Panthers Digest publisher Tony Greco stops by to offer Irish fans five players to watch when Pittsburgh's defense takes the field Saturday night.
It goes without saying that Aaron Donald is a force. This last performance against Georgia Tech sums up what Donald means to the Pitt defense. Yet is also is reflective that no matter how well Donald plays, the Pitt defense is still vulnerable. Pitt allowed 276 rushing yards to Georgia Tech. Still, Donald finished with 11 solo stops, six tackles for losses and two forced fumbles. Opponents have tried double-teaming Donald. It didn't free the way for others along the defensive line. We've seen less double-teams against Donald this year. It's a combination of Donald getting used to the idea, fighting through it, becoming even more productive in the process. Donald could still have another big game this week against Notre Dame
. However, it still might not equate to a Pitt win.
Todd Thomas, behind all of Donald's success, has quietly had the most productive season of his career. He's also one of Pitt's more experienced players--27 games played with 19 career starts to date. After battling a recurring knee injury in his first two years, Thomas has stayed healthy, becoming more of a playmaker each week. He provides good run support and is a solid tackler. He's displayed a lot of natural abilities in his career. The one thing he's done this year is out the mental part of his game in check. In his first two years, he relied on his athleticism, with less focus on keying in on his assignments. This year, he's put it all together. If Notre Dame is able to deter Donald, they will still have to worry about Thomas.
Gonzalez his made a good transition in his Pitt career--from quarterback to receiver to safety and now to linebacker, where he finally has a home. With him as the starting outside linebacker, opposite of Thomas, Pitt not only has two sure tacklers, but also a pair of linebackers who are good in pass coverage. They'll get a much different test from Notre Dame, in the short passing game. After facing two option teams, an Old Dominion team where Pitt used more defensive backs, and teams in Virginia and Virginia Tech that struggled with the pass game, Gonzalez hasn't been tested since the Duke game. He came up with an interception in that game. Either he'll be ready for the challenge, or Notre Dame's pistol attack will be a wakeup call from the last five games.
K'Waun Williams hasn't had the kind of senior year he was expecting, but he did do very well the last time he faced Notre Dame--two interceptions. The secondary hasn't responded much in the way of interceptions this year, but Williams does have two of Pitt's six interceptions for the season.
You won't find Grigsby among Pitt's leading tacklers, but he has been moved around in multiple roles this season. He started the opener at outside linebacker, and started at middle linebacker against Georgia Tech, filling in for the injured Shane Gordon
. Grigsby finished with a season-best six tackles. He's also been used at defensive end in other packages. If Gordon isn't able to go Saturday, we'll see Grigsby make his second start at middle linebacker. Even if he's not starting, we'll see Grigsby in some kind of role. He's been moved around in a lot of positions in his Pitt career. Based off his performance in the last game, he may have found a home at middle linebacker.