In games against Western Michigan and Miami last season, Pitt’s defense underperformed. The two losses, Pitt’s only regular-season losses in 2021, were used as both areas of growth and measuring points.
While high-octane ACC offenses were able to gash Pitt’s defense at times in 2021, the unit as a whole was able to clamp down enough. Some key players have moved on, but the veteran base — those who remember those losses — are in place. And 2022 is the year to show the growth and improvement that’s been in the works for months.
The losses on the roster are keen, with the transfer portal decimating a linebacking corps that was left thin by guys leaving for the NFL and some key starters across the board trying their luck at the NFL Draft process, but after 14 spring practices, there have already been a lot of questions answered.
Pitt’s defensive line, loaded with stout tackles and athletic ends, will be a strength yet again, but even the questions at linebacker and cornerback have been reassured as the spring has winded on.
So, let’s take a look at Pitt’s defensive players as the Spring Game is upon us.
Pitt’s Calijah Kancey on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. (Mitchell Northam / Pittsburgh Sports Now)
Defensive Tackle (11)
Calijah Kancey — R-Jr.
Kenny Pickett, Jordan Addison and Calijah Kancey. Pitt’s All-American players in 2021. Kancey, at 6-foot-0, 275 pounds, is the “undersized” defensive tackle following in a fellow Pitt star’s footsteps. He isn’t the biggest guy on the field, but he’s often the most impactful. He’s a true difference-maker on Pitt’s defense and potential first-team All-American.
Tyler Bentley — R-Sr.
With Keyshon Camp gone, his production needs replaced. Tyler Bentley (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) is a big, physical force up the middle, and he’ll play a key role in Pitt’s defensive line in 2022. However, he won’t play Saturday.
Devin Danielson — R-Sr.
Along with Bentley, Danielson will have the first crack at stepping into the spot next to Kancey in 2022. At 6-foot-2, 305 pounds, he doesn’t always stand out on the stat sheet, but he’s been able to impress his coaches enough with his intangibles and run stuffing.
David Green — R-Sr.
With Kancey, Bentley and Danielson holding down a defensive line rotation, David Green — who has impressed defensive line coach Charlie Partridge this spring — is next in line to fill the hole at defensive tackle. With a 6-foot-1, 285-pound frame, he’s big and experienced. And he fills out an experienced foursome.
Bam Brima — R-Jr.
Bam Brima didn’t play a whole bunch in 2021, but according to Partridge, he’s playing the best football of his Pitt career this spring. At 6-foot-5, 280 pounds, with the ability to play inside and outside, he’s going to play deep into Pitt’s rotation.
DeAndre Jules — R-Jr.
It remains to be seen whether or not Deandre Jules will be bypassed by the talented options behind him, sort of the edge between the proven and potential talent, but he’s a big body (6-foot-3, 300 pounds) who has experience.
Elliot Donald — R-Fr.
There’s an expectation that Elliot Donald breakouts in 2022, and with a 6-foot-2, 270-pound frame that’s growing into its own as he continues to learn the fundamentals, Donald could be a potential breakout performer. Or he could sit for one more season. Regardless, he’s ultra-athletic and strong. It’s a matter of time.
Sean FitzSimmons — Fr.
An early enrollee, who the coaches like to say will be attending his senior Prom soon, Sean FitzSimmons has adapted to the college game extremely well. He’s big (6-foot-3, 290 pounds), strong and already earning praise from teammates and coaches. It’s probably a year too early, but FitzSimmons is already looking like a future impact player.
Dorien Ford — R-Fr.
Already listed as Pitt’s biggest defensive player, rising 30 pounds from his listed high school weight, but like Donald, he’s simply learning the fundamentals. He’s huge, strong and still growing. It’s likely too soon though.
Jojo Belgrave — R-So.
Emmanuel “JoJo” Belgrave hasn’t played during his two seasons at Pitt, but he’s an athletic defensive lineman. He likely won’t play much in 2022 though.
