Pitt Spring Preview: The Defense

Despite experience, the defense still comes with questions--mainly health issues, how they'll fare under its fourth defensive coordinator in four years, and how several first-year starters will develop as returning starters.

Things didn't start off so great for the defensive line, but this group was breaking in three new starters. This group returns five players who started in 2012.

The biggest, without question, is Aaron Donald. Donald's production increased as the season went on. Mostly, because of the rest of the unit developing around him.

For Donald to once again have a productive year, it will come down to those players around him. While the other returnees--Khaynin Mosley-Smith, Darryl Render, Bryan Murphy, Tyrone Ezell, Devin Cook--don't return any Donald-type numbers, they're not first-year starters anymore.

Interestingly, if Clemmings was still on the defensive side of the ball, Pitt would be looking at four returning starters on the defensive line. They obviously felt comfortable enough with his move to offense. Not only knowing that he was going to contribute on offense, but make more of an impact than he would on offense. Therefore, whoever is starting at end opposite of Murphy--possibly Render, Ezell, Cook, or possibly even David Durham--the staff must be pretty sure of.

A position with all sorts of question marks; most of them injury related. That was a question of the position last year. This spring, the same questions remain but for different players.

Chryst took a big gamble redshirting Voytik at quarterback, and having Anderson as the backup. Injuries would have changed that quarterback position, but it was at linebacker where Chryst faced the most difficult challenge in preserving the redshirts of Deaysean Rippy, Bam Bradley, Mike Caprara and Devon Porchia.

When Pitt went to Notre Dame, Emanuel Rackard--who just a few weeks prior was put on scholarship--limped off the field. In his place, starter Shane Gordon who had been out with an injury the previous two weeks. Gordon came up to stop Theo Riddick for a loss, highlighting a goal line stand. Gordon was not going to be used, unless it s an extreme emergency. Well, that was an extreme emergency.

Gordon brings a wealth of experience, certainly a good thing. His main question, is can he stay healthy. Todd Thomas--after missing nearly two months, and after missing all of spring last year, and all expect three days of training camp--has proved some playmaking ability. Can he stay healthy, and can he be even more productive. It certainly looked that way, once he made his 2012 debut against Syracuse. He has to stay healthy. Ejuan Price is expected to return after taking a medical redshirt, recovering from a shoulder surgery after spring drills last year. Dan Mason--a week after an inspiring performance at Buffalo--suffered a lacerated liver the following week against Temple. The injury happened after he made a tackle, and he didn't feel the effects until after he came off the field.

Four linebackers, four players who have started games in their careers, four players who can make an impact. The only question, is if they can stay healthy.

In addition, Nicholas Grigsby should be more comfortable after starting and seeing the field as a redshirt freshman. Despite falling out of favor after starting the opener, he has to prove he's learned and developed. Anthony Gonzalez also saw some time at linebacker late last season. He might be considered a wild card. It looks like he has a great opportunity to start at either safety or linebacker. A lot of that might depend on the health of this position.

Best of all, Chryst has four redshirt freshmen that he was able to save, after all the turmoil last season. Now, he has the luxury of using them if need be.

Manasseh Garner transferred in here from Wisconsin, right as training camp ended. Don't be surprised if Garner makes a switch to defense, specifically linebacker.

Aside from the receiver and defensive line positions, corner looks like the most sure thing on the team. K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts return, as does Cullen Christian. Williams started 11 games last year, Pitts with 13, and Christian with two.

While Christian will continue to push both Williams and Pitts for a shot to start, Pitt will be looking for a fourth corner. Jahmahl Pardner appeared to be that player before a knee injury ended his season, just three games in. It's unlikely we'll see him this spring. Look for Ryan Lewis to be next in line. That's assuming that Felder doesn't go back to receiver, and if Lewis hasn't outgrown the corner position.

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