While the offensive line had to replace three senior starters, the defensive line only had to replace two senior starters. Then, it was determined that Greg Romeus would miss an undetermined amount of time due to back surgery.
Through everything--from having to replace the production and the leadership of Gus Mustakas and Mick Williams, then having to replace Romeus--who teamed with Williams to share Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors--this is a unit that had every reason to throw in the towel, but hasn't.
The biggest reason for that has been the play of Jabaal Sheard. Through six games, Sheard not only leads all defensive linemen with 26 total tackles, but leads the team in tackles for loss (8) and is tied for the team-lead with five sacks. Sheard's career-high in sacks was set two years ago, with 5.5. At the rate he's going now, he'll easily beat that mark. Brandon Lindsey has filled in nicely for Greg Romeus. Lindsey is quietly tied with Sheard for the team-lead with five sacks.
At defensive tackle, Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih have served well at the interior spots. Though neither has shown the big-play ability Mick Williams had, just yet, both are a big factor on why Pitt's run defense is only allowing 92 yards a game right now.
STRENGTHS: Depth. Losing an all-star caliber player like Romeus would have ended the hopes of a season for a lot of teams, but not this one. Dave Wannstedt has plugged in as many as eight or nine defensive linemen in the regular rotation--such as the Miami game. Then, there's games like this past weekend at Syracuse, where he used a regular rotation of six, while using another three in reserve roles. Though the defensive tackle position doesn't have that unblockable player like Mick Williams was last year, Caragein, Alecxih and true freshman Aaron Donald have done enough.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: By the same token that the defensive tackles are playing well enough to win, they're missing that flare that Mick Williams had. Giving them the benefit of a doubt, Mick Williams was making those plays as a senior, while Alecxih and Caragein are improving each game. Donald made a few big plays at Syracuse--his pass rush against quarterback Ryan Nassib, which forced the interception to Ricky Gary as one example.
PROGNOSIS: There isn't any worse drama this unit needs to take. They had Sheard suspended in the offseason and Romeus is out rehabbing from his back surgery. Throw in the losses of the senior defensive tackles, the unit has had to bring in essentially a whole new line, over time, in the absence of those respective players. The starting four of Sheard, Lindsey, Alecxih and Caragein have provided a solid foundation and good leadership through everything. As a result, players like Justin Hargrove and freshmen Aaron Donald and T.J. Clemmings have been able to get acclimated to playing roles. Others such as Ty Tkach have worked their way in, as has redshirt freshman Tyrone Ezell.
Basically, if this unit can survive the loss of it's Conference Player of the Year for half a season, and still be dominant, there's nothing that can limit this group. Keep in mind that the unit loses only Sheard and Romeus after this year. Anything the new players (mainly Hargrove and Clemmings) can do while Romeus is out help the team for now, but also will help Pitt down the road--for their sake of getting on the field, and for the defensive line's stability.
LINEBACKERS The linebacker unit took a big hit with the loss of Dan Mason for the season following a knee injury in the Miami game. Even though the unit wasn't as deep as the defensive line, it has held up in the three games since then.
Max Gruder has moved to middle linebacker, while a host of other players have mixed in with the outside spots. Dom DeCicco started both the Florida International and Notre Dame games as the extra nickle back, but playing close to the line of scrimmage like a WILL linebacker. Greg Williams has played both outside spots, while Tristan Roberts made his first start at Syracuse. Shane Gordon even started this last game. Wannstedt said in addition to being that fourth linebacker, said this week that the redshirt freshman from Florida is capable of playing all three linebacker spots.
STRENGTHS: Moving Max Gruder to the middle, bringing Dom DeCicco down as the WILL. Gruder is more of a natural middle linebacker, and possesses the leadership and the knowledge of the defense, well enough to make all the calls. DeCicco--because he's played safety throughout much of his career--made a very smooth transition to his new role, which was aimed at playing against some of these pass-oriented spread teams.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: Depth, pass coverage. However, Williams did have his best game in a long time against Syracuse. Still, for a player that has been a starter since his freshman year, his regression is one of the most puzzling things on the team. Twice on Saturday, he came up in coverage on third down, forcing Syracuse to punt. Hopefully, that's a sign that Williams is back. Tristan Roberts did start in Williams' place on Saturday, and showed he is ready to contribute more. Now that he's proven he can play, he has to do it consistently and against better competition. From a linebacker standpoint, pass coverage hinges on what Roberts and Williams can do.
The depth at this position might be the scariest of any position on the team right now. After Gordon is fellow freshman Carl Fleming. Manny Williams is out with an injury, while Kevin Adams is suspended for academic reasons. That means, that after Fleming, the next linebacker is true freshman Eric Williams and walk-on Emmanuel Rackard. This unit definitely can't afford any more injuries or suspensions.
PROGNOSIS: If there's one position that benefited from the non-conference schedule, outside of the offensive line, it would be the linebackers. Pitt had five games to test these guys out and try guys in different roles. When they started conference play this past week, Wannstedt shuffled the linebackers around--almost rolling out a different personnel group with each series. They responded. The linebackers--as a unit--had their best game against Syracuse, mainly because the two guys they needed to step up in this unit--Williams and Roberts--stepped up. Gruder has looked much more comfortable in his middle linebacker role, and has been productive, leading the team with 44 tackles this season. DeCicco has played well with the group, and gives another look the defense can present.
The corners still have to prove themselves this season, and still look like a work in progress. It's one thing for corners to be able to run with receivers, and not get beat. Pitt's corners can do that much, but don't seem to possess any strengths outside of that. Pitt's starting corners have done enough to get by to this point, but haven't really made plays. Ricky Gary's interception at Syracuse last week as the first by a cornerback this season. Antwuan Reed led the team at Syracuse with seven tackles, which isn't a good thing considering the Orange threw for 231 yards. Outside of Reed's forced fumble and blocked kick at Utah, we haven't seen any big plays from him since then. Buddy Jackson and K'Waun Williams have made bigger strides than the starters so far, and are valuable members in a lot of the defensive packages.
The safeties have been much improved from a year ago. Wannstedt wouldn't have moved Dom DeCicco down to linebacker if he didn't have faith in Jarred Holley being back there, while moving up Jason Hendricks to start. This unit also has Andrew Taglianetti and Kolby Gray--a player who is becoming more involved on special teams each week.
STRENGTHS: The safeties, and the players that come in in the various defensive packages.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT: The corners. It might be more of the scheme, but defenses that have shown to apply pressure to the quarterback usually have corners who either have higher interception totals, with less passing yardage allowed. Not for Pitt, as Gary and Reed have combined for one total interception.
PROGNOSIS: Wannstedt and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett have a lot of options at safety, as far as some of the things they can do in the nickle and dime packages, and well as its bandit packages. They don't have as many options at corner. Buddy Jackson is starting to make more plays, while K'Waun Williams makes a play almost every time he's in on one of the packages. Neither will make a push for a starting job unless either Reed or Gary play worse, or single-handedly lose a game for Pitt. Despite not having a lot of playmaking range, the corners have not lost a game for Pitt yet, and that is one thing they have going for them.