Jimmy Scott — Fr.
Jimmy Scott is a very intriguing player in Pitt’s system. A former high school running back who bulked up and switched to the defensive line, earning four-star status out of St. Francis High School in New York, he’s got the size (6-foot-3, 255 pounds) and explosiveness to eventually impact Pitt’s defensive. However, he hasn’t yet arrived at Pitt.
Walk-Ons: Will King IV (R-So.)
Calijah Kancey (8) SirVocea Dennis (7) and Deslin Alexandre (5) during the ACC Championship Game – December 4, 2021 David Hague/PSN
Defensive End (9)
Habakkuk Baldonado — R-Sr.
Habakkuk Baldonado could’ve left for the NFL Draft after last season, but he decided to return for another chance to elevate his game at Pitt and round chances, and the 6-foot-5, 255-pound All-ACC end has plenty of potential still. Despite leading Pitt with nine sacks last season, he feels as if he was inches away from six, eight, 10 more.
Deslin Alexandre — R-Sr.
There’s one last ride for Pitt’s defensive captain Deslin Alexandre. The 6-foot-4, 280-pound end didn’t have the biggest statistical season in 2021, as he suffered an injury in the 2021 spring game en route to a disjointed offseason, but he provides elite intangibles and the chance for increased production.
Dayon Hayes — Jr.
The coaching staff sees the breakout, the teammates see the breakout, the fans see the breakout and Dayon Hayes himself sees the breakout. Hayes flashed his vast potential in 2021, but he was only scratching the surface. This is a legitimate superstar player — if all the pieces fit.
John Morgan — R-Sr.
The fourth piece of Pitt’s defensive end rotation, John Morgan (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) provides a steady mix of veteran leadership and tangible production. He’s a key voice in the room heading forward.
Chris Maloney — R-Sr.
Chris Maloney didn’t play a whole bunch in 2021, but he did earn a scholarship, and he’ll hold a depth role once again in 2022. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound end has the benefit of experience in Pitt’s system.
Nahki Johnson — R-Fr.
If you’re looking for an X-factor in Pitt’s defense, here’s Nahki Johnson. He’s bigger, stronger and faster at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds than he was as a true freshman last season, gaining 30 pounds of muscle, and he’s kept an added level of quickness and explosion. There’s a good amount of depth ahead of him, but Johnson is legit.
Nate Temple — R-Jr.
Nate Temple isn’t going to be a big contributor in 2022, but he knows the system, he’s big enough (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) and smart enough to fill the gaps when needed.
Samuel Okunlola — Fr.
Another early enrollee who has made waves this spring, Samuel Okunlola isn’t huge (just 6-foot-4, 225 pounds), but he’s smart, willing to learn and has impressed his coaches and teammates. With a loaded unit ahead of him, it’s just a matter of time before he’s unleashed. And once he is, he has the potential to explode.
Sam Williams — R-So.
Sam Williams is still on the smaller side, at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, as a defensive end in Pitt’s system. He hasn’t played yet at Pitt, but he’s a good athlete who provides solid depth.
SirVocea Dennis (7) celebrates his touchdown – October 23, 2021 David Hague/PSN
SirVocea Dennis — Sr.
SirVocea Dennis is a coach on and off the field, but he has that added benefit of being able to play all three linebacker spots in Pitt’s defense. He led Pitt in tackles at Mike last season, but he’s able to slide to either outside spot. He’s the heart and soul of Pitt’s defense.
Bangally Kamara — Jr.
Bangally Kamara looks like an NFL linebacker at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. He entered the spring as a linebacker who had potential, and he’s leaving as a three-down linebacker. It’s been a transformative spring for the ultra-athletic linebacker, and he’s going to play a lot in 2022, likely at Money.
Shayne Simon — R-Sr.
