Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Pittsburgh

Sep 28, 2019; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman (97) tackles Delaware Blue Hens running back Andre Robinson (10) during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Rang

College football is scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

Pittsburgh Panthers

Head Coach: Pat Narduzzi (sixth season)

2019 Record: 8-5

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Dane Jackson, CB, Buffalo Bills – 7th Round, No. 239 overall


Powered by a pressure-packed defense which averaged an FBS-high 3.92 sacks per game, the Pitt Panthers finished last season with an 8-5 record, including a victory over Eastern Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl – head coach Pat Narduzzi’s first win in four post-season opportunities at Pitt since being hired in 2015.

The victory gave the Panthers the same 8-5 record Narduzzi had managed his first two years in town. It was a refreshing return, as the team had dropped off the past two years, falling to 5-7 in 2017 before managing to climb back up to .500 at 7-7 in 2018.

Critics complain that Pitt has been the very definition of mediocrity since Narduzzi arrived but the Panthers appear poised to take a big leap in 2020, returning one of the nation’s fiercest fronts while hopeful that strides can be made on the other side of the ball.

Pardon the pun, but Pitt’s offense was offensive at times last season with returning starting quarterback Kenny Pickett throwing for just 13 touchdowns in 12 games. In all fairness, Pickett also rushed for two scores and caught another.

Running the football effectively is a tradition and point of pride at Pitt with legendary backs like Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, LeSean McCoy and most recently James Conner among the NFL Pro Bowlers to play for the Panthers. Last year was a struggle, however, with Pitt ranking 119 (among 130 FBS teams) in rushing yards with just 11 scores on the year. Eight different rushers combined to give the Panthers a total of 1,544 rushing yards last season, averaging just 3.5 yards per attempt.

By comparison, ACC rival Boston College – which bludgeoned the Panthers with an eye-popping 60 rushing attempts for 264 yards last year in a 26-19 win last season – rushed for a total of 3,291 yards last year, along with 27 touchdowns. Not surprisingly, ACC powerhouse Clemson was even better, rushing for 3,606 yards and 45 scores on the ground, alone.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Jaylen Twyman, DT, 6-2, 290, 5.0, rJR

While it certainly did not generate the buzz that fellow breakout star Joe Burrow enjoyed for the national champion LSU Tigers, Twyman’s emergence as one of the most productive interior pass rushers in college football was a key storyline for the 2019 season.

Twyman was expected to become a star after signing with Pitt as a four-star recruit out of the Washington D.C. area, but his ascent was delayed after redshirting his first season on campus. He played in all 13 games in 2018 but started just one, finishing the year with a total of 16 tackles, including 1.5 for loss and half a sack.

Twyman topped those numbers by the end of September last year, however, recording 5.5 sacks in his first four games, including a three sack blowout against Ohio and a career-high six stops (including 1.5 sacks) against rival Penn State a week later. Twyman wound up recording 41 tackles overall on the year with 10.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss, overall.

He led the team in sacks, becoming the first Panther interior defensive lineman since the legendary Aaron Donald did so in 2013 with 11 quarterback takedowns (among his 28.5 tackles for loss).

Twyman was well acknowledged for his role in Pitt’s dominant pass rush, earning recognition from the Outland Trophy as its National Defensive Player of the Month for September, as well as First Team All-ACC accolades and Second Team All-American honors from numerous publications.

Wearing the same jersey number and sporting a similarly compact, powerful frame as Donald has certainly helped Twyman generate excitement, earning a prominent placement within NFLDraftScout’s early 2020 defensive tackle rankings.

Scouts are very interested to see if Twyman can build upon his success in 2020, however, as his 2019 tape, quite frankly, is nowhere near as dominant as the former Pitt and current LA Rams star. 

Practicing daily against an improving offensive line - including Pitt's top senior NFL prospect Jimmy Morrissey - should help his chances at doing precisely that. 

Strengths: Good initial quickness off the snap to threaten gaps, with the core flexibility to “get skinny” to squeeze through. Effective pairing of his upper and lower, showing a powerful hand-slap and lower-body deke to swim his way through the line of scrimmage. Active hands with good grip and overall upper body strength to rip and release.

Effective bull rusher when he keeps his pads low and his legs driving. Locates the ball quickly and shows terrific effort laterally and downfield in pursuit. Disproportionately long arms with good hand-eye coordination to trip up ballcarriers. No known injury or off-field concerns.

Weaknesses: Lacks an explosive element to his game. Overly reliant on his initial quickness to gain an advantage against blockers, too often getting caught in a stalemate at the point of attack. Lacks ideal bulk and gets pushed off the line too easily, struggling to anchor when teams run right at him. Can be collapsed by double-teams when he isn’t able to slither between them. Surprisingly heavy-footed when rushing the quarterback given his production, showing just average agility and closing speed for an “undersized” interior pass-rush specialist. Average height and ball awareness for passing lanes, tipping just two throws in 21 career games. Has zero forced fumbles (or fumble recoveries) during that time, as well.

NFL Player Comparison: Sheldon Day, Indianapolis Colts – Like Twywan, the 6-foot-1, 285 pound Day played at a big time program in Notre Dame, producing impressive numbers, including 141 tackles, 32.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks before the Jacksonville Jaguars made him the 104 overall selection of the 2016 draft. Day has spent two tours with the Jags and San Francisco 49ers since and is now on the Colts’ roster after recording 15 tackles and one sack for the NFC champions last year.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Fourth Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Pittsburgh:

1. Jaylen Twyman, DT, 6-2, 290, 5.0, rJR

2. Jimmy Morrissey, C, 6-2, 305, 5.25, rSR

3. Patrick Jones II, DE, 6-4, 260, 4.75, rSR

4. Paris Ford, S, 6-0, 190, 4.50, rJR

5. Deslin Alexander, DE, 6-3, 265, 4.90, rJR

6. A.J. Davis, RB, 5-11, 215, 4.55, SR

7. Taysir Mack, WR, 6-2, 205, 4.55, rSR

8. Damar Hamilton, S, 6-0, 195, 4.55, rSR

9. Kenny Pickett, QB, 6-2, 225, 4.80, SR

10. Phil Campbell III, OLB, 6-0, 220, 4.65, rSR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates