Lost: H.B. Blades*, Brian Bennett*, Tommie Campbell*, Clint Session*
Returning: Jemeel Brady, Steve Dell, Dorin Dickerson, Adam Gunn, Dan Loheyde, Scott McKillop, Shane Murray, Nate Nix, Greg Webster
Newcomers: Max Gruder, Brandon Lindsey, Tristan Roberts
Breakdown: This is the position that most concerns the Panthers. McKillop won the starting job at middle linebacker. Murray and Dickerson are fighting for starting jobs with Gunn and Nix after switching positions. There is precious little depth and even less experience.
Positives: Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads replaced Curtis Bray, and is taking a hands-on approach at the most critical position on the defense. McKillop emerged as the leader of the defense and its top tackler in replacing All-American H.B. Blades in the middle. Murray, although light at 210 pounds, moved from safety and is the frontrunner at weak-side linebacker. Murray already is better than Tommie Campbell and faster than Brian Bennett. Dickerson has great athleticism and showed that he has both the instincts and toughness to play the position. Nix has added 25 pounds since August and now has the necessary size.
Negatives: Dickerson spent half of spring drills sidelined with an ankle injury, which stunted his development and kept him from winning a starting job. Nix also failed to seize his opportunity. He was demoted from the first team to second, and switched from weak side to strong side. Webster, expected to battle for the middle linebacker job, was wiped out by Crohn’s disease. Brady (shoulder) and Dell (knee) missed spring drills while recovering from injuries, and Loheyde (knee) wasn’t 100 percent when he was playing.
X factor: The Panthers are flirting with reverting to a scheme that walks the safety into the box, creating a 4-4 front with blitz packages. The physical play of Elijah Fields might help alleviate some concerns. The coaching staff contemplated moving the 6-2, 220-pound Fields to outside linebacker but loves the idea of him playing strong safety. This would be a compromise, where Fields helps both the linebacker corps and the secondary. Pitt also could move more players to solidify the position, and big running back recruits Sharif Harris and Greg Williams are candidates.
Projected starters: WLB Shane Murray, MLB Scott McKillop, SLB Dorin Dickerson. The Panthers want their linebackers to be smart, fast and good tacklers. These three would give them their best combination of playmakers, given that Dickerson can stay healthy and hold off Gunn and Nix, who is still learning the position.