The defensive line should easily be the strength of the Panthers defense this season. It returns three of four starters from last season, and also a number of talented backups. Most thought this position would be the weakest link on the team last season because the two-deep then consisted of three sophomores and one freshman. To the surprise of many, the defensive line responded to the challenge and played very well all season long.
The returning redshirt junior starters at defensive tackle are Dan Stephens (6-2/285) and Vince Crochunis (6-4/285). Both played the run very well and improved their pass rushing as the season went along. Redshirt sophomore Charles Spencer (6-5/320) returns as the first tackle off the bench. He showed flashes of excellence last season in his first year of playing time. The other returning tackle in the two-deep is (6-1/280) redshirt junior Jake Holthaus. Jake is very good against the run. Looking to break into the two-deep after struggling with injuries the last two seasons is sophomore in Troy Banner (6-3/295). Banner has the size and strength to make an impact this season if he can put it all together.
Redshirt sophomore Kevin Harris (6-5/275) and redshirt freshman Eric Fritz (6-3/295) also provide depth at defensive tackle. Fritz made a few eye popping plays at spring drills and looks to be a future run stopping standout. Harris is an athletic tackle who should once again work his way into the rotation.
The defensive end position should once again be a strength of the defensive line. Returning starter Claude Harriott (6-4/255) had a breakout season in his first year as a starter. He was an All-Big East performer last season and is an All-American candidate this season. Harriott is an outstanding pass rusher and is very strong against the run also. Redshirt sophomore Thomas Smith (6-4/265) should be the new starter at the other end position. Smith gained experience last season as a backup, and he has all the tools to be a very good player in a starting role. True sophomore Andy Alleman (6-4/245) and senior Malcolm Pinder (6-1/230) will be the two backups. Pinder was named most improved player during spring drills. Alleman lettered as a true freshmen last season. Redshirt freshman Vernon Botts (6-4/240) will also push for playing time at end.
The Panthers have two incoming recruits to the defensive line this fall. Kyle Smith (6-5/240) and Micheal Hearn (6-5/235) will compete at the defensive end position. Smith played in the prestigious Big 33 game and Hearn was offered early by several big-time programs until questions about his grades came to light. Hearn is fully qualified and has a chance to become a future star. Chris McKillop (6-2/230) was recruited as a linebacker prospect but he could end up growing into the defensive end position. McKillop was considered the best defensive player in Western PA before suffering a season-ending ankle injury last year.
Pitt will finally have starters on the defensive line with a lot of playing experience and also excellent depth behind them. It has been a long time since that has been the case. They will be a big help considering the defense will be breaking in several young linebackers this season.