Pitt had one of the best defensive lines in the Big East last season, a group that had two players make second team All-Big East, and three players rank in the top eight in the league in sacks.
But the Panthers head into 2012 without three of their starters on the line -- Chas Alecxih, Brandon Lindsey and Myles Caragein -- making them one of the more inexperienced groups in the league. That might be cause for panic at some programs, but Pitt has a tradition of cranking out some pretty stellar defensive linemen.
In fact, Pitt has had at least one lineman make the Big East first or second team every year since 2005. Aaron Donald, who finished second in the league with 11 sacks last season, returns to anchor the group. Beyond him, there are some question marks when it comes to experience, first and foremost.
At the end of spring practice, Bryan Murphy and T.J. Clemmings were running with the first team at defensive end, with Shayne Hale making a late push. Donald has moved inside to tackle, where he will be joined by K.K. Mosley-Smith or Tyrone Ezell, who was out for the last several practices because of an injury.
Murphy missed all of last season because he was academically ineligible, but came into spring with a renewed spirit and determination. Mosley-Smith played in every game as one of the top reserves on the line. But Clemmings, Ezell and Hale have not been very productive throughout their careers.
The cases of Clemmings and Hale in particular have been quite confounding, considering they were among the highest-rated prospects the Panthers signed over the past few years. Last season, Clemmings took a redshirt because he simple was not ready to play. Coaches have tried to get him to find a "mean streak" this spring in hopes that he'll realize his potential.
Hale initially came to Pitt as a middle linebacker but has struggled in his move to end, doing little in his three seasons with the Panthers. But this spring, he was selected as the most improved player on defense, and might finally be ready to make his presence felt.
Depth still has to be developed at tackle and end, and defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable didn't rule out using true freshmen this season. Perhaps a bigger concern is getting as much sack production out of this group. Pitt ranked No. 2 in the Big East with 43 sacks last season. Seventeen of those sacks are gone with Alecxih, Lindsey and Caragein.
"He's a tremendous football player," Huxtable said of Donald this spring. "One of the best that I've been around. He's had a great spring. We're big, we're a bunch of run stoppers up there I think. We're going to have to work really hard in the pass rush game to get some heat on the quarterback with that group, and to do some things in the defensive scheme to help out with some of the pass rush. But overall, that group is going to do a good job for us."