Most thought the position would be the weakest link on the team because the two-deep then consisted of three sophomores and one freshman. To the surprise of many, the tackles responded to the challenge and played very well all season long.
This season is almost a total reversal of last year for the defensive tackle position. Not only does the team return its entire two-deep from last season, but it also returns two sophomores in Troy Banner (6-3/295) and Tyree Young (6-0/280), who could both push for playing time.
The returning redshirt junior starters 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.
Troy Banner looks to push for playing time this spring after sitting out last season as a redshirt. Troy has a ton of potential. Tyree Young is the wildcard this spring. He was considered the team’s best defensive lineman last year before suffering his season-ending injury. Can he make it back from his recent shoulder surgery? If he does, will he play defensive line or linebacker? It’s also questionable whether Darrell McMurray (6-4/295) will attempt to play this season or if his career is over. The defensive tackle positions have excellent depth and should be the strength of the defense this season.
The defensive end positions were very productive last season. Returning starter Claude Harriott (6-4/255) had a breakout season in his first year as a starter. Along with QB Rod Rutherford, Claude was probably the most improved player on the team last season. If Claude continues improving in his senior season, he will have an excellent shot at being a high-round NFL draft choice.
Pitt will need to replace Brian Guzek, who started opposite of Harriott last season. Guzek was a hard-nosed playmaker that will be missed. The Panthers have three leading candidates this spring to take over for Guzek. They include redshirt sophomore Thomas Smith (6-4/265), redshirt sophomore Kevin Harris (6-5/275), and true sophomore Andy Alleman (6-4/245). Smith showed flashes of becoming a top player in time. Redshirt freshmen Vernon Botts (6-4/240) will also make a push to break into the two-deep.
The defensive line should be the strength of the Panther’s defense this season. If some of the question marks get answered positively this spring (Young, Banner, Alleman, McMurray, etc…) the defensive line could end up the strength of the entire team. Pitt will finally have starters with a lot of playing experience and also excellent depth behind them. It has been a long time since that has been the case.