There's no question that Pitt's defensive line will be one of its strengths this season. Despite a new scheme—a three-man front—the unit is still deep and has the potential to produce just as it has in recent seasons. Myles Caragein returns, as does Chas Alecxih.
The unit, however, might not be hingent on the play of those two as it is hingent on its depth. That's where the position flexes its muscle, with senior Justin Hargrove also on the line, sophomore Aaron Donald and freshman Khaynin Mosley-Smith.
Any given day, either Donald or Mosley-Smith earn some type of praise from Pitt head coach Todd Graham.
"KK has come a million miles," Graham said, profiling the freshman's conditioning efforts. "He's about halfway into shape. He's down around 300 (pounds) right now. He's lost about 30 or 40 pounds. He's explosive. I like his spirit. He's young. He's progressing well. I like his skill. I like his attitude. He can be as good as he wants to be."
Donald played in all 13 games a year ago, and was one of the most pleasant surprises coming out of training camp last year. He switched back-and-forth with the first and second-team in the spring. When this training camp started, it was Hargrove back with the first team. Donald returned with the first-team following Sunday's scrimmage. It's unknown yet, with 16 days before the season-opener. He's humbly focused on just improving from his freshman year.
"I'm just using strength, the moves we're learning, try to get to the backfield and make plays," Donald added. "This year, we're doing a lot more moves. Certain plays, we do more reading. It's different, but learning at the same time.
"It's just learning and getting used to it. I'm getting used to it, and a lot of the moving around we're doing, it gives us more of an advantage because we get to pick two gaps instead of one. We get off the ball and get into the backfield."
Him and Mosley-Smith have been referred to as explosive players by Graham and co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson in this camp. Both players showed that immediately last August in training camp—the biggest difference as to why it was Donald, who surpassed then redshirt freshman Tyrone Ezell on the depth chart to become the team's third defensive tackle. Already with that explosiveness, Donald blossomed in the new conditioning program—designed to help build with explosiveness for some, but it only added to one of Donald's best assets.
"It was something new to me with all the power cleaning, but I liked it, it worked," Donald said. "It got you stronger. The conditioning was amazing. I feel good this year. I came in, in shape, stronger. It helped a lot, a whole lot to me. I think the conditioning. The conditioning was hard; a lot of running, a whole lot of running, but it paid off. It's going to pay off in the long run."
While Donald had the opportunity to play as a true freshman, Mosley-Smith learned that one of his classes—an online class from high school—did not go through the NCAA Clearinghouse on the eve of camp breaking last year, leaving him ineligible. He enrolled at Milford Academy in upstate New York, then was back and enrolled in Pitt in December. Though he's been through the routine, he had to start over as a freshman. Therefore, there was arguably no one more hungry to go through Pitt's offseason conditioning—a major case in why Mosley-Smith has greatly transformed the shape of his body, adding even more of a punch to his explosiveness.
"Just working in the weight room, getting strong," Mosley-Smith said. "You have to be two-dimensional nowadays; you have to be able to rush the pocket and you have to be able to stop the run. That's what they teach us; to be able to stop the run. That's what we're going to do, but if it's third and long, we're going to get in there and stop the pass too.
"Coach Gris, he just pushes us through. Every day, he gets us bigger, stronger, faster. He does a great job with that program down there. He puts you where you need to be. If you're a defensive lineman, he teaches you how to lift the weights, and be explosive with the weights. Every time you're benching, are you pushing it off your chest as fast as you can? It turns out, and it can be explosive on the field too."
While Donald is just a step ahead in terms of seeing the field, Mosley-Smith may be the more versatile of the two. Following Sunday's scrimmage, Mosley-Smith was mixed in at nose tackle, in addition to his responsibilities at the defensive end spot. Donald may be closer to starting, but Mosley-Smith has increased the number of reps he will be able to take by playing both positions.
"The new system is great, you're going to make plays regardless," Mosley-Smith said. "It's dependent on the player, even if you're changing it from a four-front to a three-front. The three front is just like the four front, you'll just be able to take on more than one blocker. You have to be able to shed blocks, and you have to be able to move and be explosive. That's the biggest thing we're doing right now. We're getting off the ball before the other guy can come down to help with the double-team. By the time we're off the ball, it's just one-on-one for us. He can't really chip us. That's a really big thing, coming with explosive, being explosive.
"It's just basically, talent, hard work, being dedicated and just being blessed to be here. Every day you wake up, it's not about who's spot I'm going to take or what I'm going to do. It's about where I'm going to fit in, and where coach wants me to fit in at. I'm just blessed to be here, and that's all that is."