Apr. 25—Assuming the injured players heal over the summer — and Pat Narduzzi seemed confident they will — Pitt can almost repopulate its 2021 defense with some of the unit’s best players from a year ago.
And that group doesn’t include at least five players who may assume more significant roles this season:
—Middle linebacker Wendell Davis (a former starter);
—Cornerback Rashad Battle (two sacks Saturday in the spring game);
—Outside linebacker John Petrishen (the most improved defensive player this spring);
—Senior cornerback Damarri Mathis, who missed all of last season with an injury.
—Safety M.J. Devonshire (Aliquippa) of whom Narduzzi said, “We know we have to find a way to get him on the field.”
What appears to be a well-stocked defense (and wasn’t the quest for such a unit why Narduzzi was hired in the first place 6 1/2 years ago?) raises an interesting question:
How good can Pitt’s defense be this season?
Before answering, let’s not get carried away and forget the obvious issue: The Panthers lost bookend All-American defensive ends Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver; two of the ACC’s top safeties, Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford; and cornerback Jason Pinnock, who you will likely find in some NFL team’s training camp this summer.
“We have to rebuild some of those pieces,” Narduzzi said.
If nothing else, Pitt will have a defense that knows how to survive the ups and down of college football.
“Learning from prior experiences,” said outside linebacker Phil Campbell III, fourth on the team last year with 46 tackles. “Overall, we have a great brotherhood going on in that group and it’s been translating to the field.”
He’s talking, of course, about the 15 spring practices, which are not quite the same as confronting Virginia Tech, Clemson and Miami such as Pitt will do in a two-week stretch in October.
It’s a demanding schedule, but Pitt returns 11 of the 16 players who recorded the most tackles last season. The group is led by linebacker SirVocea Dennis and includes defensive end Deslin Alexandre and safety Erick Hallett II. All three sat out the spring game Saturday with apparently minor injuries.
Dennis’ return is crucial, but it is expected. He was second to Hamlin with 57 tackles and tied Weaver for the most TFLs (14 1/2 ) last season.
Petrishen, who is backing up outside linebacker Cam Bright (third with 53 tackles), believes Pitt’s defense can be better than it was last season.
“Collectively as a unit, we can be better by the amount of numbers we have, guys ready to play,” he said. “Last year, we depended on guys who played a lot of snaps. Now, there are a lot of us fighting for snaps and lot of good players who deserve snaps.
“Staying fresh will allow us to be strong in the fourth quarter.”
With so many available bodies, coaches can get creative.
For example, Devonshire found himself displaying ball skills both ways Saturday, recording a 31-yard reception when he caught a pass that deflected off tight end Grant Carrigan. He also returned an interception 13 yards.
Devonshire played wide receiver and safety partially because Shocky Jacques-Louis was injured and coaches were keeping others on the sideline to prevent injuries.
“We have to get him 100% solid at safety,” Narduzzi said. “Hamlin (who attended the game) was out there coaching him up.
“He’s where he needs to be after 15 (practices), but he has to be a lot better as we move into fall camp. He may move to corner. Who knows? He’s fast and athletic.”
No matter where Devonshire lines up, the defense has plenty of work to do.
Six of Pitt’s seven quarterbacks, including two walk-ons, threw for 351 yards for both teams in the spring game. Pitt’s five leading running backs ran for 232 yards on 35 carries (6.6 per carry).
The spring game is an unreliable resource for predicting the future, however: You can shrug off problems because starters are not on the field together. But the nature of the game also raises doubts about positive efforts.
“I think they will (play as a cohesive unit) when they’re all together,” Narduzzi said. “You can imagine what a scrimmage looks like when you have your (No.) 1 defense out there together. Pretty good.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .