5 To Watch: Panthers Defense

Panther Digest publisher Tony Greco gives Irish fans five key Pittsburgh defenders to watch for Saturday's contest.

S #25 Jason Hendricks: It might be a concern when any member of your secondary is the leading tackler. The biggest red flag would be that not enough plays are being made in the front seven. While that much is true in the case of Pitt, Hendricks has been putting himself in position to make plays all year. Coming off a shoulder injury suffered against Utah last year that ended his season, Hendricks has rebounded to be Pitt's defensive MVP this season. Hendricks is very good at jumping routes and reading the quarterback's eyes. All four of his interceptions have been thrown right to him.

LB #8 Todd Thomas: Another player battling back is linebacker Todd Thomas. Thomas is arguably the most athletic player on Pitt's defense. Despite a recurring tear in his ACL last season, Thomas has the best ability of anyone on Pitt's defense in flying to the ball. He has shown that since returning to the field against Syracuse, and even more so starting the last two games. He will have the biggest impact in how Pitt's run defense will do.

LB #53 Joe Trebitz: Already, Pitt will be on its third starting middle linebacker when Saturday rolls around. Shane Gordon--who started the first six games, has now missed the last two, and his status for Saturday looks questionable at best. Gordon suffered a high ankle sprain against Louisville two weeks ago. Dan Mason recovered from a devistating knee injury that occurred two years ago. He returned to the starting lineup against Buffalo, tying for the team-lead with 11 tackles, then finishing with another 10 against Temple.

Mason suffered a lacerated liver following a tackle on Saturday, and is lost for the season. The responsibility now falls to fifth-year senior Joe Trebitz, who has played mostly on special teams his whole career. Not just that, Pitt needs everything they can get out of their remaining, healthy linebackers. Besides Trebitz and Thomas, they only have Eric Williams, Emanuel Rackard and Nicholas Grigsby available. That is unless they want to start burning some redshirts. They have four freshmen linebackers still on track to take redshirts this year.

DT #97 Aaron Donald: Call him the Ray Graham of the defense. He's the guy who has the most playmaking ability of anyone on defense. He has shown that at times this year, but his production has dropped way off from a year ago. The biggest factor in that is Donald seeing a double-team almost every week is the lack of plays, or pressure being made from elsewhere in the front seven. Therefore, it's a good bet that if you double-team Donald successfully, you're going to beat Pitt.

DE #45 Shayne Hale: Fifth-year senior who made his first start last week. Hale came to Pitt with a lot of expectations, but has hardly seen the field. This season has been the most, and now he's finally pushed his way into the starting lineup. This move looks like he might be there to stay, as he made six tackles against Temple last week. Anything Hale can do to free up Aaron Donald would be a plus. Any plays that he can make on his own for this defense could give Pitt hope on Saturday.

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