Pittsburgh fans should feel like they have finally found their man in second-year coach Pat Narduzzi. He has given the fan base something to be excited about as expectations are relatively high entering the fall season. Star running back James Conner is on track to return in 2016, giving the Panthers a potent one-two punch in the backfield with the emergence of Qadree Ollison last year. Additionally, quarterback Nathan Peterman provided stability under center last season and returns for 2016. Replacing standout receiver Tyler Boyd is the biggest challenge for Narduzzi.
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Previewing Pittsburgh’s Offense
Pittsburgh faces a couple crucial questions entering 2015. The first: Can junior running back James Conner, after enduring MCL surgery and offseason chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, make a comeback? And second: If so, can the powerful runner return to the form that enabled him to rush for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns en route to 2014 ACC Player for the Year honors? The coaching staff believes Conner will be ready. “I know this, James is an inspiration to all of us; he makes us better every day,” says second-year coach Pat Narduzzi. Conner recently announced he was cancer-free and is on track to return by the season opener.
A healthy Conner would surely bolster a Panthers team that went 8–5 in Narduzzi’s first season. If Pitt has to ease Conner back into his normal workload, sophomore Qadree Ollison offers a quality alternative. Ollison was named the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,121 yards.
The X-factor is senior quarterback Nathan Peterman, a Tennessee transfer who emerged as a leader after taking over in Week 3. He finished second in the ACC in completion percentage (61.5) and third in touchdown passes (20). Peterman also threw just one interception in league play. It is imperative that he provide a steady hand early while the untested receiving corps, which lost all-time great Tyler Boyd to the NFL Draft, settles in.
Previewing Pittsburgh’s Defense
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True to Narduzzi’s personality, the Pittsburgh defense employs an ultra-aggressive style. Little wonder the Panthers ranked 16th nationally and third in the ACC in sacks last season at 2.85 per game. They also returned three turnovers for touchdowns. Explosive senior defensive end Ejuan Price fits perfectly into the scheme. He nearly set an FBS record with five sacks against Louisville and ranked 10th nationally with 11.5. Fifteen different Panthers players were in on at least one sack.
The star of the defense is sophomore strong safety Jordan Whitehead, who recorded the most tackles (109) by a true freshman in program history and was named the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. Whitehead was deployed at linebacker, corner and even on the offensive side of the ball.
Third-year starting linebacker Matt Galambos (five sacks) serves as the leader of a unit that must improve on scoring defense (26.1 ppg, 57th nationally), and takeaways (16, 97th).
Previewing Pittsburgh’s Specialists
Senior kicker Chris Blewitt returns after converting 15-of-23 field-goal attempts. Returning junior punter Ryan Winslow averaged 41.1 yards, with 21 downed inside the 20. Quadree Henderson and Avonte Maddox each returned kickoffs for touchdowns.
Narduzzi infused life into a Pittsburgh program that had been stagnating in recent years. Prior to his arrival, the Panthers had finished 6–7, 6–7, 7–6 and 6–7 the previous four seasons. The eight wins in 2015 represented the most in five years. Highlights included a 6–1 start, a 5-1 road record, a second-place finish in the Coastal Division and a trip to the Military Bowl. Panthers partisans are hoping for continued improvement — which is feasible, given that 16 starters return — but the record might not reflect it. The schedule is unforgiving. Pittsburgh faces Penn State, Oklahoma State and North Carolina in Weeks 2-4, then travels to Miami and Clemson later in the season.
“We started to change the culture,” says Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator. “We’re still building. We don’t look too far ahead. We try to win the day.”
Narduzzi is rapidly winning over a fan base that seeks stability after enduring five coaching changes the previous seven years. He says he plans to stick around and build a consistent winner. The foundation appears to be in place.