Pitt's defense has a big hole to plug up front

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Former Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald has been a constant presence at practices so far this spring, observing positional drills and offering an occasional pointer to his former teammates.

While it’s nice to have Donald, a likely first-round pick in the NFL’s May draft, around, coach Paul Chryst joked Thursday that it’s also a constant reminder of what Pitt must replace in its defensive line.

There almost certainly isn’t one player who can replicate Donald’s 2013 stat line — 28.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks — but the Panthers coaches hope a group effort from the young defensive linemen could ease the loss of one of Pitt’s all-time great players.

“Anytime you coach them up, I tell them to ‘Be your best you,’ ” defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said. “They know there’s big shoes to fill, but that’s not our approach. Our approach is to get everybody better every day.”

Filling Donald’s position at defensive tackle likely will be junior Darryl Render, who played in all 13 games last year with 25 tackles.

His role last season was as a substitute who gave Donald an occasional break. Now, he’s going to be the one that must make plays.

“I just look at it as a great opportunity to step up and show them,” Render said.

“I always said I don’t want there to be a dropoff from when AD comes in or comes out. Now, AD’s always out. We’ve got to keep it going.”

To do so, Pitt must get production from its depth in the middle of the defensive line. Render and redshirt junior K.K. Mosley-Smith project as starters, but Breckterfield also praised backups Tyrique Jarrett, a sophomore, and Justin Moody, a redshirt freshman.

Last year, Donald accounted for 57 percent of all tackles for loss by Pitt’s defensive linemen. Ideally, the stats will be more spread out this fall.

“It’s going to be a group effort, I think,” Breckterfield said. “Our ones and twos are battling. There’s definitely a separation there, but not very big. I think Tyrique is battling real hard with K.K., and Render and Moody are having a pretty good battle themselves.”

It would be a big help for the Panthers to get more from their defensive ends, who combined for 16 tackles for loss all last season.

Sophomore Shakir Soto, who played in all 13 games with 20 tackles (four for loss), said he added 25 pounds in the offseason. He projects as a starter along with returning redshirt senior David Durham, but depth is lacking with only the injured Ejuan Price having game experience at defensive end.

Soto said the desire to prove all is not lost without Donald will provide much motivation this fall.

“Everyone on our defensive line has stepped up,” he said. “We talk about, ‘Hey, AD’s not here, now it’s time for us.’ I think we’re going to be better as a whole defensive line compared to last year when people assumed it was just him.”

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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