While his role at Money may have been surpassed by Kamara, Shayne Simon’s versatility at Mike and Money will be crucial — as he’s still learning Pitt’s defense. At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, he provides Pitt with a solid contributor who will play a lot in 2022. And as he learns, he’ll grow.
Solomon DeShields — R-So.
Perhaps Pitt’s biggest overall riser this spring, Solomon DeShields has grown from a guy who some thought might switch to wide receiver to the leader of the pack at Star linebacker. He’s big enough (6-foot-2, 235 pounds), tough enough and athletic enough to play the key role in Pitt’s defense — and it can’t have come at a better time.
Brandon George — Sr.
With Dennis, Kamara, Simon and DeShields on the roster, Brandon George is the X-factor that allows those four to slot into the defense. As one of the most experienced defenders in the system, the second leading returning tackler in the system behind Dennis, he can play at Mike and Money — and he wants to stay at Mike.
Buddy Mack — Jr.
After making the switch from safety to linebacker, jumping into the Star linebacker battle, Buddy Mack appeared to be making good progress. But an injury will hold him out of the spring game. He could still be a factor as he learns the position though.
Marquan Pope — Fr.
Like Mack, early enrollee Marquan Pope was impressing the coaching staff through the early portions of spring practices. However, an injury will also hold Pope out.
Aydin Hemmingham — R-So.
Aydin Henningham has been in Pitt’s system for two seasons, but he didn’t play in a game last season. He’s a scholarship player in a relatively thin position room, and with a 6-foot-2, 235-pound frame, he’s an intriguing yet inexperienced option.
Tylar Wiltz — R-Sr.
A transfer from Missouri State who will not arrive at Pitt until May, Tylar Wiltz was one of the best FCS linebackers in 2021. He’s entirely new to the FBS level, but he’s got experience, size (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) and the desire to help Pitt at Star in 2022. With just one season, he’ll be a key depth piece.
Kyle Louis — Fr.
Kyle Louis is a three-star recruit out of East Orange, New Jersey, and he’ll be arriving to Pitt sometime this summer. While he adapts to the system, we’ll learn more about his future positioning in the defense.
Walk-Ons: Myles Canton (R-Sr.), Jackson Henry (R-Sr.), Dylan Bennett (R-Fr.), Nick Lapi (R-Fr.)
Brandon Hill (9) – October 23, 2021 David Hague/PSN
Brandon Hill — R-Jr.
As Pitt’s second-leading returning tackler, Brandon Hill (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) plays a key role as Pitt’s top boundary safety, but he’s also taken a step as a vocal leader in the defense. He’ll be tasked with a lot in 2022, and through the spring, he’s looked up to the task.
Erick Hallett — R-Sr.
The lead-by-example to Hill’s vocal approach, Erick Hallett is back again to complement him at field safety. After a strong finish to the season, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound safety is quick enough to fill the “centerfield” role and big enough to still knock balls loose on hits over the middle. His progression in 2022 will be vital.
P.J. O’Brien — So.
P.J. O’Brien wasn’t a good ‘thud’ player during spring practices, but that hard-hitting approach could help him see the field more at field safety. With a 6-foot-0, 185-pound frame, he’s a missile waiting to be unleashed, and Narduzzi feels like he’s miles ahead of where he was a year ago.
Judson Tallandier — R-Sr.
A 6-foot-0, 185-pound veteran, Judson Tallandier played in a depth role last season. However, he will not be playing Saturday. Regardless, he should once again serve as a solid reserve safety that both coaches and challenges the younger players.
Khalil Anderson — R-Fr.
Narduzzi has compared Khalil Anderson to Damar Hamlin this spring, and that’s enormous praise for the young safety. However, Anderson (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) has backed it up this spring as he’s stepped up his game and earned praise from his teammates and coaches. He’s still not at the top of the depth chart, but he’s rising.
Javon McIntyre — R-Fr.
