley could slide over if needed or rsFR Reggie Green, who has travelled from being a HS QB then RB to DB then recruited to WR in his FR year at PITT to now being pushed over to LB.  However, Caprara was a WPIAL All-Everything player at local Woodland Hills and left there as the school’s leading all-time tackler.  He is in a rock and a hard place because of his size but last season he showed speed and great instincts as a Special Teams contributor.  I’d love to see him get at least a chance to show us what he is capable of on defense especially as he’d be a big crowd pleaser due to his local pedigree.

That brings us over to the Defensive Backfield and an area that I probably follow the least, but also one that I get kind of excited about when I look at the up and coming players who will be competing for starting spots in camp. A reality is that we lost a couple of good starters in K’Waun Williams and leading tackler Jason Hendricks, and also a prime backup when Jahmahl Pardner decided to leave the program.  Another reality is that we were mediocre in our passing defense last season.  Overall pass defense yards allowed wasn’t so bad at 218 ypg, good for 40th nationally and we allowed 20 passing TDs which sucked. Then we dropped to 80th in our passing efficiency defense with a opponent’s 133.07 average. All in all it was not a very good showing at all.

Now to the DB positions; this could be the season where a new PITT legend, the “Champion Clairton Kids” begins to grow.  We already have Tyler Boyd at stardom and now have Trenton Coles, Titus Howard and Terrish Web ready to rise up in the defensive backfield.

At Cornerback we’ve 5’11” JR Lafayette Pitts  returning after an average showing during his sophomore slum season.  He did well as a true FR and we figured we’d see great things from him in 2013 but were disappointed.  He’ll have to rebound big time this year as he is the experienced one of the CBs.  Pitts was a big contributor on Special Teams which we’ll discuss in the next article.

Along with Pitts we have returning 6’3” SO Trenton Coles who saw a bit of action on the field but most of that was in special teams play. He is listed in the Spring Prospectus  as weighing 175 lbs and at 6’3” that is real thin.  He’ll be in competition with a Clairton teammate in 6’1 SO Titus Howard who started two games including Bowling Green in the bowl game.  Both Coles and Howard saw action as true FR so their jitters should be gone by the opening game.

At Safety we have a real-life college football lesson in 5’11” rsSR Ray Vinopal, who is our returning star on defense.  Vinopal was a Michigan transfer who was forced into action back in 2012 under Todd Graham and had a pretty non-descript season in his first year in a PITT uniform.  I’d go as far as to say that he was the butt of fan’s jokes due to some glaring errors he made, mostly in his run support.

But, how time changes things, huh?  Now he’s our best defensive player and has garnered ACC accolades both with his play on the field and his academics off of it. In 2013 he was our 2nd leading tackler with 83; he had 1.5 sacks and 3 TFLs along with six pass breakups.  Perhaps most importantly he had three INTs and created a fumble deep in ND’s territory which you could say basically won the Notre Dame game for us.  He’s very good, tough and smart, and again will be our mainstay of the defensive backfield.  Most importantly he’s also a hell of a role model for younger players in his ability to overcome a rather poor start to become a star through his hard work, dedication and coachability.

Watch this video on Vinopal, it good and explains exactly how he overcame that shaky beginning to became a team leader.  I’m harping on this ‘growth success’ but I truly believe that anyone of our younger players can have a career similar to his and really succeed at PITT.

Since we lost Hendricks at Safety we’ll have to replace him with younger kids who saw just a bit of playing time.  5’11” Terrish Webb, another Clairton product, will be the heir apparent here.  He saw action in all 13 games, some only on special teams, but like Howard he also started in the bowl game.  rsSO Jevonte Pitts, Lafayette’s little brother and a Woodland Hills & Milford Academy graduate will compete at Safety also.  He played special teams only without racking up any tackles so I think he’s a long shot for the two deep.

An interesting situation for me is how much playing time 6’0” rs SO Reggie Mitchell, a Wisconsin transfer, will get this year.  He’s not really in the fan’s consciousness yet.  He’s a local Shadyside Academy grad who sat out last season in his transfer year at PITT. I think he’s going to be a good one sooner rather than later but the question will be can he break up the new Clairton logjam at the DB positions.  But keep an eye on him as he may be a rising starter this season.

