PITTSBURGH – Pat Narduzzi is entering his fifth season as head coach at Pitt, and has yet to win a bowl game at Pitt while the Panthers haven’t had a 10-win season in a decade.
The Panthers won the ACC Coastal Division for the first time last season, but a three-game skid at the end of the year dropped their record to 7-7.
If the Panthers are to challenge for another division title, they’ll have to overcome the loss of all three starting linebackers, most of the offensive line, and their two biggest offensive playmakers.
The offense looks to become more balanced after a season when the Panthers leaned heavily on their dominant ground game. Pitt’s running back tandem of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall was the best in school history, racking up more than 2,300 yards between them.
The passing game struggled, so offensive coordinator Mark Whipple was brought in to bolster the air attack and utilize quarterback Kenny Pickett’s talents more effectively. Chris Beatty was hired to coach the wide receivers; the group showed flashes of greatness but at times had trouble getting separation.
The defense will have several new starters in the front seven, but the faces will be familiar as underclassmen move into starting roles.
The secondary returns three starters, who will try to build on the positive momentum from a season ago.
The special teams unit looks to have an even bigger year, following impressive play in both the kicking and return game last season.
The offense will look much different than it did last season, as Whipple takes over play-calling duties. Under Whipple’s pro-style offense, the Panthers will be throwing the ball more as they strive for balance.
“I think all great offenses are ones that you’re worried about ... you’re worried about the run and the pass,” Narduzzi said. “And when a defense has to worry about both is when you’ve got problems.”
The offense is determined to not be one-dimensional.
“We’d like to be 50/50,” Narduzzi said. “We’d like to be more balanced, and we’ve got to threaten people through the air as well as the run. We’re going to threaten you on the ground, I can promise you that.
“But we’ve got to start to threaten people in the passing game, and we will.”
Pitt is handing the keys to the backfield to A.J. Davis, Todd Sibley Jr., and Mychale Salahuddin. All three have some experience, though none has made a start in college. It’s possible freshmen Daniel Carter and Vincent Davis could see playing time, particularly Davis, who has had a strong training camp.
Just don’t expect them to be catching many passes out of the backfield.
“Those guys can catch the ball, but we really focus mostly on protection, trying to handle the blitzes that we’re getting,” Whipple said.
Pitt’s pass protection left much to be desire last year.
“The fundamentals of teaching protections and the different things is most important, because we got to protect the quarterback,” Whipple said.
“Otherwise, you just can’t throw it while you’re on your back.”
An inexperienced backfield means Pickett and the receiving corps will be called upon more this season. One of the reasons Whipple was hired was because of his reputation for having a Midas touch with quarterbacks.
“The thing that always impressed me is what he did to a quarterback,” Narduzzi said when introducing Whipple earlier this year.
“That guy turns quarterbacks to gold.”
The passing game often struggled to get into a rhythm a last season. An expanded passing attack means the wide receivers will play a bigger role this season.
“They want to be a part of helping us win, instead of feeling like they’re kind of watching us win,” Beatty said.
Taysir Mack made some noise at Pitt last year after transferring from Indiana. He ranked second in the country in yards per reception (22.28) in 2018.
Mack’s speed and his strong play along the boundary should continue making him a serious deep threat.
Maurice Ffrench turned into a major offensive weapon last year, showing he can catch the ball over the middle or down the field, and turn jet sweeps into big gains. He caught six touchdowns, which accounted for half of Pickett’s total.
“I think they’ve got unlimited potential,” Beatty said of Mack and Ffrench. “I think they can be as good as any group in the conference.”
Aaron Matthews, Tre Tipton, Dontavius Butler-Jenkins, and Shocky Jacques-Louis provide depth at wideout, and all have done things that have impressed their position coach. Beatty also likes the different skill sets this receiving group brings.
“We’ve got a nice blend of big guys and then quicker guys,” Beatty said.
The tight ends will be used more heavily in the new offense as well, after little production from the position last year. Graduate transfer Nakia Griffin-Stewart is expected to have an impact immediately, with Grant Carrigan and Will Gragg behind him.
Blocking up front will be center Jimmy Morrissey, a preseason all-ACC pick, and four new starting offensive linemen. Carter Warren will be tasked with protecting Pickett’s blind side at left tackle and Bryce Hargrove will start next to him at guard. On the right side of the line, Gabe Houy will start at guard and Michigan graduate transfer Nolan Ulizio is expected to start at right tackle.
The defense has talent and depth, though the loss of Rashad Weaver, the unit’s best player, is a huge blow.
Weaver, down with a torn knee ligament, was expected to shine on the defensive line this season. Sophomore Deslin Alexandre is slated to replace Weaver. Patrick Jones III moves up to starter at the other defensive end spot, after serving as the team’s top reserve at the position a year ago. John Morgan will serve as the primary backup at the position.
Amir Watts, Keyshon Camp and Jaylen Twyman will man the interior line. All three have starting experience.
“It’s fun to see those three guys compete,” defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said of his tackles. “Jaylen has really elevated his game this year and put himself in position where he very well could be a starter. I think Amir Watts is the best version of himself. ... Keyshon Camp, we all see his talent, we see that flash, we see his ability to make plays.”
