Pitt Football Looks to Replace Defensive Players Lost to the NFL

Pitt's Defensive Coordinator Randy Bates and Head Coach Pat Narduzzi


I'll be the first person to agree that Mondays are the worst.  However, this week felt a little different.  It was the last Monday before football starts back up in the Burgh.  There's something about seeing a full Saturday slate of college football games that will put extra pep in your step.  

Additionally, as a nice added bonus, Pitt released their first depth chart of the 2021-22 football season.  While taking my first look at it, it didn't take long to notice a bunch of familiar names missing from the defense.  Having paid attention to this year's NFL draft, that doesn't come as a surprise.  


Five of the six Pitt players selected in this year's draft were on the defensive side.  When you lose that many guys from a unit that had such an outstanding season, it no doubt causes nervousness for what is to come for this season.  So I wanted to take a look at what can be expected from the defense this year prior to game one against UMass this weekend.

DEFENSIVE LINE

I wanted to start with the big boys up front. This has been Pitt's calling card on defense for the past few years.  This unit alone lost three former starters to the draft - Patrick Jones II to the Vikings in the third round, followed by Rashad Weaver to the Titans in the fourth, and Jaylen Twyman joining Jones in Minnesota in the sixth.  

Now Twyman did sit out last year to prepare himself for the draft, so replacing him is nothing new to this team.  But the answer for replacing the production of the two All-American defensive ends, Jones and Weaver, is much less clear.  These two were responsible for 17 of the 46 sacks tallied by the defense last year, so their loss will most certainly be felt.  

It will be a committee of guys tasked with filling their role on the ends but the brunt of that responsibility will be taken on by starters Deslin Alexandre and Habakkuk Baldonado.  Alexandre has experience replacing Weaver when he did so in 2019.  Weaver was lost for the season with a torn ACL.  Therefore, Alexandre started 13 games that year, accumulating 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.  As for Baldonado, he is coming off a season where he missed 7 games due to injury.  He will be looking to this year to make up for last year's lost time.  

A lot of production is also expected from the defensive tackles in the middle.  Keyshon Camp and Calijah Kancey are names you can anticipate being called in bunches this year.  Kancey started last season and was named a preseason All-American ahead of this season.  He put up stellar numbers in limited starts last year.

Keyshon Camp will be productive if he can stay on the field.  After missing the majority of the past few seasons with various injuries, he should provide a huge boost up front alongside Kancey, if he can stay healthy.  Kancey and Camp intend on causing havoc to opposing offensive lines, and providing the crucial quarterback pressure for which this defense has become known.

LINEBACKERS

Most of the experience on the defensive side comes from Pitt's linebacker corp.  This unit was the only part of the defense to not lose a player to the draft so they should have no issues providing the leadership and consistency that every defense needs.  

Cam Bright, Phil Campbell III, Wendell Davis and SirVocea Dennis are the names you can expect to hear the most this fall.  Dennis was tied for the team lead in tackles last season, all while only starting two games.  Anyone who watched last season's games should be familiar with this group and the expectations that come with them.  I feel the least concerned with this area of the field and, hopefully, they can prove me right.

SECONDARY

Lastly, is the secondary.  This group will be missing familiar faces this season as well.  Safeties Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford were lost to the NFL following 2020, so some growing pains should be expected.   


Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett II will look to fill their shoes, but with little experience between the two, it could take some time before we see the level of production we're used to.  

However, the experience that might be lacking from the safeties should be made up for on the outside.  Pro Football Focus ranks cornerbacks Damarri Mathis and Marquis Williams the 8th best outside tandem in the country heading into this season.  Williams is coming off a 2020 season where he only once allowed more than 35 receiving yards in a game.  Unfortunately, Mathis was injured all of last season, so he'll be looking to build upon his solid performance in 2019 on the other side.  

After watching head coach Pat Narduzzi's defensive style for years now, we know how bad it can get when corners are underprepared to play.  So this is an encouraging sign that might provide fans more peace of mind from opponents' air raid attacks that have led to our demise in years' past.

CONCLUSION

Even with the number of starters lost to this year's NFL draft, I'm not as concerned with the defense as I was originally expecting.  Sure, there will definitely be some weaknesses in this defensive corps, but there is enough experience as a whole that the drop off from last year should not be steep.  Narduzzi has always preached defense and expectations from the coaching staff and fans are high after last season. 

Not to mention, the recruitment of the defense has always been superior to that of the offense, so the precedent set in years' past is anticipated to carry to this crop of new defensive players.  It's never easy to replace two All-Americans, but if the defense as a whole can continue to put pressure on the quarterback like they did last year, they will always give Pitt a chance to win.  

Also, being 38 point favorites in week one never hurts either.  This upcoming game against UMass will give this unit a chance at live action, in what should be an easy win.

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