Every year, more colleges try to “modernize” their offenses by leaning more heavily on the spread concept and airing the ball out a ton. Though I can promise you this, no matter how trendy spread, up-tempo offenses have become, Pittsburgh football will always rest on two pillars. Regardless if it’s Pitt or the Steelers, Pittsburgh football revolves around a strong ground game and ferocious defense.
The Panthers clearly having the imposing running game part locked down. I’ve already gushed plenty about their tremendous backfield chalked full of star quality, as well as depth. James Conner figures to be the lead back complemented by some combination of Qadree Ollison, Darrin Hall, Rachid Ibrahim, and even true freshman Shawntez Moss possibly in the mix. Ditto for their experienced road grating offensive line, complete with two preseason First Team All-ACC selections on the left side in tackle Adam Bisnowaty and guard Dorian Johnson, two-year returning starter Alex Officer plus talented sophomores Alex Bookser and Bryan O’Neill to round out the group.
If the Pitt is going to take another leap forward building upon an impressive eight-win campaign last season, a stingier defense will need to be a big reason why. I’m optimistic that with the talent returning, and a second year of tutelage under noted defensive guru Pat Narduzzi, they have potential to improve immensely. Narduzzi, by the way, is a man who built his entire coaching career on that side of the ball, very successfully thus far I might add. So don’t underestimate the value of his additional ownership over the unit’s scheme and personnel.
Boasting legitimate star power both at linebacker and safety, Pitt has disruptive players on multiple levels of their defensive unit. Linebacker Ejuan Price, pass rush extraordinaire, racked up 12 sacks and 20 tackles for loss last year, good for eight and seventh in the NCAA, respectively. He should once again be a force on the outside, getting after the passer and breaking plays in the backfield.
Dynamic safety Jordan Whitehead looks primed for superstardom following an award-winning freshman season. Whitehead notched 110 tackles, 75 of which were solo, good for third in the ACC last season. He split ACC Freshman of the Year honors with teammate Qadree Ollison, and managed to snag ACC Defensive Freshman of the Year all by his lonesome. If his game reaches yet another level, his ceiling could be somewhere in the stratosphere. Whitehead’s a playmaker who will find ways to get his hands on the ball. I’d expect a few interceptions if not a handful of turnovers caused by the Panthers stud safety. He’s such an elite athlete that he’ll see action out of the back field, and possibly at receiver for Pitt’s offense too.
I mean he looks scary good.
In addition to the stellar Whitehead, Pitt’s secondary is solid. Corner Avonte Maddox is an established veteran, and true freshman Damar Hamlin’s physicality and ball skills made him a highly-touted recruit. Though Hamlin is a bit dinged up with his status for the opener against Villanova is still in doubt, he seeks to make an immediate impact when deemed healthy enough to go.
With pressure applied by Price, a ball hawk in Jordan Whitehead and solid play from solid linebackers Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara, Pitt’s defense should be a handful for opponents. In fact, it’s pretty reasonable to assume they’ll do more damage in the turnover department than the 10 interceptions and six fumble recoveries they managed last season. Don’t be surprised to watch a few of those takeaways wind up in the end zone for a Pitt score either.
Last but not least, the defensive line. This unit is deep by design. A constant churn and burn of big bodies is what the coaches want. The idea is to rotate their big guys enough to beat up on the offensive line, while still keep them fresh. Throw enough bodies at an offensive line and they’re bound to wear down. Price, senior linemen Shakir Soto and Tyrique Jarrett, along with junior Rori Blair, and sophomore Dewayne Hendrix are the headliners. Junior Allen Edwards, as well as sophomores James Folston and Shane Roy should all see some snaps on game day.
If Pitt is to reach the lofty expectations set for them by outsiders in addition to the team themselves, a snarling defense is a must. With a blend of talented top playmakers, depth and youth, this Panthers unit could turn out to be just that.
Photo credit: Pitt Athletics