Panther Digest publisher Tony Greco's analysis of Pitt's defense heading into Saturday's Compass Bowl against SMU:
DE – Chas Alecxih
A number of these players can be classified at multiple positions. We'll start with Alecxih, because there's only one position you can classify him at, and that's at end. Alecxih came to Pitt as a 200-pound walk-on, and he's grown into a 6-5, 270-pound defensive lineman that has started every game the last two years. He capped it off earning All-Big East honors this season. Versatile enough to play tackle in a 4-3 scheme and defensive end in a 3-4.
DT – Myles Caragein
Caragein proved to be an ideal nose tackle in the new system. His best attribute is his ability to draw double teams, to help set up the run stop. Nose tackles often don't pile up the big numbers, but Pitt bases a lot of its defensive alignments around what Caragein does.
Donald led the team with 10 sacks, earned second-team All-America honors from FoxSportsNext.com, yet for some reason was left of the Big East first-team. Even more impressive, Donald led the team in sacks despite making just four starts. As you'll see—Keith Patterson likes to move players around. Pitt is deep on the defensive line, and although Donald had to wait his turn a bit, he still proved to be pretty productive. He had a true breakout year. He's also Pitt's most explosive player off the ball.
Here's where it gets interesting. The Panther linebacker is the term for the designated pass rushing outside linebacker. Lindsey came to Pitt as a running back, then moved to linebacker, then defensive end, now defensive end/outside linebacker. He's one of the many hybrids on the defense. He's classified as a standup defensive end, but for much of the season, he moved up to play in a down position along the line. In his career, he's started at defensive end in both a 4-3 and 3-4 scheme, and also at outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. He has the best pass rushing abilities of anyone on the team. He's likely to start at outside linebacker as he did towards the end of the season, but don't be surprised if you see him lining up in a five technique. He started all 12 games and finished with 8.5 sacks, and led the team last year with 10 sacks.
Price broke into the starting lineup as a freshman. He moved in after Lindsey was moved up to the line. He started a total of five games this season, and finished with four sacks. He can also play the Spur linebacker position, which is a hybrid safety/linebacker position. May be the Brandon Lindsey of the future for the Pitt defense. Then again, if Pitt goes back to a 4-3 under Paul Chryst, he could go back to playing inside linebacker.
We could call Thomas the Spur—at least that's where he started off this season, but you could also see him lining up in the middle or even back at safety. He's that versatile, and he's one of the most raw athletes on the team. Consider this—Thomas was also a very good basketball player in high school. He decided to try track in his senior year, just for something to do. With no prior track experience, he medaled in two events at the 2009 WPIAL Championships and was a member of the 4 x 400-meter relay team that captured a WPIAL championship. Thomas battled some nagging injuries, but adapts himself well to whatever position he's playing.
Though the senior Williams lost out on the initial battle between he and Thomas during training camp, Williams rebounded after Thomas' injury and actually held on to the job for a little. Williams also played the Panther linebacker. Overall he made five starts at Panther, and four at the Spur. He doesn't have that same coverage ability at Spur as Thomas, or the pass rushing ability of a Lindsey. His best attribute is his experience, and because of that he can effectively bounce in between the two positions.
Pitt's leading tackler, Gruder adjusted from being the key signal-caller as the middle linebacker in a 4-3, to not having to make any calls as inside linebacker in the new scheme. His position is technically the WILL, but when watching Pitt's defense, there's no identifiable traits of what makes one inside backer a WILL and the other a SAM. He has the instincts of a 4-3 inside backer to be around the ball and make tackles, evidenced by his high number.
Roberts hadn't seen much action prior to this season. He worked his way into the starting lineup last year as a WILL linebacker in the 4-3, starting eight games. He lost the initial battle with sophomore Shane Gordon in training camp, but moved back into the lineup early in the season. He started six games at the SAM inside linebacker position. He racked up 47 tackles in his first three seasons, but finished with 53 in his senior season alone.
CB – Antwuan Reed
Reed had a breakout season at corner, earning All-Big East honors. Improved his coverage skills this season, and was always in the right place for an interception. He finally came up with his first interception of the season in the regular season finale against Syracuse, and returned it for a touchdown. He has started every game at corner the last two years, and held off fellow senior Buddy Jackson to earn the starting job. Reed and offensive lineman Lucas Nix are the only two true seniors. In his freshman year of 2008, he was one of four true freshmen to play (Nix, Andrew Taglianetti, Jon Baldwin). You can also see Buddy Jackson starting, but Jackson—even though he's a corner primarily—comes in as the extra nickel back.
CB – K'Waun Williams
Williams is Pitt's best cover corner and has started in all 12 games as just a sophomore. He improved as run support as the season went on—becoming more comfortable in that area. He should be one of the defensive leaders heading into next season, based on the experience he has mounted up in his first two years. His 61 tackles this season were the second-most of anyone in the Pitt secondary. Williams got his first career interception against Cincinnati this year.
S – Jarred Holley
Holley is the quarterback of the Pitt defense, and earned All-Big East honors for a second year in a row. He is Pitt's active leader in interceptions, but had just one pick this year. Opposing offenses hesitate throwing his way because he does a good job sitting back and playing ‘center field.' Holley is Pitt's biggest playmaker in the secondary.
S- Andrew Taglianetti
Taglianetti is more noted as a special teams ace both in kick coverage and blocking punts. He is Pitt's career-leader with six blocked punts. He needs four more for the national record. Though he's come up big on special teams throughout his career, he blossomed this season on defense finishing with 43 tackles. Has very good natural tackling instincts. He could also line up at outside linebacker, or a position that looks more like an outside linebacker, depending on the opponent.