Preview 2017: Pitt Panthers
Previewing and looking ahead at the Pitt Panthers season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The Pitt Offense
Is it possible for the Pitt offense to be even more dangerous despite the loss of inspirational star RB James Conner and bombing QB Nathan Peterman? Probably not – after finishing tenth in the nation in scoring and averaging close to 450 yards per game – but it’s going to be really, really good.
USC transfer Max Browne is a talented veteran whose main problem is that he’s not Sam Darnold – he should be able to step in right away and get bombing. There are options if he’s not great, but in this offense, he’ll get plenty of time to work behind a good line.
It could be the biggest issue with the attack – who’ll replace Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty on the left side? The other three starters are back, but the stars to work behind have to emerge.
The receiving corps will help make the transition to Browne seamless. Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson – when he’s not cranking out massive runs out of the backfield – should be among the ACC’s deadliest receiving tandems, with plenty of young prospects looking ready to rise up.
The running back situation is going to be figured out on the fly. There’s not a tough guy like Conner, but Henderson will get a little work to go along with all the options, with Chawntez Moss and Darrin Hall looking solid this offseason.
Biggest Key To The Pitt Offense
Can Browne really be as good as Peterman was? The Panthers had to bomb away too much to make up for the woeful secondary, but Peterson was able to come through, averaging more than nine yards per pass with 2,855 yards and 27 scores.
The 6-5, 230-pound Browne is bigger than Peterman, a high-character passer, and in a college quarterback sense, he’s a professional who knows how to handle himself. He shouldn’t have a problem stepping in and shining, but if the D is going to struggle again, the passing game had better come through.
What You Need To Know About The Pitt Defense
It was interesting.
Defensive coordinator Josh Conklin and defensive-minded head coach Pat Narduzzi weren’t afraid to sell the house to get to the quarterback – and leave the defensive backfield hung out to dry.
The Panthers had the second-worst pass defense in the country, allowing 333 yards per game and 453 overall. There’s talent in the defensive backfield, and while there will still be problems, at least there’s going to be more of a rotation with a deeper pool of options to choose from around Jordan Whitehead – moving from strong to free safety – and Avonte Maddox at one corner.
The defensive front has to replace pass rushing terror Ejuan Price, it should be a good front four with the return of end Dewayne Hendrix after missing almost all of last year and two other starters back.
The linebacking corps needs the most personnel help with two of the starters and a little bit of depth. It’s going to be a work in progress to find the other two piece around Oluwaseun Idowu at one outside spot.
Biggest Key To The Pitt Defense
The pass rush has to be reestablished in a hurry. The Panthers were amazing at getting to the quarterback, coming up with 43 sacks with Ejuan Price and Shakir Soto combining for 17.5 of them – Price did most of the heavy lifting. In all, 24 sacks have to be replaced, and while the pressure should come from all sides again, not having Price outside and Soto inside could be an issue early on, especially considering the team’s overall hope is that …
Pitt Will Be Far Better If …
The secondary isn’t so miserable. The Panthers were helped by a fearsome pass rush, and it didn’t matter for a defensive backfield that got hammered by 4,331 yards and 28 scores. That was bad enough, but there weren’t enough big moments to offset all of the yards – except for the win over Clemson. Pitt only picked off nine passes on the season, and three of them came against Deshaun Watson.
There’s talent in the secondary, but after getting hit for 240 yards or more ten times, over 400 yards five times, and with Watson and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph combining for 1,120 yards, tightening up the D that allowed close to 1,500 more passing yards than it did in 2015 is a must.
Best Pitt Offensive Player
WR/RB Quadree Henderson, Jr. – The 5-8, 190-pound bolt of lightning can be used as a speed option in the running back rotation, or he could grow into more of a playmaking receiver who can hit the home run from anywhere on the field.
He ran for 631 yards and five scores averaging 10.5 yards per carry, and caught 26 passes for 286 yards and a touchdown, and now he’s going to get the ball even more. If he gets it in space on the move, it’s over.
Also one of the nation’s deadliest returners, he averaged close to 16 yards per punt return with a score, and came up with three touchdowns averaging over 30 yards per kickoff return.
2. WR Jester Weah, Sr.
3. QB Max Browne, Sr.
4. OT Brian O’Neill, Jr.
5. RB Chawntez Moss, Soph.
Best Pitt Defensive Player
S Jordan Whitehead, Jr. – The secondary and pass defense might have been awful, but Whitehead wasn’t the problem – at least against the run. The 5-11, 190-pounder earned all-star honors with 65 tackles with an interception – a key pick-six against Virginia.
It wasn’t the 109-tackle season he cranked out as a freshman, but he was still all over the field. Very quick and very active, he’ll be a statistical star for what should be an improved secondary now that he’s moving from strong safety to free safety.
2. LB Oluwaseun Idowu, Jr.
3. DE Rori Blair, Sr. 4. CB Avonte Maddox, Sr.
5. LB Quintin Wirginis, Sr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
CB Avonte Maddox, Sr. – Beyond miserable last season, the Pitt pass defense was lit up by everyone. The style of D leaves the corners on islands, and that’s sometimes a bad idea when going against Deshaun Watson, Brad Kaaya, Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph. If the nation’s second-worst pass defense is going to be better, it’s going to be up to the corners to survive. The 5-9, 175-pound Maddox missed three games, but he still made 49 tackles with three picks – taking one for a score against Marshall – and eight broken up passes. He’s good, but in this D he has to be fantastic.
The Pitt Season Will Be A Success If …
It wins the Coastal. Pitt isn’t better than Miami going into the season, and North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech are good enough to win the division. However, the Panthers have three huge things going their way – Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. Pitt doesn’t play any of the big three from the Atlantic, and gets a few of the big games in divisional play at home, putting more pressure on to win …
Key Game To The Pitt Season
Nov. 18 at Virginia Tech – If the Panthers are going to have a special season, and if they’re going to be in the Coastal title chase, they need to own Heinz Field – especially in division play against North Carolina and Miami. Those two showdowns are wrapped around a road game at Virginia Tech in a battle that – if we’re all lucky – will be close to as good as last season’s 39-36 Hokie win.
2016 Pitt Fun Stats
– 4th Down Conversions: Opponents 21-of-28 (75%) – Pitt 7-of-13 (45%)
– Sacks: Pitt 43 for 299 yards – Pitt 10 for 75 yards
– Onside Kicks: Opponents 1-of-6 – Pitt 0-of-0