Pitt Preview: Defensive Line

Replacing two three-year starters will be a difficult task. Vince Crochunis and Dan Stephens, both All-Big East performers as seniors, were the heart and soul of the Panther defensive line. The task at hand will not only be to replace these experienced, solid players, but to also develop a solid line rotation, which head coach Dave Wannstedt has stated is a priority during fall camp.

Defensive line coaches, Bob Junko and Charlie Partridge will have their work cut out for them. The defensive line is inexperienced and lacks starpower.

There wasn't nearly enough of a pass rush last year. Wannstedt is attempting to upgrade this particular area with speed and better conditioning. The players have bought into coach Mike Kents strength and conditioning program and the results are starting to show. From the start of spring drills to the close of fall camp Panther linemen have made marked improvements. They are a leaner, much stronger group with a much improved range of motion.

Former fullback Chris McKillop has been switched to defensive end and will see plenty of action. Vernon Botts was also moved from tight end to defensive end and will also be in the rotation. Thomas Smith has moved to the inside to take advantage of his quickness. New faces will also see plenty of action. Freshman defensive tackles Corey Davis, Craig Bokor, Rashaad Duncan and perhaps Ernest Williams will also be part of the defensive tackle rotation.


PROJECTED STARTERS

Charles Sallet: (*Jr.) 6-0 / 245
Though he's not the prototypically sized defensive end, Charles Sallet is quick off the ball and extremely tenacious. Sallet is a good pass rusher who, in time, will improve against the run.

Sallet was originally a linebacker who was moved to defensive end prior to the start of the 2004 season. Charles moved into a starting role last season after Azzie Beagnyam broke his ankle during the Panthers' second game. He made his first career start versus Furman the following week. During the 2004 season Charles had 26 tackles, three sacks and 4.5 tackles for losses.

Sallet had off-season shoulder surgery to repair a nagging injury and missed all of the spring camp. He's now 100% healthy and ready to become a force at defensive end.


DE Thomas Smith
Thomas Smith: (*Sr.) 6-4 / 285
With head coach Dave Wannstedt wanting a quicker and more athletic defensive front, Thomas Smith was moved from end to tackle. Size obviously won't be a problem for Smith nor will his ability to make plays. Smith, a tenacious play maker and solid pass rusher, brings excellent athleticism to the position. He gets off the ball quickly and seems like a perfect fit at tackle in Pitt's new defensive scheme. Thomas Smith is an intense competitor and will be the emotional leader of this unit. In 2004 Smith played in all 12 games, starting 11 at defensive end. For the season he had 47 tackles, three sacks and 5.5 tackles for losses.

Phil Tillman: (Sr.) 6-1, 315
Phil Tillman has a low center of gravity coupled with a powerful physical frame. He's very good against the run. Tillman's got an excellent motor, gets good push in the pocket, and is very capable of disrupting an offensive line. His dedication to off-season conditioning has resulted in a 25-pound weight loss and added stamina. Tillman has progressed steadily through spring and fall camps. Phil Tillman, the primary reserve at defensive tackle in 2004, will be an important member of the defensive line rotation. In 2004 Tillman played in all 12 games compiling three tackles and one sack.

Joe Clermond: (*So.) 6-2 / 245
Joe Clermond is another converted linebacker, making the move to defensive end prior to the 2004 season. Clermond's strengths are his athleticism and overall quickness. Joe has a good first step and can get to the quarterback. He's very good in pursuit but will need to improve his overall game against the run. In 2004 Clermond appeared in all 12 games with one start to his credit. He recorded 27 tackles and two tackles for losses. Joe Clermond has the ability to be a future All Big East selection. He needs to remain focused and play within his limits.


IN THE ROTATION

Chris McKillop: (*So.) 6-3 / 245
After playing both linebacker and fullback during his red shirt freshman year, Chris McKillop could very well be a rising star at defensive end. McKillop moved to defensive end prior to 2005 spring drills. He was one of the most talked about players of the spring, impressing Panther defensive coaches with his play making ability and aptitude for the position. McKillop has a nonstop motor. He plays the game as though every play will be his last. He's a good pass rusher and excellent in pursuit.

Chris played a total of 11 games in 2004 at linebacker and fullback. His contributions primarily came on special teams. He totaled seven tackles and had one carry for minus two yards.

Craig Bokor: (Fr.) 6-3 / 285
Craig Bokor has got two things a coach can't teach. He's got good size and a true passion to become a great football player. Bokor, who's had the advantage of participating in both spring and fall practices, needs to stop pressing. He has tremendous strength and tries to use it on every play. He simply needs to pay attention to his coaches and work on his technique. After spending one season at Valley Forge Military Academy, Bokor enrolled at Pitt in January and will have true freshman eligibility for the 2005 season. Prior to Valley Forge Craig Bokor was a highly accomplished player at Hopewell High School.

Corey Davis: (*Fr.) 6-1 / 290
Corey Davis came to Pitt as a heralded 260 pound linebacker from Peabody High School. From the end of his senior season to his enrollment at Pitt in 2004, Davis ballooned up to 330 pounds and was subsequently red-shirted.

Davis used that red-shirt season to get into football shape. He started working with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kent. Coach Kent changed his diet, increased his strength training and overall conditioning habits. After a full year in Kent's program it's safe to say that Corey Davis is a testament of how hard work and dedication to conditioning can pay large dividends for oneself.

Corey Davis goes into the opener against Notre Dame at a fit 285 pounds. He's very athletic with good feet. He moves well for a big man and has a nose for the ball. He's been listed in the defensive tackle rotation since the start of fall camp. He had a great camp. Now, it's only a matter of time until the talented Davis cracks the starting lineup.

