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…