Since I threw in what I think is a key 2014 recruit on offense with Adonis Jennings I’ll do the same with who I think may a key defensive recruit.  He is  6’2” 190 lb Patrick Amara, who while labeled an “Athlete’ by the recruiting services was recruited specifically to play Safety.  He won’t automatically jump over everyone else but I think he sees some substantial playing time. Given his life story I’m pulling like hell for him to succeed at PITT as I’m sure you all are also.

That, in a large nutshell, is my take on how the 2014 starters and part of the two deep backups may shake out.  There are a lot of question marks here, specifically at the DL interior, Middle Linebacker and Strong Safety but, optimist that I am, questions get answered every year once the whistle blows.  If the Offense can score a few more points per game than last season, let’s say over 26.3 (80th), which I think they can, then this defense can help us win ballgames.  Last year we gave up 27.2 ppg (69th)  and that must improve and to do that we need to be more aggressive across the DL and more disciplined in the defensive backfield.

As a small treat, or maybe a punch in the gut depending on your point of view, here is our Aaron Donald’s “A Football Story” from the PITT Live Wire crew.  I love that you can see he gets his off field laid-back attitude from his father.  It’s a hoot listening to his dad describes how good Aaron was a as youngster playing league ball.  Those fingernails on his Mom scare the crap out of me though.  Try not to cry because he’s gone…

Staff and Special Teams next article…





I’m expecting very little QB pressure from the ends… Maybe Soto gets there regularly. But I’m thinkin’ those kids from Clairton are going to need to be special in the secondary.

Thomas, Galambos, and Gonzo should do well enough stopping the run. I’m just seeing QBs sitting in the pocket, with all kinds of time, trying to pick the secondary apart.

Where is the pressure going to come from?

Comment by BostonsCommon 08.01.14 @ 10:28 am

Good preview, Reed. Wishing the opener was tomorrow.

Comment by dinosaur 71 08.01.14 @ 11:13 am

Reed, A pretty comprehensive analysis but I thought (maybe hope) that you omitted two other potential contributors:

– NT Tyrique Jarrett — I expect him to be on the depth chart ahead of your boy Talenie

– OLB Nich Grigsby (Bam’s brother) — who contributed more than Bam did last year (and often replaced Todd Thomas on passing downs)

Comment by wbb 08.01.14 @ 11:30 am

@Reed

Great stuff. Thanks. Being retired helps, huh? Poor Chas, with the job and the demands of family life, has no time to do work like this.

H2P

Comment by pmdH2P 08.01.14 @ 11:46 am

wbb – Yes of course!! I also think Jarrett is going to contribute this year – maybe a lot. He slipped my mind completely. Thanks for the reminder.

I don’t really think Taleni is going to see much action, I’m just hoping he can get a chance to show what he can do. Who knows, maybe we have another Haloti Ngata in our midst.

Anyway, wanted to get this article up so you guys had something to read at lunchtime.

Comment by Reed 08.01.14 @ 11:59 am

Pdmh2p – Chas’ writing is much more along the lines of a real media blog and he is also interested in PITT BB which I’m not. He’s not one to throw out 2300+ words (yeah, it’s a small novel today) of opinionated stuff.

Believe me, it is almost a full time job for Chas to run this site and he does it fantastically. There is crap behind the scenes he has to deal with especially the cost involved so please remember that when his annual ‘pledge week’ rolls around… you know – where we stop writing a post smack in the middle so he can request donations, just like on PBS.

I’m surprised no one has commented on my hidden reference to our second to last QB (the original TS) in this article – can anyone tell me where it is?

Comment by Reed 08.01.14 @ 12:05 pm

BTW Reed, I agree that Amara is a likely early contributor along with Jennings on offense. The other early contributor may be Maddox who is supposed to be a really good returner.

Comment by wbb 08.01.14 @ 12:08 pm

I think we are going to see a little more man with the corners and see them bring 5 to help get pressure on the QB. Grigsby had some nice pressures during the bowl game and it could be a preview of how they use him this year.

Comment by Atlanta Panther 08.01.14 @ 12:51 pm

Aside from the Hillary quote (ha!) great write up. Was driving back at lunch today and heard Urban Meyer interviewed, and one of the scheme changes he commented on for this coming year was a move away from the corners ‘keeping everything in front of them’, to a more aggressive man to man game. A similar shift for us may be our greatest hope for improvement this year. Sure hope some DEs step up, that was the other real sore spot last year too.

Comment by 1618mt 08.01.14 @ 12:56 pm

FYI – Tra’von Chpaman just transferred to Akron, our opponent for the next 2 years (he will not be eligible this year)

Comment by wbb 08.01.14 @ 1:07 pm

Paragraph 3.

