Pitt’s spring practice starts on Wednesday, and all I can say is, “Man, that came up fast”. Seems like just yesterday we were complaining about what went down in El Paso.
And yet here we are, just a few days out from fourteen closed practices and one glorified scrimmage that will tell us very little about how good this team actually is. Nonetheless, all of the information that comes out of spring practice will be both controlled by Pitt’s Coaching Staff and much discussed by the fans – thanks to Pat Narduzzi’s unpopular closed-practice policy.
In the meantime, we can speculate as to what will happen, and who will emerge, and how good the team will be, and speculate we shall.
But first, lets kick it off with a little rah-rah:
Many spring previews have already been published, and so my aim is not to rehash the same old material. Nonetheless, many of the same conclusions will be drawn, because, well, there are only so many takes to go around. Hopefully you at least find this an engaging read and as we step through what by now may be a stale discussion.
Also you will notice that I’ve included the players’ ages. This is because I believe them to be relevant. While talent cannot be taught, things like discipline, mental maturity, football intelligence and physical maturity can be developed over time, and in college football those things can give a team an edge, maybe not against top competition, but certainly against fair-to-middling teams. If this staff is developing players the way that they should be, then a team laden with 21 year old starters will have a better chance of overall success, even if the starters don’t have a ton of game experience.
Note that the age stat is the player’s age at the start of the season.
With that being said, we’ll go ahead and get started with…
The Defensive Line
- Rashad Weaver – DE – rJr
- Keyshon Camp – DT – rJr
- Rashad Wheeler – DT – rJr or Amir Watts – DT – Sr
- Patrick Jones II – DE – r-Jr
- John Morgan or David Green – DE – both rFr
- Jaylen Twyman – DT – rSo
- Rashad Wheeler – DT – rJr or Amir Watts – DT – Sr
- Deslin Alexandre – DE – rSo
Age of Projected Starters (Avg): 21, 21, 21, 20, (21)
Age of Projected Backups (Avg): 19, 21, 20, 21 (20)
Player we can Least Afford to Lose: Rashad Weaver, because he’s already the stud of the group and we are thinnest at DE.
Potential Breakouts: Keyshon Camp, Patrick Jones, Jaylen Twyman
Wildcard: rFr DE’s
Michaelangelo’s Take: Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge has an experienced and talented front four returning in 2019, and they’ve appeared in 72 games combined. Weaver was good last year (rSo year), and if he applies himself in the offseason he could be in line for double digit sacks as well as some potential all-ACC accolades. Patrick Jones was productive as the top DE off the bench last season, and he plays with a nasty streak. Suffice to say this is the best I’ve felt about Pitt’s starting DE’s in a long time, assuming they can stay healthy, and fresh. And fresh is the key. Pitt likes to rotate linemen, and they are going to need a redshirt freshman DE to step up to give Weaver and Jones a blow now and again.
The defensive tackles aren’t as dynamic, but they are stout, and Pitt has a solid 4-deep. Twyman is the youngster of the group but he just might be the most disruptive. He’s got a cat-quick first step and he seemed to consistently get good penetration in 2018. Twyman also played well against good competition. He had a season-high four tackles with a three-yard sack assist against Clemson in the ACC Championship. It will also be nice to have Keyshon Camp healthy for a full season. His projected 2018 full season stats (if he’d played 12 games) were 25 tackles, 5 TFL and 4 Sacks, which is not at all bad for a sophomore DT. If he cap step that production up a notch in 2019 our D-line should finally be a team strength.
- Saleem Brightwell – Money – rSr
- Chase Pine – MLB – rJr or Elias Reynolds -MLB – rJr
- Cam Bright – Star – rSo or Phil Campbell – Star – rJr
- Albert Tucker – Money – rSo
- Chase Pine – MLB – rJr or Elias Reynolds – MLB – rJr
- Phil Campbell – Star – rJr or Cam Bright – Star – rSo
Age of Projected Starters (Avg): 22, 21, 20 (21)
Age of Projected Backups (Avg): 20, 21, 21 (21)
Player we can Least Afford to Lose: Brightwell, if only because he’s a senior.
Potential Breakouts: Chase Pine, Saleem Brightwell
Wildcard: Phil Campbell, Kyle Nunn
Michaelangelo’s Take: I don’t think Pitt has had a difference maker at linebacker since Scott McKillop graduated in 2008, and I’m not sure there will be a difference maker this year. If someone is going to break out, I’d hang my hat on Chase Pine, who seems to have all the physical tools and looked pretty good at times during the Sun Bowl. Pine has never had more than two tackles per game in 2018 though, and the coaching staff’s decision to move him to DE last year and then back to MLB has me scratching my head. Did they do that to sharpen Pine’s pass rushing skills, or did they do that because he’s dumb as a rock? I am hoping it’s the former. Assuming Elias Reynolds is out of Narduzzi’s doghouse (he was benched for the Sun Bowl for unspecified reasons), I’d expect he’d be a solid-if-unspectacular option in the middle (if Pine doesn’t win the job.) Reynolds, while a solid tackler and smart player, doesn’t seem twitchy enough to be a difference maker and his slow footspeed makes him a liability in pass coverage. Maybe he’s worked on this in the offseason and will surprise us.