Javon McIntyre has also impressed the coaching staff this spring, playing boundary safety with a 6-foot-0, 195-pound frame. He played in the last three games last season, and he’s trending toward serving as Hill’s top backup in 2022.
Stephon Hall — R-Fr.
Stephon Hall is another talented player who has earned praise this spring but won’t take the field on Saturday. With a 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame, he’s built his body during his freshman season, but he’s not quite there yet. The future is bright though.
Walk-Ons: Hudson Primus (R-Jr.), Dante Caputo (R-Jr.)
Pittsburgh defensive back Marquis Williams(14) breaks up a pass intended for Clemson wide receiver Ajou Ajou(11) in the second quarter of the NCAA football game between the Clemson Tigers and Pitt Panthers on November 28, 2020: at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, SC. (Photo by Carl Ackerman)
Marquis Williams — R-Sr.
Damarri Mathis mentioned Marquis Williams as Pitt’s ready-made replacement at the NFL Combine, and Williams (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) is putting the pieces together to lead Pitt’s defensive backs. He started at field cornerback last season, but he’s continued to sculpt his body and grow as a leader.
A.J. Woods — Sr.
While Williams has taken Mathis’s leadership role, A.J. Woods is filling Mathis’s actual spot in the defense. At 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, and the self-proclaimed fastest member of Pitt’s secondary, the resemblance is uncanny. Woods has impressed the coaching staff this spring, and it’s up to him to make those next steps on the field.
M.J. Devonshire — R-Jr.
M.J. Devonshire is going to cycle with Williams in 2022, taking the next step after a strong debut in 2021 upon transferring from Kentucky. With a 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame, he’s well-built, but he possesses the speed and ball skills to really impact Pitt’s defense.
Rashad Battle — Jr.
Rashad Battle played safety last season, moving from cornerback to safety, and Narduzzi blamed himself for missing where his talented defender fit best. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound cornerback has both the size and speed to make an impact at boundary corner while filling the Delta role in Pitt’s defense.
Ryland Gandy — Fr.
It would be miraculous for a cornerback to step on the field for Pitt as a true freshman, but Ryland Gandy has been very impressive this spring. The 6-foot-0, 175-pound early enrollee fits the mold as a Pitt corner, but he’s adapted quicker than many expected — without yet hitting a wall. If that wall stays back, he could be a legit threat to see the field.
Noah Biglow — R-Fr.
Noah Biglow is still fighting Gandy at field cornerback, and after playing four games as a reserve in 2021, he has a slim advantage. With a 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame, he’s also well-built but inexperienced.
Tamarion Crumpley — R-Fr.
Another strong addition to Pitt’s defensive back corps, with a 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame, but Tamarion Crumpley is also largely untested. He didn’t play in 2021, but he should add solid depth on the backend of Pitt’s cornerback depth in 2022.
Jahvante Royal — R-So.
Jahvante Royal impressed during the early phases of Pitt’s spring practices, and with a 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame, he adds an exciting element of size to Pitt’s defensive secondary. While he will not be playing on Saturday, he should still be a factor with a strong summer and fall camp.
Walk-Ons: Jehvonn Lewis (R-So.), Ak’Bar Shabazz (R-Fr.)
Special Teams (2)
Sam Vander Haar — Fr.
With Kirk Christodoulou exiting the program, fellow Australian Sam Vander Haar enters. He’s impressed the coaching staff so far this spring, especially with his ball skills, and he still has four years to grow as Pitt’s punter. Nice addition.
Ben Sauls — R-So.
Ben Sauls ceded the starting spot to Sam Scarton in 2021, with Sauls missing both of his extra-point attempts, but he arrived as a highly-touted kicker. And he served as Pitt’s kickoff specialist in 2021.
Walk-Ons: Cam Guess (R-So.), Sam Scarton (R-Jr.), Caleb Junko (R-Fr.), Byron Floyd (R-So.), James Fineran (R-Fr.)