Pitt football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Panthers, best players and season prediction.
What You Need to Know About the Pittsburgh Offense
Jim Chaney left for Georgia, creating an opening for Matt Canada to be hired by Pat Narduzzi. New coordinator, same philosophy in Pittsburgh. The Panthers will continue to operate a conservative, run-first attack that plays to the personnel and limits errors.
And why not?
The backfield is deep and the O-line can drive opponents off the ball. James Conner is the headliner of the brutish ground game, though it remains uncertain if an offseason lymphoma diagnosis will sideline him in 2016. If so, Pitt won’t skip a beat with 1,000-yard rusher Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, whose ability to make people miss has actually allowed him to leapfrog Ollison on the two-deep.
The line will dominate, led by next-level OT Adam Bisnowaty and OG Dorian Johnson on the left side, though converted guard Alex Officer must still prove he can supplant Artie Rowell at the pivot. The biggest offensive question mark involves the passing game.
QB Nathan Peterman is a steady senior, with a full season of starting experience. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the receiving corps must rally around Dontez Ford, Jester Weah and TE Scott Orndoff, among others, now that pass-catching machine Tyler Boyd is in the NFL.
Biggest Key To The Pitt Offense
Filling Boyd’s void. There’s a lot to like about the Panther offense, from a deep backfield and a veteran quarterback to one of the ACC’s best O-lines. But who steps up for current Cincinnati Bengal WR Tyler Boyd, who had 65 more catches than his nearest teammate? Senior Dontez Ford is ready to become the No. 1 receiver after parlaying 26 catches into 505 yards and two touchdowns. But no other wide receiver caught more than a dozen passes in 2015, so learning curves will be steep. Fingers are crossed that 6-3, 205-pound Jester Weah can match his terrific measurables and build on a noteworthy spring.
What You Need to Know About the Pittsburgh Defense
The Panthers were better than expected on defense last season, overcoming a new staff and no obvious star value. It was a classic case of quality coaching, namely from Pat Narduzzi and his young coordinator, Josh Conklin.
Now that the staff can focus on more fine-tuning than foundational instruction, Pitt ought to be even tougher to score on in 2016. No longer pedestrian, the unit boasts all-star contenders at each level.
DE Ejuan Price is a missile off the edge, the catalyst of a veteran line featuring the thunder-lightning blend of Tyrique Jarrett and Shakir Soto, respectively, on the interior. Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara are blue-collar linebackers looking for a third member of their troupe, with Elijah Zeise and Oluwaseun Idowu battling it out at STAR.
SS Jordan Whitehead is a budding superstar and the leader of the secondary. He and top CB Avonte Maddox are the stalwarts, as senior Terrish Webb and Reggie Mitchell battle it out at free safety and speedy senior Ryan Lewis closes in on the other corner spot.
Biggest Key To The Pitt Defense
Fear Shakir. So far, so good on the experiment of moving senior Shakir Soto to tackle after he spent the last three seasons at end. Soto was a revelation in March and April, serving as the quick-hitting, gap-busting complement to 6-3, 335-pound anchor Tyrique Jarrett on the interior. With Soto poised to torment backfields from the inside and Ejuan Price, Rori Blair and Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix charging hard off the flanks, Pitt will once again feature one of the ACC’s nastiest pass rushes.
Pittsburgh Will Be Far Better If …
the defense generates more takeaways. The Panther D ought to be terrific in Pat Narduzzi’s second season at the helm, but now it has to become opportunistic. For all of the defensive success Pitt enjoyed in 2015, it only produced 16 turnovers to rank No. 97 nationally. And in Pittsburgh, the methodical and conservative offense can use a boost from the defensive side of the ball. With a few strips and picks, the team’s scoring average will surpass 30 points per game for just the second time this decade.
Best Offensive Player
Senior RB James Conner. No one knows for certain if Conner will be healthy enough to play this season, though that’s clearly his goal. And if he’s ready for the opener with Villanova, he’ll be the centerpiece of one of the deepest backfields in America. Before injuring his knee—and being diagnosed with cancer—Conner was a force too assertive for most college defenses to handle. Plus, the mere presence on the field of No. 24, who was declared cancer-free in May, would be an inspiration even more powerful than his churning legs or his lowered shoulders.
Best Defensive Player
Sophomore SS Jordan Whitehead. Whitehead was stunningly productive as a run and pass defender in 2015, considering he was just months removed Central Valley (Penn.) High School. And now that he’s a year wiser and noticeably more muscular, the ACC Rookie of the Year is liable to contend for national award recognition. Whitehead can also contribute on offense when needed, testament to his versatility and wide range of athletic abilities.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Senior QB Nathan Peterman. Peterman played well in his first season after transferring from Tennessee, forcing incumbent Chad Voytik to the bench and eventually to Eastern Kentucky. But now the staff is looking for more leadership and pop through the air in Peterman’s final season as a Panther. And the vet must prove he can keep opposing defenses honest, without the security blanket of WR Tyler Boyd. Peterman lived off Boyd’s next-level hands and route-running, but he’ll have to develop chemistry with a far less accomplished receiving corps this fall.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
Pitt makes the leap from Coastal Division contender to Coastal Division champ. The Panthers came close to Carolina a year ago, finishing with a solid 6-2 league mark. Now that so many starters return, and the staff is entering its second year, this program is ready to move up a rung and face either Clemson or Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. While it certainly won’t be a bad year if Pitt doesn’t make it to Charlotte in December, it’s an achievable goal for a team with an escalating ceiling.
Sept. 24 at North Carolina. After opening with FCS Villanova, the Panthers will face a brutal stretch of September games that includes a visit from longtime instate rival Penn State and trips to Oklahoma State and Carolina. It’s a three-game run that could define Pitt in 2016. But the game with the Tar Heels, who essentially ended the Panthers’ bid for the division last October, stands out above the rest. Carolina is still the slight favorite in the Coastal, and an upset in Chapel Hill could change the tenor of the title chase over the final two months of the campaign.
2015 Fun Stats
– Rushing yards per game: Pittsburgh 186.8 – Opponents 148.5
– Sacks: Pittsburgh 37 – Opponents 29
– Third-quarter scoring: Pittsburgh 104 – Opponents 42