Season preview: defense and special teams

Linebacker and cornerback will be positions of strength for the defense, led by All-America candidate Gerald Hayes.

The Panthers return eight starters on defense this season and should once again have one of the top units in the country. Strengths of the defense should be at linebacker and cornerback. Areas of concern are both safety positions and linebacker depth.

Starting with the linebacking unit, all three starters return in senior Gerald Hayes (6-3, 245 lbs), junior Lewis Moore (6-2, 245 lbs) and senior Brian Beinecke (6-1, 230 lbs). Gerald Hayes is an All-America candidate and the team's best player. Lewis Moore was the defensive MVP of the Tangerine Bowl last year and should have a breakout year this season after splitting time with Amir Purifoy last season. Brian Beinecke is a tough, hard-nosed linebacker who has already made several spectacular hits that Pitt fans are still talking about. If this group stays healthy, they have the potential to be the best linebacking unit at Pitt in the last 15 years!

Linebacker depth, though, is another story. Pitt converted former running back sophomores Mike Jemison (5-11, 225 lbs) and Malcolm Postell (6-1, 220 lbs) this spring and both made a nice transition. Former walk-on senior Scott McCurley (6-1, 235 lbs) will backup Hayes in the middle. The incoming freshman class consists of three linebackers and all three may end up playing this season. They are blue-chip recruit Azzie Beagnyam, 6-1, 230 lbs, Charles Sallet 6-1, 210 lbs and Brian Bennett 6-1, 215 lbs. Others who could push for playing time include redshirt freshman JJ Horne (6-3, 225 lbs) plus walk-ons Malcolm Pinder (6-1, 230 lbs) and Ken Pryke (6-5, 215 lbs).

At cornerback, Pitt returns both starters from last year and they possibly could be the best pair in the Big East. Senior Torrie Cox (5-10, 185 lbs) was the best player on the field at the Tangerine Bowl last year. He struggled badly early last season but really came on strong in the second half of the season. Junior Shawntae Spencer (6-2, 175 lbs) is an excellent cover corner and should have a big year. Backups will be experienced seniors Shawn Robinson (6-1, 190 lbs) and Taron Gray (5-11, 195 lbs). Robinson is a former starter and both backups are 3-year lettermen. True freshman Josh Lay (6-2, 195 lbs) may push for playing time and could possibly be moved to safety. He was a blue-chip recruit coming out of high school.

Both safety positions are a big concern for the Panthers. Both starters from last year have graduated and two potential starters for this season both suffered torn ACL's. Sophomore Tyrone Gilliard (5-11, 190 lbs) looks to be the starter at strong safety. He was a standout on special teams last year as a true freshman. Redshirt freshman Darren McCray (5-9, 195 lbs) should be the backup. At free safety, junior William Ferguson (5-10, 185 lbs) and redshirt freshman Tez Morris (5-10, 185 lbs) will compete for the starting job. Ferguson has played well at cornerback in the past and Morris is known to be a big time hitter.

At defensive end, Pitt returns senior Brian Guzek (6-2, 255 lbs) and former starter senior Ryan Smith (6-4, 255 lbs) at one end. On the other side, junior Claude Harriott (6-4, 255 lbs) will be the starter after getting a lot of playing time last year. Backing him up will be promising redshirt freshman Thomas Smith (6-4, 265 lbs). Guzek is a hard-nosed playmaker and Ryan Smith is the best all around defensive end on the team when healthy. Harriott is a pass rushing specialist, but he has added weight and is now more of an all-around player. Redshirt freshman Kevin Harris is now 6-5, 275 lbs and will push to see time at end also.

Defensive tackle returns one of the biggest surprises from last year's freshman class in sophomore starter Tyre Young (6-1, 275 lbs). Tyre is strong enough to plug the middle and fast enough to make plays that are away from him. Starting opposite of Young will be either junior Darrell McMurray (6-4, 295 lbs) or sophomore Dan Stephens (6-2, 285 lbs). There is a long list of players that will be fighting to make the two deep. They include sophomore Vince Crochunis (6-4, 285 lbs), sophomore Jake Holthaus (6-1, 280 lbs), sophomore Troy Banner (6-3, 295 lbs), and redshirt freshman Charles Spencer (6-5, 320 lbs). Walk-on senior Charles Steffy (6-2, 295 lbs) will also push for time after lettering the last two seasons. McMurray and Banner are both former blue-chip recruits with a lot of talent and Crochunis is one of the best athletes of this group. This group should be much improved after Young, Stephens, Crochunis, Banner and Holthaus were forced into action as freshmen last season because of injury and depth problems.

If this defense manages to stay healthy, it should be the best defense at Pitt since the late 80's.

Special Teams

The special teams unit returns junior punter Andy Lee (6-2, 205 lbs). Andy has done a very nice job the last two seasons and should be even better this year. True freshman David Abdul (5-10, 175 lbs) is expected to win the kicking job. David was a highly regarded blue-chip recruit who made several record-setting kicks in high school. Several players will compete for the kickoff and punt returning duties. They include senior cornerback Torrie Cox (5-10, 185 lbs), sophomore wide receiver Marcus Furman (5-8, 185 lbs), junior cornerback Shawntae Spencer (6-2, 175 lbs), and many others which may include incoming freshman speedster Billy Gaines (5-7, 170 lbs).

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