As long as Pitt has Aaron Donald, its defensive line should be in good shape.
All of Donald's preseason accolades are well-deserved. Even better for Donald, and better for the group as a whole, the fact that this unit isn't breaking in new starters as it was a year ago.
Tyrone Ezell also made 12 starts, his first as a full-time starter. The more comfortable he got in his first year as a starter, the more productive Donald was. Opponents had success double-teaming Donald, keeping him at bay. When Ezell got to be more of a force, opponents had to give him attention, too. Ezell finished with a career-high six tackles and two tackles for loss against UConn in November.
It's unfair to compare Bryan Murphy's 2012 season to that of Greg Romeus in 2009 or Jabaal Sheard in 2010, because he's a different kind of defensive end--almost playing like a third defensive tackle, taking up space and trying to push back on the line. He played in all 13 games, starting 12. The only start he didn't make was against Virginia Tech, a game where he was held back due to a left wrist injury, yet he still started. Murphy finished with 27 tackles and two sacks.
In any event, there are three players, each with 12 starts from a year ago. With a full year under their belt, together, there's no reason for them to take a step back this year.
David Durham will be a first-year starter at defensive end. After transferring in from Ohio State shortly after Chryst and company took over, Durham moved from fullback to defensive end during the season. He initially was slated to play defense at Ohio State, and is happy to be back on defense. His defensive teammates like the fact he's a vocal guy on the field, and in the huddle.
There won't be too much pressure on Durham because he has a good supporting cast. However, we do want to say how good he is--why the coaching staff wanted to move him from offense, and why they were so comfortable moving T.J. Clemmings to the offensive line, after he made eight starts at defensive end.
While this appears to a good set of starters, even just one injury creates a lot of questions. At tackle, Darryl Render looks like the most obvious choice to be a backup. In fact, we'll probably see him the most out of anybody, in the rotation. He made on start a year ago. Khaynin Mosley-Smith is still suspended from the team indefinitely. Render played in 11 games as a true freshman.
Jack Lippert started the first game of the season after a strong showing in training camp. However, he only played in two games. This is his last go-around, as a redshirt senior. He could provide depth at tackle or end.
Behind them, there's junior LaQuentin Smith. Smith can fill in at either tackle or end. Freshmen Tyrique Jarrett and Jeremiah Taleni fill in behind them. Look for both to redshirt, being that Donald is a player they won't keep off the field too much. That, and even with a three-man rotation, that third player--most likely Render--will get very limited reps.
As you can see, not much overall experience behind Donald and Ezell.
The same goes for defensive end. Devin Cook started a handful of games last year, and will be in the rotation again. Past him, however, we're already looking at some true freshmen to come in and contribute. Luckily, Shakir Soto enrolled early and was here for the spring. If not him, there's Luke Maclean and Justin Moody. At least one of those freshmen will see the field this year, based on numbers.
The defensive line should be very good for Pitt this year. Howev, as you can see, it's not a deep group. We can do all the worrying next year when Donald and Ezell graduate. Within the production that this year's group gets, it's imperative that younger players like Render and Cook get quality work this year.
If there is a question mark with this group, it will be Durham, and that's only because he's an unknown. However, we do want to see why it was worth moving him to the defensive side of the ball, and what he will bring to the table.