Comment by Dan 08.01.14 @ 1:16 pm

Artie Rowel and James Connor singled out Galambos as a guy to look out for this year when interviewed on The Fan. Connor said Galambos had some big hits on him in practice.

I agree, Grigsby will have an impact this year.

Comment by notrocketscience 08.01.14 @ 1:45 pm

Galambos put on some muscle over the offseason. I think he was listed at 220 last year and now he’s at 245. It’s going to be a pleasure watching him stuff the run.

Comment by Atlanta Panther 08.01.14 @ 1:52 pm

Reed wrote above ” Personally, as much as I though Gordon was a pretty good football player, I also think he’s easily replaced.” I agree that when healthy, he was good … but he can be easily replaced because due to injury he was often replaced.

Galambos at times seemed to be a bit overmatched but you wouldn’t expect anything else for a natural freshman. But he did get some valuable experience … I think, if healthy, our LBs wil be our strengh this year.

However, maybe the saving grace for our defense this year, may be an offense that consumes the clock … there is nothing like a good ground attack to take pressure off of a defense.

Comment by wbb 08.01.14 @ 2:09 pm

.. and a big OL who can wear down defenses will be a great help in the 4th quarter. Maybe the key is not to get too far behind

Comment by wbb 08.01.14 @ 2:11 pm

I question the speed of the front seven. That appeared to be a major problem against the better teams in the league. The Miami and FSU type teams made last years linebackers look like they were running in place, and I don’t think this bunch is much different.

Comment by Jimbo 08.01.14 @ 2:12 pm

So Titus Howard is now suspended for the upcoming season per PantherLair.

Comment by Kenny Powers 08.01.14 @ 2:43 pm

Reed …thanks so much for the detailed hard work. I have a bad case of ” dreaded Pitt optimism” on this years defense.
New secondary coach should have our d backs manning up.
There was nothing more frustrating last year to see receivers standing wide open in our secondary!

Comment by Dan 72 08.01.14 @ 2:46 pm

Kenny, typical Pitt karma … Pitt is thin at DE and CB, and E Price is out for the year with injury and T Howard is suspended for the year

Comment by wbb 08.01.14 @ 2:48 pm

Agreed wbb, typical Pitt karma, or as I like to say it, “Pittypical”

Comment by Kenny Powers 08.01.14 @ 2:51 pm

Here is the Titus Howard story. Chryst couldn’t have done this yesterday before I finished my “Defense” article?

Sounds like grades.

link to pittsburgh.rivals.com

Comment by Reed 08.01.14 @ 3:02 pm

Peak’s reporting on Twitter (Peak) that Howard had a redshirt available so he’ll use it this year. He’ll be a RS soph in 2015.

Some chatter from a few other supposedly-connected twitter accounts that another defensive player from Clairton was contemplating a transfer, but decided to stay. No specifics on who it was. Oy.

Comment by Stoosh 08.01.14 @ 3:04 pm

Every team has losses, injury and otherwise, every year. If Howard is out, that’s too bad and a loss for Pitt, but a bigger loss for him personally. As for DE, we’re in no worse shape than last year, and could be quite a bit better if Soto & MacLean pan out as expected.

Comment by 1618mt 08.01.14 @ 3:15 pm

@ wbb, is that TS of whom you speak playing the QB back up roll in that neighbor country to the North, on a team that “speaks softly but carries a big stick”?

Comment by Dr. Tom 08.01.14 @ 3:17 pm

I guess, unlike some other schools known for their athletics, we actually ask our kids to attend classes.

I’d rather see us in the Ivy League.

Comment by steve1 08.01.14 @ 3:21 pm

Dr T, you’re addressing the wrong person … Reed is the person who brought his name up above.

But yes, he was the back-up on the Grey or Calder (?) cup champs .. forgot the name of the team. (Calgary?) I’m getting old!

Comment by wbb 08.01.14 @ 3:21 pm

Here is a Chris Peak tweet:

Chris Peak @PantherLair · 41m #Pitt sophomore CB Titus Howard has been suspended for the 2014 season due to disciplinary reasons.

Now, whether disciplinary reasons means poor grades is the question .. it may be.

Comment by wbb 08.01.14 @ 3:23 pm

I believe my the end of this season, we will all be familiar with both the correct spelling of his name as well as the body of his work. My prediction of the new impact player on the Pitt Defense for 2014:

Luke Maclean, “Mac” as in mac attack and “clean” as in clean your clock, both of which I think we’ll see him do quite a bit to opposing QBs this season. Hope I’m right.

