Pitt's Spring Defensive Outlook

While there are some questions surrounding the offense when the Pitt football team opens spring practice Tuesday at 2:45 p.m. at the UPMC Sports Complex, the defense is poised for another strong season.

Pittsburgh ranked fifth nationally in total defense, thanks to a No. 3 ranking in pass defense, and All-American middle linebacker Scott McKillop returns to call the signals and anchor the unit. However, the depth on the line in particular, as well as the secondary, is the best ever in Coach Dave Wannstedt's tenure.

McKillop recorded an amazing 151 total tackles, including 98 solo, and led the nation with 12.58 stops per game and was second with 8.17 solo tackles. Monday, McKillop was named a preseason candidate for the 2008 Rotary Lombardi Award. He also should be a candidate for the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker and the Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy, both given to the game's outstanding defensive player.

Redshirt sophomore Dan Loheyde and redshirt junior Steve Dell are back as backups to McKillop, but redshirt freshman Max Gruder and frosh Shayne Hale (fall recruit) are more talented and will push for playing time immediately.

The starting outside linebackers are returning fifth-year senior Adam Gunn and redshirt junior Shane Murray. But the group should be much deeper. Backups on the outside are redshirt sophomore Nate Nix, redshirt freshman Brandon Lindsey, redshirt freshman Tristan Roberts and junior walk-on Brian Kaiser.

The Panthers defensive line has the potential to be the program's best in years now that Wannstedt has the depth to rotate tackles and ends without losing talent. Senior Rashaad Duncan and redshirt junior Mick Williams return as the initial starters, but redshirt junior Gus Mustakas -- who Williams eventually replaced -- should return with no problems from a knee injury last fall.

Mustakas isn't likely to practice much in the spring, but he should be fine for the season. Junior Tommie Duhart, who also made three starts at tackle, should be even better this season. He provides athleticism in the interior. Redshirt junior Craig Bokor and redshirt freshman Myles Caragein are backups, but Caragein has a chance to push for playing time in the top four.

Redshirt sophomore Greg Romeus is expected to secure a starting end spot after an impressive first season with four sacks and 11.5 tackles behind the line. These credentials earned him freshman All-America status. The other end spot is up for grabs, however.

Redshirt junior Doug Fulmer, who missed the better part of the past two seasons with injuries, is the frontrunner as a former starter. Sophomore Jabaal Sheard and redshirt freshmen Justin Hargrove and Tony Tucker are talented and will battle for playing time, as Pitt has to replace starters Joe Clermond and Chris McKillop.

Eight lettermen and two starters return to the secondary with junior cornerback Aaron Berry leading the way after a solid first season as a starter. Redshirt frosh Buddy Jackson and early enrollee Ronald Hobby, a freshman recruit, will battle for backup duty. The other cornerback should be junior Jovani Chappel, who has played extensively at both corner and safety since he arrived. Redshirt sophomore Ricky Gary is his primary backup.

Fifth-year senior Eric Thatcher returns as a starting free safety, while redshirt junior Irvan Brown and redshirt freshmen Sherrod Murdock and Greg Williams battle for backup time. Murdock is a converted cornerback, while Williams was a running back last season. At strong safety, sophomore Dom DeCicco and redshirt sophomore Elijah Fields are expected to compete for the starting job.

DeCicco played well last season, and Fields might be the most talented of them all. However, he was suspended last season for violating team rules and needs to prove he can play at a high level and stay out of trouble after a solid year on the scout team. Fifth-year senior Austin Ransom, a former wideout, will complete for playing time at strong safety.

Fifth-year senior Dave Brytus is back as the starting punter. He'll need to be more consistent this season and kick for more distance. He averaged 38.6 yards per punt last fall, but put 18 of 20 kicks inside the 20. Fifth-year senior Mark Estermyer returns as the primary long-snapper.

Spring practices end with the annual Blue-Gold intra-squad scrimmage April 19 at 6 p.m. at Heinz Field. Pitt opens the regular season against Bowling Green Aug. 30 at Heinz Field. The time has not yet been announced.

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