Matching its offensive counterparts, the Pitt defensive line will be another one of Pitt's strengths this season. Over the last few years, the defensive line has had to overcome injuries and graduations, yet it's been a strength of the program in those recent years.
Last season was no exception as despite the graduation of Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year Mick Williams, and the eventual loss of Greg Romeus for the season—first to a back injury, then later to a torn ACL—Jabaal Sheard ended up being Big East Defensive Player of the Year, while Brandon Lindsey led the team in sacks.
Heading into the 2011 season, Pitt has to replace Sheard and Romeus—two mainstays for a number of years, but returns a solid group filled with experience, talent, potential and leadership. Starting with the potential starters, there are defensive tackles Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein. Caragein had already been a solid member of the rotation, and took the same number of reps as then starters Gus Mustakas and Mick Williams did in 2009. Alecxih, a former walk-on, made the biggest jump of any player last season—going from being Pitt's fourth defensive tackle, to solid starter. Both players not only return a great deal of experience and proven abilities, but leadership as well.
There are very few guarantees on any team, but Alecxih and Caragein are about as solid a starter as Ray Graham, or even Lucas Nix or Chris Jacobson. There will be a position battle for the third defensive line spot, and it could come down to Aaron Donald or Justin Hargrove. Brandon Lindsey could also still be in the mix at defensive end if he doesn't stay at the newly created Panther position. Don't rule that one out either.
In spring, there was a lot of mixing it up at that third defensive line spot. Hargrove had battled injuries for most of his career, but put it all together for a solid junior season. He even started the BBVA Compass Bowl against Kentucky, and came away with his first career sack. Aaron Donald was a pleasant surprise in training camp last season, and worked his way into the rotation last year as a true freshman. However, it was Hargrove that ended spring with the first-teamers. Both are different type of players that the coaching staff couldn't go wrong with. Hargrove has more of the ideal figure for the position, and is just solid. His only weakness would appear to be previous injuries. That looks to be behind him now. Co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson even said in the spring, the reason Hargrove was with the first-team was because he was just flat-out solid.
Donald lacks that ideal frame for the 3-4 defensive end position that Hargrove has, but is more of an explosive player. It might not even matter who wins the position, because both players are expected to weigh in heavily in the rotation.
The defensive line looks to be in good shape for the future as well. Even when Alecxih, Caragein and Hargrove graduate after this season, Donald, defensive end T.J. Clemmings and nose tackle Tyrone Ezell will be the odds on favorite to take over as starters for 2012. Are they ready to be starters right now? That should be their goal for this season. They won't be counted on to start, but any preparation they can get in this season, with a talented senior group still around, will be beneficial in another year when they will be counted on to start.
Clemmings is going to be a freak of nature in whatever system he's in. Though he had the size and strength to play defensive tackle in the 4-3, the previous coaching staff kept him at defensive end because he had the speed to be able to contribute there. The only challenge for him—as it was for several other younger players—was just grasping the system. Clemmings looked like a much more confident player in the spring, and should be able to help out this season. Ezell was one of two defensive players to earn the Conway Award, which went to the most improved player. Ezell even admitted during spring practices that the previous staff lost confidence in him following the Miami game, because of a couple blown assignments. Though he was never able to regain that confidence, he has already developed a trust from his new coaching staff. He plays with a newfound confidence that also shows that.
Maybe not in the class of Caragein or Alecxih at this point, but Clemmings and Ezell showed a lot of promise in the spring. They have the opportunity to develop as top backups this season, and be comfortably ready to take over as starters in 2012. They are in better position to see the field, or even be starter-ready at this point than their counterparts on the offensive line.
Two other prospects who could also be in the mix this season—from a depth standpoint—are Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Jack Lippert. Mosley-Smith had to take a year at Milford Academy, after making it all the way through training camp a year ago. Lippert moves back to the defensive line after a year on offense. Both players will backup the respective spots at defensive end. Mosley-Smith could also fill in at the nose if needed.
There shouldn't be any surprises in this group, in terms of where someone stands or what the depth is going to be. The real question will be how many players will the coaching staff put in the rotation. Mosley-Smith has a unique situation where he's already been through a training camp, and that he's comfortable with the surroundings. Playing as a true freshman, even in this group, isn't out of the question. Lippert has the abilities and seems to be more comfortable on the defensive side. The coaching staff could have the option to run as many as eight, if needed.
PROJECTED 2011 DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART
Justin Hargrove/Aaron Donald
SENIORS – Myles Caragein, Chas Alecxih, Justin Hargrove
SOPHOMORES – Aaron Donald, Tyrone Ezell, T.J. Clemmings, Jack Lippert
FRESHMAN – Khaynin Mosley-Smith