Comment by Dr. Tom 08.01.14 @ 3:26 pm

Shame these things happen yet I am not in the redshirt camp. But HCPC is closer to the reasoning for the suspension so he knows what is needed.

Comment by chethejet 08.01.14 @ 3:40 pm

Reggie Mitchell at QB?
Could he be a possible 3rd/4th backup.

Comment by Tackle made by Hugh 08.01.14 @ 4:19 pm

Couple guys of note, who I think will merit significant playing time.

LB Nick Grigsby
NG Tyrique Jarret (the supersized one)
LB Bam Bradley

If Pitt opens with Durham at DE, could be an indicator of not much talent behind him. Which would be quite alarming.

Get these new guys out there against the soft part of the schedule so they’ll be ready for the harder tests later.

Comment by Emel 08.01.14 @ 4:42 pm

12 Unassisted tackles while playing 13 games is really like…well not even being on the field.

Or like playing with only 10 players on defense.

Someone, anyone…….please.

Comment by Emel 08.01.14 @ 4:46 pm

NIck Grigsby showed promise last year as a pass rusher with 3 sacks in limited playing time. Also had 4 TFL’s, again in limited playing time.

Would rather see them use him or Bam Bradley at some sort of a hybrid LB/DE playmaker spot than waste the spot on someone with no playmaking ability at all.

Let’s get a little innovative.

Comment by Emel 08.01.14 @ 4:55 pm

Have you noticed how it’s not just a one game or quarter suspension that is becoming the model for Pitt Football? I personally prefer and am excited for it over the Stache and Goodell model as it keeps us out of the headlines and it’s not like we are competing for a National Championship anytime soon so it sets the tone for recruits and their parents. I am no saint but for a public organization like Pitt Football it’s a good precedent.

Comment by tedsptman 08.01.14 @ 6:56 pm

A couple of things – as stated above I’m working as we speak on another article that addresses the coaching staff and its approach to the football program. We’ll have a ton to talk about then as I get pretty opinionated when discussing PITT’s HCs.

I spaced out on both Jarrett and Grisby and truth be told I’m very high on each of them, especially Grigsby over Bradley for PT. Hazards of getting older I guess.

Dr. T – yes the Canadian/Italian Gunslinger himself. I’m surprised no one has gotten the hidden reference to him yet. Here’s a clue: Look at #4 and click.

Comment by Reed 08.01.14 @ 7:14 pm

Holding Durham responsible for the lack of sacks on defense is like saying Rowell or Biz are responsible for all the sacks we racked up on the offense. If you are just reading the stat book, all of them except AD look about the same, which points to House and the defensive staff. Not sure how you are defining limited playing time, but Grigsby, Murphy and Price were the long yardage D, so they should have the most production, Durham is least likely to lead those. Murphy is gone now, but he took plays off and we wasted a year watching him give up plays. Soto’s rush was also poor, but he was a year out of high school so cut him some slack. Reed says he had an excellent year, but the stats don’t indicate that. The common thread is Palermo and House. You can play musical chairs with the lineup but it is not going to change with the wrong coach.

Comment by PittMan 08.02.14 @ 6:38 am

Reed, Todd Thomas, did I read “he should have stayed on offense”?

Comment by PittMan 08.02.14 @ 6:39 am

PITTMan – yes, but only in reference to the video I linked on Todd Thomas’ name directly before that.

OK – no one clicks on my links I suppose so here it is again… A Sunseri pass to Todd Thomas for a TD.

link to youtube.com

I love the song that goes with it – “Let the bodies hit the floor” which is an inadvertent reference to Sunseri’s many, many times being sacked.

Comment by Reed 08.02.14 @ 8:13 am

I figured it was a tongue in cheek reference, in paragraph 3, about a player rising up to take the reigns of leadership by their play themselves. This is what happens when an underclassmen gets a few years of experience and sometimes becomes a star. LOL

Comment by Dan 08.02.14 @ 10:13 am

lol Reed

At least in that game, Heinz looks more Pitt centric.

@ Pittman, I think I listed tackles or a lack thereof, as in less than 1 unassisted tackle per game.

Comment by Emel 08.02.14 @ 5:45 pm

[…] and I seem to be taking turns questioning the defense. Those questions seem to be coming into focus, even if the exact plan […]


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