Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are gone, but Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih return. For some teams, it's hard to replace two defensive linemen who have been the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year, but not for Pitt—not even after switching from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 scheme.
This is also a position that technically loses Brandon Lindsey and Bryan Murphy. Both are considered hybrid defensive ends/linebackers, but are listed as outside linebackers on the roster in addition to working under the tutelage of co-defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Keith Patterson.
Pitt's defensive line for 2011 is the strongest of any position on the team. Todd Graham believes that the success for this year's team is based on what happens up front. He repeatedly said that throughout spring practices. He knows he has great senior leadership on the offensive line with Chris Jacobson, Jordan Gibbs and Lucas Nix. The same can be said on the defensive side of the line, where he has Alecxih, Caragein and Justin Hargrove—all redshirt seniors.
Of the two, Alecxih developed the most over the last year because he went from a little-used fourth defensive tackle in the rotation, to full-time starter in a year's time. Not only that, Alecxih and Caragein had to replace long-time starters Gus Mustakas and Mick Williams. The defensive line did not take a hit at all, having to replace those two.
Caragein suffered a knee sprain in the regular-season finale at Cincinnati at 2010, but it wasn't enough of a serious injury to hold him out of the spring. Caragein practiced in all but two of the spring practices, and has also impressed Graham with his leadership. One thing different for Caragein this year is even though he has played nose in a 4-3 scheme, he becomes more of a true nose in this 3-4 scheme which sometimes requires drawing double teams. He is up to that challenge, and proved it this spring.
Alecxih was one of the defense's biggest playmakers throughout spring, often getting sacks. In two of Pitt's four scrimmages leading up to the spring game, Alecxih finished with at least two sacks. In the spring game on April 16, he finished with two sacks and five total tackles. Alecxih had a breakout year in terms of making the jump from contributor to starter, and now has the opportunity to breakout to the level of all-conference performer. He finished fourth on the team with 57 total tackles—productive numbers for a tackle playing inside, and was third on the team with 7.5 sacks behind playmaking defensive ends Sheard and Brandon Lindsey. It's not out of reach to say that both he and Caragein are all-conference type performers, or should at least be expected to contribute in that way this season.
At the defensive end spot, or the five technique as it's often referred to, is where the battle will be. Justin Hargrove began the spring with the first-team at that position, before Aaron Donald moved in to work with the first-team for the next five practices. For the final nine practices, which includes the spring game, Hargrove worked in at that five technique.
The good thing for Graham, as he looks to set his personnel, is that either Hargrove or Donald would make a fine choice as a starter. Hargrove played in seven total games before last season, where his total increased to 10 games and his first career start in the BBVA Compass Bowl, where he picked up his first career sack. Donald played in all 13 games as a reserve last year, working his way ahead of Tyrone Ezell who was a redshirt freshman. Donald earned his spot by being explosive; quick off the ball, being unblockable and just being a flat-out physical player. There's no question Hargrove's persistence through the years is paying off now for him. Graham talks about being explosive, and impacting the quarterback—things Donald is very naturally good at. Hargrove was referred to as "solid" by co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, when asked why he had been moved back with the first-team.
The battle between Donald and Hargrove will be a tightly contested one because there's not a bad choice, and both players bring different strengths to the table. Whoever starts could be a game-by-game basis, but at the very least, both players will be used in the grand scheme of things, literally.
Pitt has four players mentioned there with starter-like abilities. The backups also developed this past spring, and all have excellent chances to get on the field. Leading those backups is redshirt sophomore Tyrone Ezell, who will back up Caragein at the nose position. Ezell was named by the coaching staff as the most improved defensive player of the spring, alongside senior cornerback Buddy Jackson. Ezell lost a little faith from the previous coaching staff when he missed some assignments in the 31-3 loss to Miami in September. With that, he lost some of his confidence too. With a new staff comes new faith, and some newfound confidence from Ezell—one of the players on the entire team that has improved in the confidence area more than anyone else.
Ezell filled in comfortably for Caragein in two spring practices with the first-team, as Caragein needed a breather from his sore knee injury that he suffered towards the end of 2010. Most importantly, he understands his role to learn as much as he can from Caragein for now so he can be plugged in at any time, but to also prepare to replace Caragein when he graduates following the 2011 season.
T.J. Clemmings made his mark, consistently working with the second-team defensive line unit throughout camp. Though Clemmings has to make the transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 end, he of anyone on the roster has one of the easiest transitions because of his body type. At 6-6, 290, because of his speed and athleticism he can be placed at the end position, or can be moved over a spot to tackle because he's still big enough to match up with a bigger offensive lineman, while also gaining a speed advantage. He's one of the most versatile defensive linemen Pitt has.
Another player who will likely see the field as a freshman, even though he was also a freshman last year, is Khaynin Mosley-Smith. Mosley-Smith worked his way in at defensive tackle, and like Donald, has the ability to play both nose and five technique. It looks like he has a quick path to the field backing up either Donald or Hargrove at the five technique.
Jack Lippert also has a chance to work his way onto the field, after moving back to the defensive line from center where he had been for all of 2010, and the first half of spring practice. Lippert was in the rotation, and will battle Mosley-Smith for reps.
Pitt is solid with its starters on the defensive line, but unlike its counterparts on the offensive line, is in much better shape depth-wise. Any development that Ezell, Clemmings, Mosley-Smith and Lippert show in 2011 will not only benefit this position this season, but will still leave the position in good shape when they have to replace Caragein, Alecxih and Hargrove to graduation.