The Money Linebacker spot should be in good hands redshirt Senior Saleem Brightwell manning the position. Brightwell is another player who has posted decent numbers during his career but just hasn’t seemed to break out. He does seem to play well against Clemson though, with four tackles in the ACC championship and that unforgettable 70 yard interception in the 2016 upset down at Death Valley.
The Star linebacker is a different story. Incumbent backup and presumed starter (and former Ed Conway Award winner) Anthony McKee announced this week that he was hanging up the spikes. He had graduated and he had never really done a lot on the field, and the coaches probably told him that they were moving safety Phil Campbell into the linebacker room to provide additional competition, so you can understand why McKee decided to move on. That leaves rSo Cam Bright to battle with the aforementioned Campbell. I don’t love that, because Bright is a little bit young and Campbell is learning a new position. Chances are both of them will see the field until one of them begins to separate, and because of that, the Star Linebacker could end up being the weak link in the defense, especially early in the season.
I also included Kyle Nunn in here as a wildcard, mostly because of this interview, and the quality nickname that came out of it, “The Sewer Rat”.
The bottom line is that no matter what they call these guys, if somebody doesn’t step up this unit probably isn’t going to be any better than average in 2019.
The Defensive Backs
- Dane Jackson – CB – rSr
- Paris Ford – FS – rSo or Jazzee Stocker – FS – rSr
- Damar Hamlin – SS – Sr
- Jason Pinnock – CB – Jr
- Marquis Williams – CB – rFr
- Therran Coleman – Fs – rJr
- Bricen Garner – SS – rJr
- Damarri Mathis – CB – Jr
Age of Projected Starters (Avg): 22, 21, 21, 20 (21)
Age of Projected Backups (Avg): 20, 21, 22, 20 (20)
Player we can Least Afford to Lose: Our depth is so good here that it kind of doesn’t matter, but I’ll say Dane Jackson, because there is slightly less depth at corner than at safety.
Potential Breakouts: Paris Ford, Jazzee Stocker, Jason Pinnock
Wildcard: Marquis Williams
Michaelangelo’s Take: If Linebacker is Pitt’s version of the no-name defense, then Defensive Back is Pitt’s version of the Dream Team because there is both depth and talent throughout the defensive backfield. Dane Jackson and Damar Hamlin each received All-ACC Honorable mention in 2018, and both are back for their senior year. If they stay healthy, we should expect big things out of this duo. There is speculation that Hamlin will slide over to Free Safety to allow Paris Ford to step in at Strong Safety (which I’m assuming is the less mentally taxing of the two safety positions). Ford’s status with the team was touch-and-go for a minute during the Sun Bowl, but he appears to have gotten past whatever it was that kept him in Pittsburgh for the bowl game, and judging by his Twitter feed, Ford has rededicated himself to earning as starting job. If he can manage to harness his own talent he could be in for a year similar to Hamlin’s 2018. (76 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PBU).
Ford will probably be competing against Jazzee Stocker who seems like he’s been around forever. Stocker will be a redshirt Senior and also the elder statesman of the group at 23 years old on opening day. At the very least Stocker will provide quality depth for Ford if Ford manages to win the job.
The other corner spot (opposite Dane Jackson) will likely be manned by Jason Pinnock, who split time with Damarri Mathis last year. Pinnock’s numbers appear to be slightly more dynamic than Mathis’, and Pinnock also had 3 PBU’s in the fourth quarter of the ACC championship vs Clemson, so I believe he may have the inside track to a starting role. It’s likely there will be some form of platoon again in 2019, because Narduzzi and Co do like to get their talented backups on the field to build depth at a position.
The only real question mark in my opinion is what happens if the two starting corners go down with injuries? Mathis will be able to step in without much of a dropoff, but the fourth corner is a bit of a crapshoot. We do have the talented and pedigreed Marquis Williams who appeared in four games last year, so I will assume he’s the likely choice. Williams’ uncle, Tyrone Carter won the Jim Thorpe Award in 1999 and played 11 seasons in the NFL. You may remember him from the Steelers from 2004-2009. The bad news is that Williams is both young – just a redshirt Freshman – and short – he’s just 5’8″ tall. With that being said, both Pinnock and Mathis performed well as Frosh, and neither of them have the bloodlines of Williams.
Positional depth nonwithstanding, I’m hoping we can keep the foursome of Jackson, Hamlin, Ford/Stocker, and Pinnock intact this year, because if they play up to their potential our defensive backfield could be pretty darn good.
So a couple of takeaways. First of all we have age on our side. While we don’t have a lot of seniors, we do have a lot of 21 year olds. If they’ve been applying themselves in the offseason, this is a very good thing. Second, this piece pretty much sums up what a lot of you have been saying already. The consensus is that Pitt’s D Line should be good, our Linebackers will probably okay just okay, and our Defensive Backs should be pretty good as well. Of course, you never really know at this stage, and that’s why spring ball is important. It’s a chance for players to learn and develop. We won’t truly know until opening day who’s developed to the point of making an impact, but there is always someone who surprises. I can’t wait to see who it is.
Hail to Pitt