Lost: Sam Bryant*
Returning: Mike Phillips*, Eric Thatcher*, Elijah Fields,
Newcomers: Dom DeCicco
Breakdown: Without question, the worst position on the defense last season. The Panthers needed to find safeties with speed and playmaking skills, and Phillips and Thatcher came back from injuries to form a nice combo. Fields, however, returned after a six-practice suspension to bring star power and turn a negative into a positive.
Positives: Thatcher is fully recovered from a season-ending broken leg and locked down one starting spot. Phillips was slowed down while bothered by a knee injury last season, but is back to playing with aggression. The light bulb finally went on for Fields, who brings a nasty streak to the secondary. He is a hitter and a ballhawk, as evidenced by his play in the Blue-Gold Game, when he had two tackles for losses and returned an interception 53 yards for a touchdown. Walk-on Ross Ventrone was solid all spring and has moved onto the two-deep.
Negatives: Depth is a serious issue, with Brady and Murray moving to linebacker and only one incoming recruit. The injuries to Thatcher and Phillips showed how much different the complexion of the defense was without good safeties. Unless the Panthers move someone to safety, they can’t afford any injuries at the position.
X factor: DeCicco was one of the best players in Western Pennsylvania, a textbook tackler who has great size at 6-3, 205 pounds. He could team with Fields to give the Panthers a pair of big hitters in the secondary, as well as players who can turn interceptions into big plays. Look for DeCicco to jump into the two deep immediately.
Projected starters: Elijah Fields, Eric Thatcher. Phillips has a starting spot for now, but the Panthers must find a way to get Fields onto the field. He might not be mentally ready for full-time starting duty, but his physical assets have to be utilized in certain schemes. The safeties are interchangeable, so any combination of Fields, Phillips and Thatcher will give Pitt a better look in the secondary.