Vernon Botts: (Jr.) 6-4 / 260
Vernon Botts was another in a long line of position changes for the Panthers in 2004. He caught the eye of the defensive staff with a solid off-season and good showings during the spring and fall camps.

Botts came to Pitt as a defensive lineman, played there for two seasons, was switched to tight end before the 2004 season for depth purposes, and has since been moved back to defensive end.

Botts appeared in all 12 games last season on special teams.

Vernon Botts is a rangy, hard-nosed player. He's a solid defender who'll add depth to the rotation.

Michael Hearn: (*So) 6-5 / 265
When former head coach Walt Harris recruited Hearn to Pitt in 2003, he did so knowing Michael was a feast or famine prospect. Hearn has only been playing organized football since his junior year of high school. His athletic ability alone produced a very productive senior season. He helped lead Glenville to the City Championship and was selected to the All-City and Northeast Lakes All-District teams.

After a red-shirt season in 2003, Hearn was switched from a defensive end to a defensive tackle prior to the 2004 season, seeing action in only two games. This season Michael Hearn returns to the defensive end position.

Michael Hearn has the size and athleticism. He dedicates himself to film study, is a regular in the weight room and has a burning desire to become a productive football player. So what's standing in his way? Experience.

Nick Williams: (*Fr.) 6-2 / 275
Nick Williams enters his first active collegiate campaign after taking a red-shirt in 2004. Williams made a name for himself as a standout member of the 2004 scout team. He worked at defensive end as a true freshman but moved inside prior to spring drills.

Williams, a former linebacker at Plantation High School, will bring more quickness and athleticism to the interior line. With added game experience Nick Williams should develop into a solid contributer to the Panther front for years to come.

Ron Idoko: (*Sr.) 6-2 / 265
Ron Idoko is a player to watch in 2005. Another player that immersed himself in the strength and conditioning program, Idoko has improved his strength, exhibits good quickness off the ball and plays with good leverage. He's a cerebral player and is said to be a tireless worker. Ron Idoko came to the university of Pittsburgh on an academic scholarship in 2002. During that season he walked onto the football team and was red-shirted. Idoko didn't see any action in 2003 but played in 11 games last season making 10 tackles. He also had an assist on a sack, a fumble recovery and 1.5 tackles for loss. All of the hard work is finally paying dividends. At the conclusion of fall camp, head coach Dave Wannstedt rewarded Idoko, one of Pitt's more pleasant surprises of the off-season, with a full athletic scholarship. Now, Ron Idoko would like to return the favor by moving himself up the Panthers depth chart.


THE FUTURE

Derrelle Jones: 6-1 / 300
Look for Derrelle Jones to be red-shirted in 2005.

High School: Considered one of the top prospects in the state of Maryland, Jones was a three-year starter for Westlake High School compiling 63 tackles. Seventeen of those tackles were for losses. He had 6.5 sacks, four fumble recoveries, three caused fumbles and five pass breakups as a senior. Jones was a two-time first-team All-Southern Maryland Athletic Conference selection by both league coaches and the Washington Post and was selected to play in the Super 44 all-star game.

Gus Mustakas: 6-3 / 250
Gus Mustakas was a late addition to the 2004 recruiting class. Head coach Dave Wannstedt has singled out Mustakas on several occasions during fall camp for good, heady play. Expect to see this freshman in the rotation and getting ample playing time.

High School: Mustakas became only the second player in Broward history to earn two-way, all-county honors. He was a starter at both defensive tackle and tight end for Chaminade-Madonna where he also served as the holder on placekicks. Defensively Mustakas had 64 tackles and five sacks. On the offensive side of the ball he compiled 30 pancake blocks and 10 receptions for 249 yards with three touchdowns. Gus was a first team All-Florida Class 2A selection as a defensive lineman. He also was chosen to participate in the Broward-Dade County all-star Game.

Rashaad Duncan: 6-1 / 280
Rashaad Duncan is another freshman defensive tackle whom head coach Dave Wannstedt has high hopes. Duncan has made solid progress through camp and will see plenty of action in 2005. High School: Rashaad Duncan starred on the defensive line at Glades Central High School. During his senior season he had 62 tackles, 16 tackles for losses and registered nine quarterback sacks. Duncan's honors include, All-Palm Beach County, All-Western Conference, All-Florida Class 3A second-team, All-Dixie Team and he was selected to play in the Outback Steakhouse all-star Game.

Ernest Williams: 6-1 / 260
Sometimes young guys are so talented that they can simply coast through their highschool careers. As soon as Williams realizes that on the college level there's no such thing, the sky will be the limit. He needs to remain focused and realize that his potential will not be reached without dedication and hard work. High School: Ernest Williams earned acclaim on both sides of the ball during his four-year varsity career at Monessen. After his senior season he was named to The Associated Press Pennsylvania Class A All-State Team (first team) as a linebacker, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review All-Class A, Valley Independent's Player of the Year, and was selected to play in the prestigious Big 33 Football Classic.


OVERVIEW

Dave Wannstedt is convinced that speed and athleticism are the keys to assembling a great defense. A faster, more athletic defensive front has its upside. It also has its downside. By becoming faster the Panthers have also gotten smaller.

The pass rush will be improved. By rotating a bevy of quick, athletic linemen, the Panthers should be able to maintain pressure on the opposing quarterback throughout an entire game. The run defense is an area of concern. Will the smaller defensive ends be able to hold their own against a solid, run oriented offensive line? If they continually get knocked off the ball, opponents will continue to pound the ball against the Panthers.

The experimentation is over. The line rotation is set. Old faces are in new places. Freshmen will play prominent roles.

It's a tall order but if the defensive linemen can do their jobs and keep the offensive linemen off the linebackers, this defense will be a force in the Big East.


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