The Pitt Panthers 2016 college football season was one to remember. They finished 8-5 for the second consecutive season (5-3 in Atlantic Coast Conference play) under 3rd year Head Coach Pat Narduzzi. They received a boost from the return of RB James Conner who missed most of 2015 with injuries and being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and they made national headlines after beating cross-state rival Penn State 42-39 (their first game since 2000) and pulling off the huge upset of eventual National Champion Clemson 43-41. They also made history of a different kind as they beat Syracuse by scoring 76 points, but they also gave up 61 points to the Orange, making it the highest combined scoring game in ACC history. A national ranking (Associated Press) for the first time in years, They also wore throwback uniforms that defined their football team in the 70’s and 80’s. Not even a disappointing 31-24 loss to Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl could dampen the Pitt’s season nor their enthusiasm as they prepare for even greater things in 2017.
And what are those greater things? A Coastal Divisional title and a trip to their first-ever ACC Conference Championship game, and a higher-tier bowl which will garner more national attention for starters and improvements on a unit that made Narduzzi a genius at Michigan State, defense.
Is it possible for Pitt to accomplish all that? Yes, but the reality of if all is that they will have to do so without several of their starters, 5 of whom were drafted in the NFL: Conner (Pittsburgh Steelers), QB Nate Peterman (Buffalo Bills), DE Ejuan Price (LA Rams), OT Adam Bisnowaty (NY Giants) and G Dorian Johnson (Arizona Cardinals). They also lost offensive coordinator Matt Canada to LSU. A good Head Coach knows that his players will eventually move on due to graduation and/or the NFL so he truly believes in the ‘Next Man Up’ philosophy and Narduzzi know that he has to apply that philosophy to his team in 2017.
In the spirit of Abbot and Costello, The Question for the Panthers will be ‘Who’s at QB and ‘What’s at RB’ will be answered as they team prepares for camp Tuesday, August 1st.
- Quarterback-It’s an understatement that Peterman will be missed. A transfer from Tennessee, he took the starting job from Chad Voytik and never let it go. In 2016, he passed for 2,855 yards, 27 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions. His leadership skills truly made the difference in the victory over Clemson. Now that he’s move on, who will be the man under center for the Panthers? Enter Max Browne who came to Pitt as a graduate transfer from USC. He was ranked among the top freshman quarterbacks in the nation in 2013. He actually was the Trojan’s starter at the beginning of 2016 before losing his job to Sam Darnold. Browne is big (6-5, 230) and is clearly the incumbent for the starting job due to his experience. Also battling for the starting spot will be redshirt freshman Tom MacVittie and Sophomore Ben DiNucci. Each saw very limited time in 2016.
- Running Back-The phrase ‘What’s at RB’ aptly describes this unit who faces the daunting task of replacing the irreplaceable in Conner, who finished 2016 with 1,092 yards and 16 scores and set school records in yardage. Although the Panthers could go to a committee, one player who should have the inside track at the starting job is Junior Quadree Ollison who filled in admirably for Conner in 2015 when he had 202 yards in his first-ever game and finished the season with 1,121 yards and earned ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Ollison’s 2016 wasn’t as impressive as he slipped down the depth chart, but he makes a case for a strong rebound in 2017. Freshman Chawntez Moss was impressive in 2016, rushing for 222 yards. They also added 4-star recruit AJ Davis who chose Pitt over Michigan, Ohio State, Auburn and Florida State. In the Red Zone, they also have an incredible talent in Junior FB George Aston who scored 10 touchdowns (5 rushing, 5 receiving) in 2016.
- Offensive Line-Although Pitt lost All-Americans Bisnowaty and Johnson, they honestly aren’t panicking because of their depth and versatility. They expect Junior Brian O’Neill to take over Bisnotwaty’s spot at tackle as he moves over from the right side. O’Neill also was in on a few offensive plays as he scored 2 touchdowns in 2016. Fellow Junior Alex Bookster is expected to take Johnson[t spot at guard. The Panthers also have a returning starter in Sr. Alex Officer. Sr Tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith is expected to take O’Neill’s old spot at right tackle.
- Defensive End-It’s also a fact that the Panthers will miss Price, who led them with 13 sacks in 2016. He truly had a nose for the quarterback. Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix with hopes that he can duplicate Price’s success. But the concern is his health as he missed mostly all of 2016 with an injury.
- Other key replacements-TE Scott Orndoff was a valuable TE for the Panthers in 2016, with 579 yard and 5 scores. He signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent. UCLA transfer Chris Clark could have the first shot at replacing him. And at Kicker, Pitt’s all-time scoring leader Chris Blewitt has departed and is expected to be replaced by freshman Alex Kessman.
In addition to making changes, the Panthers also go into 2017 with 2 main strengths and weaknesses. Here is an example of both:
Strengths: Wide Receiver-The Panthers not only had some of the most talented wide receivers in college football, but they most certainly had some of the fastest. All-American Junior Quadree Henderson certainly grabbed national attention with his quicksilver-type speed. Although he’s listed at receiver, he was truly a threat at running back and kick/punt returner. He had 917 total yards from scrimmage (631 yards rushing, 286 receiving) and 1,166 total return yards (914 kick, 252 punts) and 9 total touchdowns. Sr. Jester Weah was a pleasant surprise as he was the team’s top deep threat with 36 catches, 870 yards, and 10 touchdowns. He also averaged 24.2 yards per catch, which was good for second in the country. A dark horse at this position could be freshman Darian Street, brother of former Pitt star WR Devin Street (2009-13) who is the school’s all-time receptions leader. If he has the speed of his brother, this unit will be even more explosive.
Weaknesses: Pass Defense-Make no mistake: This unit was the team’s Achilles heel after giving up 333.2 yards per game in the air. Teams basically knew that the key to beating Pitt was to simply throw the ball deep. The pass defense also gave up 28 touchdowns and allowed 580 yards to Oklahoma State. Narduzzi will be grateful that star safety Jordan Whitehead is returning after missing the second half of 2016 due to injury. Whitehead was truly their defensive stud in 2015 as he earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors with his stellar play. He was also pretty good in 2016 before his injury as he had 65 tackles, an interception, and a TD, earning him 2nd-team ACC honors. Whitehead is also a force on offense as he excelled on several running plays that resulted in touchdowns in 2015. Pitt also added top-rated recruit Paris Ford, who turned joined them after turning down Penn State. Ford is listed as a true superstar, but he is having eligibility concerns at the moment. Sr. Avonte Maddox returns as starting cornerback and could be joined by junior Phillipe Motley and sophomore Dane Jackson. On paper, this unit looks better, but it remains to be seen how they will look on the field.
Schedule-Although they don’t play ACC powers Clemson, Florida State or Louisville, it’s not an easy schedule for Pitt. After opening up against FCS Subdivision great Youngstown State, they will hit the road against Penn State and return home for a rematch vs. Oklahoma State. After their ACC opener at Georgia Tech, they have another non-conference game at home vs. Rice and then get into their ACC schedule beginning at Syracuse, then NC State, Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and then they finish vs. Miami. If all goes well, the Panthers could finish 2nd in the Coastal with a 9-3 record (7-1 ACC) and a trip to the Citrus or Belk Bowl. The ACC Preseason Poll has the Panthers finishing 4th in the Coastal Division.
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