The linebacking corps will have three new starters, but there’s plenty of depth. Expect to see graduate transfer Kylan Johnson and Chase Pine at the money position; Saleem Brightwell and Elias Reynolds at mike linebacker; and Phil Campbell III and Cam Bright at star linebacker. Freshman Leslie Smith has turned heads at training camp and may see the field at some point this season.
“They just lack the experience,” Narduzzi said of the linebackers before a recent practice.
“I don’t think it comes down to the knowledge part of it. I think the knowledge is there.
“It’s just them going out on game day and doing what they know how to do. They know what to do as good as our guys did last year. They can run, they can make tackles. It’s just a lack of experience on game day, that’s the only thing.”
The experienced secondary is positioned to have a good year.
Veteran starters Damar Hamlin and Dane Jackson will be joined by Paris Ford and Jason Pinnock at safety and corner, respectively. The secondary has nice depth, Narduzzi said.
“I look back there and I think we’ve got three starting corners,” he said. “I think we’ve got three starting safeties with Damar, Paris and (Jazzee) Stocker, and at the corner with Jason Pinnock and Dane Jackson as well as Damarri Mathis, I think all three.
“There’s no drop-off when you put that other guy in there. That’s major. We really haven’t had that depth back there, and I think when you’re able to do that, you can give a guy fresh legs, take three plays off and go back out there.”
Jackson had his best season last year, leading the team in pass break-ups and forced fumbles.
The senior has said he’s taking on a greater leadership role this season. Pinnock made six starts in 2018, and got better as the season wore on, often drawing the attention of his head coach.
The tandem of Hamlin and Ford at safety is particularly intriguing. Hamlin now has a full year of starting experience at free safety under his belt, while the dynamic Ford will get his first starting opportunity at strong safety this year.
“They’re playing well together and I think they complement each other,” defensive coordinator Randy Bates said of the two safeties.
“They’re both playmakers.”
The defense is looking to force more turnovers this season, after 18 last season.
“It’s something that we practice every day and we’ve talked about it all offseason,” Bates said.
“It’s just the way football is. I stood out here in (Steelers) OTAs with Coach (Mike) Tomlin, you know what they’re talking about? Turnovers.
“It’s just a big part of the game on defense. You’ve got to have turnovers.”
The unit is poised to have a successful year, following the improvement in the kicking game and return game last season.
In 2017, Alex Kessman tied the Pitt record for the longest field goal in school history with a 56-yarder in the Carrier Dome. A year ago, he set the record for the longest field goal in Heinz Field history – by either a college or NFL kicker – with his 55-yarder against Syracuse; a particularly impressive feat given the notoriously difficult kicking conditions at Heinz. It was one of four field goals over 50 yards Kessman made last season. Narduzzi recently said he’s comfortable with Kessman kicking from as far as 56 yards.
Punter Kirk Christodoulou is taking over holding duties full time this season. Christodoulou was forced into holding duties during last season’s Penn State game and struggled; however, special teams coordinator Andre Powell thinks his punter will do just fine now that he’s had time to prepare and learn the craft.
“He’s confident in what we’re asking him to do,” Powell said about his punter. “I don’t think we’ll have any issues.”
Ffrench was named to Phil Steele’s All-ACC first team at kick returner ahead of the season following a stellar 2018 campaign. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, second-best in the country as well as ranking seventh in kickoff return average. Ffrench will also take over punt-return duties this season.
Pitt had one of the toughest non-conference schedules in 2018, with three of its four non-ACC games coming against top 15 teams. The non-conference schedule gets slightly – but only slightly – easier this season. The Panthers swap out Notre Dame for Ohio, but still face two top-20 teams in the first month of the season.
The early portion of the schedule is tough for the Panthers. On Aug. 31, Pitt faces off against Coastal Division favorite Virginia in Heinz Field, before hosting Ohio a week later. Ohio could be a tricky game for the Panthers, as the Bobcats are better than your average Group of 5 team.
Pitt heads to State College on Sept. 14 to play rival Penn State, ranked No. 15 in the preseason AP poll. Penn State’s robust defense will provide a big test for Whipple’s offense.
The Panthers return home to face No. 19 Central Florida. The up-tempo offense employed by the Knights caused difficultly for Pitt in Orlando last year.
FCS opponent Delaware comes to town on Sept. 28, before the Panthers finish the season with seven straight ACC contests, beginning with two road matchups against Duke on Oct. 5 and Syracuse on Oct. 18.
The Panthers will face Miami’s tough defense for homecoming on Oct. 26, before traveling to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech on Nov. 2. The Panthers host North Carolina in a Thursday night game on Nov. 14 as Pitt seeks its first win over the Tar Heels in a decade.
The Panthers hit the road again for a trip to Blacksburg. Virginia Tech is ranked No. 21 in the preseason AP poll and the Hokies are likely looking for some revenge, as Pitt walloped them 52-22 last season with one of the greatest rushing performances in school history.
The regular season wraps up with a home contest against Boston College on Nov. 30.
Pitt’s fate will again be determined by the stretch of ACC games in the second half of the season.