Pitt may have changed the look of the defensive line, but after one week of spring football, it almost looks like those same players in the defensive line unit are even more versatile than they were a year ago.
In addition to the change in scheme, not once have the words replace been tied in with Greg Romeus or Jabaal Sheard. Even though Romeus was bothered by injuries for his final season at Pitt, both he and Sheard represent the last two Big East Defensive Players of the Year. Brandon Lindsey led the team with 10 sacks last year, and even though he is sitting out due to an injury right now, this unit has played at a high level through the first week of spring drills.
Despite losing players like Romeus and Sheard, and being without the top returner in Lindsey, it's natural to say that Pitt would have even more depth at the defensive line spot going down to just three down linemen. When that fourth lineman is included—the hybrid ‘Panther' position—then Pitt still has that four-man front. They also still have that depth on the defensive line, as they've had for a number of years. Todd Graham's excitement about this group—across the board—starts with the young players.
"Young guys like (Aaron) Donald and KK (Mosley-Smith) are really, really impressive, very athletic, very explosive," Graham said. "I still think (defensive line) is going to be a big strength for us."
Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih started 12 of the 13 games together at defensive tackle from a year ago. Caragein sat out the BBVA Compass Bowl due to a left injury sustained in the regular season finale. In addition to having both players back, a 3-4 scheme allows both players to be more versatile, and allows for more fun by the coaching staff to switch both players around. Caragein is more of a natural at the nose position, but can also line up over a guard or in the gaps. Graham has also been impressed with the leadership he's seen out of Caragein so far.
"Myles Caragein, I can't say enough about him," Graham said. "He is a leader on this football team. "Myles is definitely a nose. Your nose has definitely got to force a double team. You also have to stop the run. You have to do that first."
That idea of stopping the run first has spread over to Alecxih, who has already played the three technique (lined up over the guard) and the five technique (lined up over the tackle). Alecxih will be first to admit he likes lining up in the three position, but likes that challenge of the five technique as well.
"It's like you're right tight on the tackle," Alecxih says of the five technique. "It's harder to pass rush, but you're mainly there for run support. You can pass rush, you can make plays on the run. That's what I like to play."
As for Caragein—who has played in 37 career games in the 4-3 scheme—he says the only real difference in shifting fronts is the terminology, and how former defensive line coach Greg Gattuso worded something versus something that first-year defensive line coach Paul Randolph says something. At the end of the day, Caragein says it all means the same thing.
"Different schemes, different drills," Caragein said when citing the difference between the previous system to now. "They're two different types of coaches. It's learning the terms are a little bit different for us, especially to start. After a couple of weeks, we're starting to catch on. It's definitely a good system for the d-line. It's definitely built for us to make a lot of plays. We're all real excited for it, and we're getting ready."
With that experience and leadership at the tackle spots, there's a bevy of players that have instilled faith from the first-year head coach. The even more exciting thing is that any of the players outside of Caragein and Alecxih could line up anywhere. Donald—who played defensive tackle in the 4-3—will line up as a defensive end in this 3-4 scheme. However, like Alecxih, Donald is simply playing in a five technique over the tackle. Looking at it from this perspective; allowing Caragein, Donald and Alecxih—the three defensive tackles who all played in last year's rotation—makes the 3-4 front look all of a sudden more tackle-friendly.
"He's playing as a tackle," Alecxih said of Donald. "He plays the five tech(nique) very well because he's so explosive. He can get off the ball. He's real explosive. I think we're going to be very good this year."
Graham has said something positive about Donald almost daily. Freshman Khaynin Mosley-Smith has been rotating at that five technique with the second group. He likes the promise he sees with both players, who not only have the chance to contribute significantly this year, but also should be able to comfortably replace Caragein and Alecxih down the road.
"The young guys, KK, you're not going to recruit more talented true freshmen than that one," Graham said. "Donald, I don't know if he's figured out how good he can be. I think he's very, very talented. We're intrigued with Donald on the outside, KK can move on the outside. It's nice when you have young guys that can play on the outside."
There's still more. Another guy that Graham talked about on Tuesday is sophomore T.J. Clemmings. Clemmings is another versatile defensive lineman. Clemmings played in eight games as a true freshman last year and has the size of a tackle but the quickness of an end. He too gains more versatility in this three-man front, being that he can provide a quicker fast step off the edge in the five technique, but is also strong enough to play the three technique as well.
"I'm very impressed with T.J. Clemmings," Graham said. "Clemmings has been a very, very impressive guy. He's big and physical. He's played some three and some five."
Others who have drawn praise from the head coach are Shayne Hale, Tyrone Ezell and Justin Hargrove. Hargrove is another player who is big enough to play the three technique if needed, but being that he's played defensive end in a 4-3 scheme and is used to coming off the edge, can comfortably play the five technique. One benefit of this system is if you have an end that might not be fast enough to be a pass-rushing end in a 4-3 scheme, in most cases they gain a speed advantage when they move over one alignment spot to a five technique to battle with an offensive tackle. The only designation is if they're on the pass-rushing side, or if they're backside contain for the run game. Pitt's group of defensive line—though in a transition—based on this group of personnel, looks even better suited to run a 3-4 scheme.
All this depth, without even talking about the big play spot of the ‘Panther.' Though Lindsey is out for now, Bryan Murphy has played well at that spot with the first group, as has Carl Fleming. While he knows he's got depth and versatility all over the defensive line, Graham said he put more stock into finding that next ‘Panther' as one of the main objectives of this spring.
"We're counting on Lindsey being that ‘Panther,'" Graham said. "Fleming has looked good there, Murphy, you look at those guys; the character, the kind of people they are, they're dependable, they got a great motor, they compete, they're physical, they play with a passion. You have a lot of confidence in them. I'm very, very pleased. We have great depth at the defensive line. At that ‘Panther' position, we have to develop another guy. We feel Lindsey is that guy, but you never have enough depth."