The Pitt Panthers were one of the surprises in 2016 of the ACC Coastal Division, as they finished within one win of tying for the division title and having a shot to head to the conference title game for the first time, but they did fall just short, and now they have questions to answer, much like the rest of their division in 2017. Will Pat Narduzzi find enough answers to make a run at what would be an unlikely ACC Coastal title?
What To Be Excited About: Offense
Qadree Ellison started virtually the entire 2015 season when James Conner missed that season due to his illness, and he flourished in the role, rushing for 1121 yards. He rushed for 631 yards as the lead backup last season when Conner returned, but he is back in the lead role once again. He averaged over 10 yards per carry as the reserve last fall, and has big play ability, which should be prominently featured this fall in the rushing attack. Chawntez Moss averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and Darrin Hall has also lettered for the last two seasons. Both return to add competition and depth.
Jester Weah led the team last fall with 36 receptions for 870 yards and ten scores last fall, and will return to be the primary target for whomever wins the QB derby that will take place in fall camp. Henderson could also see a ton of time at WR, with the other two returning primary backs picking up the load at RB. Rafael Araujo-Lopes, Maurice Ffrench, Aaron Matthews, and Tre Tipton will all get time in a rotation of receivers that could end up being one of the deepest groups in the nation. As many as four other receivers could also vie for playing time.
Alex Officer, Alex Bookser, and Brian O'Neill all return on the line with 76 combined career starts behind them. The line was one of the best in the nation the last two seasons, and despite losing two key starters, the Panthers front should be solid once again.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
The quarterback position is going to be a true derby, as possibly up to five different QBs could be in the mix to start. Max Browne comes aboard as a grad transfer from USC, but he lost his job to Sam Darnold last season after a terrible 1-3 start under his leadership. Ben DiNucci is the only other player in camp to see snaps at QB last fall, and completed just 3/9 passes in severely limited action.
Thomas MacVittie, Kenny Pickett, and Jake Zalinskas all battled in spring ball. This fight will go into fall camp, and is a very muddled situation.
Losing James Conner at RB is a massive loss, but there are parts coming back that can help fill the void. The major issue here is that Henderson is more a multiple use tool rather than an every down back, and not much is known about the others. There is talent here on paper, but how will this play in real time?
There is talent coming back on the line, but the losses were big. OG Dorian Johnson was an All-American, while Adam Bisnowaty was an All-ACC pick.
Pitt is one of those rare teams that still buys into the TE position, but the Panthers lose their top two TEs from a year ago, including Scott Orndorff, who was the second leading receiver on the team last fall.
Chris Blewitt is gone at PK, but only hit 10/17 FG attempts in 2016. Alex Kessman, a RS freshman, is the leading candidate to take the job, but he is a total unknown at this point.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
There will be more questions than answers for the Panthers on this side of the football in 2017. There will be major rebuilding projects on all three levels of defense, from the line back to the secondary.
What will work is the return up front of both RUSH DE Rori Blair, who has 20 starts in his career, and NT Jeremiah Taleni. Taleni finished with 5.5 TFLs up the middle last season.
STAR LB Oluwaseun Idowu returns after collecting 74 tackles last season. He will be the veteran leader in the LB corps.
SS Jordan Whitehead returns, and may be the best player returning on the defensive side of the football. He finished with 65 tackles last season, and is largely a player to be avoided. Boundary CB Avonte Maddox also returns, and has led the Panthers in INTs the last two seasons, He finished with eight PBUs last fall, and picked off three passes, returning one for a score.
Punter Ryan Winslow returns after averaging 42.59 yards per punt on 4.3 punts per game last fall, and will be a four year starter.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
The FLASH DE position could be rife with inexperience, but James Folston is in line to take the job after serving as a reserve. He could be in a battle with a converted TE in Devon Edwards, with Patrick Jones II and Kaezon Pugh, a pair of RS freshmen, giving chase.
Amir Watts, a sophomore, may be the answer at the open DT position this fall, but is only a true sophomore with limited starting experience. Juniors Mike Herndon and Shane Roy are in the battle there as well, and RS freshman Rashad Wheeler may also be in that battle in fall camp.
Quinton Wiggins, a senior, is finally getting his shot in camp to become a starter at MLB. Chase Pine and Elias Reynolds, again, two RS freshmen, are also in that battle, as is sophomore Jim Madure.
Saleem Brightwell may be cracking the top job at MONEY LB this fall after serving as a key reserve last season. Elijah Zeise could push him, as he was slated to start last fall before an injury cost him his season, and yet another RS freshman, Peyton Deri, could be in that fight as well.
Jay Stocker is in a battle at FS to start with yet another RS freshman, Bricen Garner, while Phillippie Motley and Dane Jackson are battling at FIELD CB. Maurice Ffrench, who also figures into the roation at WR, is another option here. Therran Coleman and Henry Miller, both RS freshmen, will be in this battle to some degree as well.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 Youngstown State, 9/9 at Penn State, 9/16 Oklahoma State, 9/23 at Georgia Tech, 9/30 Rice, 10/7 at Syracuse, 10/14 NC State, 10/21 at Duke, 10/28 Virginia, 11/9 North Carolina, 11/18 at Virginia Tech, 11/24 Miami
This is going to be a potentially rough time for the Panthers, as they have questions at virtually every single position heading into fall camp on both sides of the football. The QB situation looks to be a mess, the receivers are good, but not great, and there are holes on the line that are rather large voids.
Defensively, a ton of talent was lost, and there are more questions than answers at seven spots out of 11. The Panther staff will have their work cut out for them, as many of these position battles are still showing as many as four or five players contending at any one spot for playing time. The schedule does not help either, as opening month games against Penn State and Oklahoma State will both feature top ten quality opponents, and even Youngstown State is an FCS beast in the making that is coming off of an FCS title game appearance. If position battles are not solidified early in camp, this could be a long, messy season.
As always, follow me @BiloFootball in Twitter, and all comments are welcome!