Here's a look at each position on defense for the University of Pittsburgh and how the depth chart shakes out with less than one month remaining before the Panthers play host to Bowling Green Aug. 30 at noon at Heinz Field.
Redshirt junior Doug Fulmer and sophomore Jabaal Sheard will be battling for the starting spot at left end from the outset in camp. Fulmer hasn't played in much in the past two seasons due to injuries. Redshirt freshman Justin Hargrove adds depth to the position.
At right end, redshirt sophomore Greg Romeus came on strong last fall and appears ready to take his game to another level this season. Redshirt freshman Tony Tucker and redshirt sophomore Tyler Tkach are inexperienced backups.
Defensive tackle is Pitt's deepest position on defense with redshirt juniors Mick Williams and Gus Mustakas battling for the starting spot. Mustakas opened the first two games last fall, but suffered a season-ending knee injury against Grambling. Williams steadily improved into an impact player from there, so both will get extensive playing time.
Redshirt freshmen Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih are inexperienced, but should be solid backups.
At nose tackle, senior Rashaad Duncan also stepped up his game when Mustakas went down and earned the starting spot ahead of junior Tommie Duhart. Now in his second season after transferring, Duhart provides more than just a big body inside. Redshirt junior Craig Bokor is a reserve.
"Our players have a chance to be a really good unit,'' defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said. "The goal is to be the best defensive line in the Big East. Almost every player has started at least one game for us, (and) most of the kids have significant playing experience under their belts. It's going to be important for our overall defense that the line plays well.''
Pitt's linebacking corps was inexperienced and under-appreciated at this time last year, but thanks to spectacular play from fifth-year senior middle linebacker Scott McKillop and steady performances by outside backers Adam Gunn and Shane Murray, a fifth-year senior and redshirt junior, respectively, the Panthers are solid in the middle on defense with every starter returning.
Redshirt freshman Max Gruder likely will earn playing time behind McKillop, while freshman Shayne Hale also could be in the mix in the middle. Redshirt junior Steve Dell must stay healthy to earn playing time.
Gunn's backups at strong-side linebacker are a pair of talented redshirt freshmen. Transplanted running back Greg Williams and Brandon Lindsey are fast, strong and talented. The pair should be future stars for the Panthers.
At weak-side linebacker, redshirt freshman Tristan Roberts, redshirt sophomore Nate Nix and redshirt junior Brian Kaiser can be solid backups. Nix and Kaiser had a tough time getting on the field due to various injuries last fall.
"Our returning starters are outstanding leaders,'' linebackers coach Joe Tumpkin said. "Scott, Adam and Shane have taken an assertive role in helping our younger players adapt and learn. We are very confident in our starters. They have what our younger players lack, the experience of being in the frying pan of a game. As a result, they will be major assets for not only our linebackers, but also our overall defense.''
Another hotly-contested battle in camp will be at boundary cornerback between steady junior Jovani Chappel and redshirt freshman Buddy Jackson. Chappel has played some in his first two seasons, bouncing from safety to corner, while Jackson has taken his game up a notch to challenge this fall. Freshman Ronald Hobby, who arrived in the spring, could be a solid reserve if necessary.
Junior Aaron Berry has secured the starting spot at field cornerback, while redshirt sophomore Rick Gary has proven to be a capable starter and solid backup. Freshman Jarred Holley could add depth if necessary.
Fifth-year senior Eric Thatcher is the unquestioned leader in the secondary with four years of playing experience now. He finally stayed healthy last season. Redshirt junior Irvan Brown, who also has had injury problems, is the backup to Thatcher at free safety.
The final battle for a starting spot in camp is between sophomore Dom DeCicco and redshirt sophomore Elijah Fields at strong safety, although DeCicco secured the lead during the spring. Fields, however, is an incredible talent that must get playing time to make Pitt's defense even stronger. Both could play at the same time if needed.
"Our secondary can and must be a strength for the overall defense this year,'' defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley said. "The secondary is incredibly important because if we give up plays, it's a touchdown.
"As a unit, we're very solid, and we're pleased with the progress (that) we've made. However, in order to become the strength that we know we can be, continuous improvement by both our veterans and young players is a must.''
A punter can be a serious weapon for a defense, pinning an opponent deep in its own territory, and fifth-year senior Dave Brytus has that ability. However, he will need to be more consistent overall to be successful this season.
Fifth-year senior Mark Estermyer is a highly-rated veteran long-snapper for the Panthers. Wideouts T.J. Porter, Aundre Wright and Cameron Saddler provide speed and quickness to the punt and kickoff return game for Pitt. Berry has been the starting punt returner, while tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling has been explosive on kickoff returns.
Pitt's Media Relations Department contributed to this story.
Pitt Camp Outlook: Defense
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