Pitt Preview 2016: Pat Narduzzi got through his first year, and now it’s time to make the Panthers rock in the ACC.
The ground floor is down. Pitt is now looking to add a new level under the stewardship of second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi.
Even with back-to-back losses to end the 2015 campaign, Narduzzi spun a solid debut as a head coach by winning eight games and finishing second to North Carolina in the Coastal Division. From a more intangible perspective, he also helped bring an identity and some much-needed stability to a program that was searching for both. And he did it without the Panthers’ premier player, RB James Conner, who tore his MCL in Week 1 and is now heroically attempting to battle his way back from Hodgkin lymphoma.
Last season was an early signal that Pittsburgh, long a revolving for head coaches, finally had its man. And now that Narduzzi has a year in the vault, returns 18 starters and locked down a second strong recruiting class, optimism is running justifiably high in Western Pennsylvania.
From his days as Mark Dantonio’s right-hand man, Narduzzi’s calling card has been defense, which was evident last fall. The Panthers, sans any household names, overachieved in a fashion that was consistent with the staff’s track record. And with the bulk of the group back for another season, the Panthers are destined to climb even higher up the ACC charts. However, coordinator Josh Conklin wants to be sure this fall that his kids turn their front seven pressure into more momentum-shifting picks and fumble recoveries.
Pitt learned how to survive without Conner last year, leaning on a physical offensive line to create daylight for opportunistic rookie RB Qadree Ollison. This season, the Panthers must prove that the passing game won’t tank without the superior receiving skills of Tyler Boyd. The running game will be terrific, with or without Conner. And QB Nathan Peterman, a former Tennessee Volunteer import, is assuming a greater leadership role. But Boyd was such an omnipotent part of the aerial game that it’s going to take two or three Panthers to replace him.
The Panthers overachieved in 2015, exercising toughness and sound fundamentals en route to an 8-5 mark and divisional contention. Plus, Narduzzi and his assistants kept the ball rolling on Signing Day, another sign that the future is bright in Pittsburgh. As a member of the wide-open half of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Panthers have assembled enough talent and experience to become the fourth different program in the last four years to represent the Coastal in the league championship game.