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ACC Preview: Panthers are rebuilding in Pittsburgh

Though Pitt lost to Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl to finish the 2016 season at 8-5, the Panthers concluded the regular-season with three straight wins, including a stunning 43-42 victory over eventual national champion Clemson in Death Valley.

It was the only blemish on the Tigers’ schedule in 2016, and it mark’s Clemson’s only regular-season defeat in the last two years. The Tigers had won 23 straight regular-season games prior to the loss to Pitt. It also snapped a 15-game ACC win streak for Clemson and a 22-game winning streak in Death Valley.

However, 2017 could be a rebuilding year for the Panthers. Pitt lost 13 starters from last year’s team, including its two best offensive players. It lost NFL draftees in quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back James Conner.

“I always feel pretty good about where we are,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “But you certainly — when you lose six guys that were at the NFL combine, five of them were on offense, so you’re talking about having some open spots there. Obviously the most critical is that quarterback position. It’s a work in progress, really at every spot.”

Peterman threw the ball for 2,855 yards and 27 touchdowns last year, but now USC transfer Max Browne headlines the quarterback battle while last years back up Ben Dinucci gives chase as well. Redshirt freshman Thomas MacVittie and early enrollee Kenn Pickett are also in the hunt. Browne and Pickett impressed most in the spring game.

“First off, we have a new quarterback coach in Shawn Watson, an offensive coordinator we’re very excited about,” Narduzzi said. “I learned that, number one, I feel like every time I’ve had to bring in a new coordinator or quarterback coach that I probably got lucky and got as good or a better guy in Shawn Watson.

“One thing I learned at the quarterback spot is we’re a lot deeper than we were a year ago. When I first got here, we had two quarterbacks on scholarship. Right now we’ve got four. We’ve got a little spread-out as far as the classes go. We still felt like we had to secure ourselves with an older quarterback and we got Max Browne from the University of Southern Cal. So we have a senior quarterback.”

Losing star running back and cancer survivor Conner is a huge loss as well for the Panthers. When healthy, Conner was arguably the best running back in the country. He ran for over 1,000 yards last season and had 20 total touchdowns on the year.

Running back Qadree Ollison is back after a season in which he only carried the ball 33 times after battling through injuries last year. In 2015 when Conner was out with a knee injury, Ollison rushed for over 1,000 yards in his absence.

Also returning on offense is wide receiver Quadree Henderson. Though Henderson had just 286 yards and one touchdown as a receiver, he totaled 631 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. He averaged over 10 yards a carry.

Leading receiver Jester Weah is returning as well after gaining 870 yards and 10 touchdowns in only seven starts in 2016.

UCLA transfer Chris Clark has nearly completely taken over the tight end spot so little completion will be shown there.

Three players made major pushes for the two open spots on the offensive line, senior tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith and redshirt freshmen guards Brandon Ford and Justin Morgan.

“Every year your offensive turnover, there is change,” Narduzzi said. “You have to do what’s best for your offense and put the ball into people’s hands that need to get it. Jester Weah has shown that he can be a top wideout in the country. We’ve got to find a way to drop back, throw it more and get them the ball down the field. But just trying to use the people we have.

“We don’t have James Conner in the backfield much. So maybe you end up being more of a throwing team. I don’t know. But I think you blend your offense into what you have.”

On the defensive side of the ball Pitt lost its top two leading tacklers in linebacker Matt Galambos and cornerback Ryan Lewis. It also lost sack leader Ejuan Price along with the seven starters on defense.

The Panthers return four starters. Linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu returns after being third on the team in tackles. Also cornerback Avonte Maddox is back after having a great year that included 49 tackles and 3 interceptions.

On the defensive line, senior Allen Edwards and junior James Folston have led the way for the defensive end spots, with Folston impressing heavily in the spring. Junior Shane Roy, sophomore Amir Watts and junior Mike Herndon have had a great battle for the defensive tackles positions.

At middle linebacker, Quentin Werginis has been named the starter. At outside linebacker, it is a mystery as to who will take over with Saleem Brightwell and Elijah Zeise going neck-and-neck in that battle.

With the secondary returning two stars in Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead, the other safety and corner positions are up for grabs. Sophomore Jay Stocker seems to have locked up the safety position while Sophomores Dane Jackson and Maurice French are top contenders for the corner spot.

“I think we made improvements really across the board,” Narduzzi said. “When you look at the secondary and being Cover 2 or Cover 14, it’s a two-shell team. But it takes four DBs to play back there. I think we’ve really built our depth back there. We’ve got a little bit more depth. We have some young kids we brought in a year ago that just weren’t as ready to play as we wanted them to be. Some guys that took redshirts and you knew they had talent.”

 

Photo Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

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