Another year. Another coach for Pittsburgh football. The Panthers got three full seasons out of Paul Chryst before he returned to Wisconsin, but that’s better than a stretch in 2010-12 when Pitt hired three head coaches and employed two interims in bowl games. It’s no wonder that Pitt has gone merely 6-6 in each of the last four regular seasons. Now, Pitt looks to Pat Narduzzi — Michigan State’s decorated defensive coordinator — to get the Panthers over the hump.
Previewing Pittsburgh’s Offense for 2015
As top-tier tandems go, James Conner and Tyler Boyd have few equals. Conner not only beat out defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston for ACC Player of the Year honors, but he was also named a first-team All-American after rushing for 1,765 yards (5.9 per carry) and an ACC-record 26 touchdowns. Boyd, meantime, became the first player in conference history to compile 1,000 receiving yards in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. The first-team All-ACC selection had 78 receptions for 1,261 yards (16.2 per catch). Conner is a legit Heisman candidate, Boyd a legit Biletnikoff Award contender.
The question is: Can the two juniors provide enough firepower to an offense that features question marks at quarterback and on the offensive line? And can they help the program adjust to its fifth head coach in seven years? Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi replaced Paul Chryst, who left for his alma mater, Wisconsin. “We’re here to lead this team,” Conner says. “We’re here to try to win a championship.”
Junior quarterback Chad Voytik is the X-factor. After a sluggish first half of last season, Voytik experienced a profound turnaround. He averaged nearly 200 yards and completed 64.5 percent of his passes as Pittsburgh averaged 35 points in its final six games. If he continues to evolve, the offense could flourish under new coordinator Jim Chaney, who mentored Drew Brees at Purdue and revitalized Arkansas’ offense last season.
Previewing Pittsburgh’s Defense for 2015
First-year coordinator Josh Conklin was known for his attacking style last season at Florida International. “We want our defenses to have an opportunistic mentality,” Narduzzi says. “Josh will help us achieve that.”
Unlike the offense, the defense lacks star power. It lost its top two tacklers from last season and faces uncertainty across the board. Third-year starting middle linebacker Matt Galambos must pilot the unit during this transition phase.
An intriguing prospect is outside linebacker Bam Bradley, whose name resembles his hitting style. He had 36 tackles, four tackles for a loss, two sacks and an interception. On the opposite side, senior Nicholas Grigsby (three sacks) will be relied upon to use his speed and explosiveness to induce more turnovers and big plays.
Fourth-year starter Lafayette Pitts provides experience in the secondary, and safety Reggie Mitchell returns after leading the team with seven pass breakups. At defensive end, sophomore Rori Blair (team-high five sacks) could be a linchpin for this newfangled attack-first unit.
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Previewing Pittsburgh’s Specialists for 2015
Kicker Chris Blewitt returns after converting 16-of-21 field goals (76 percent). Sophomore punter Ryan Winslow averaged 40.1 yards on 50 punts. Boyd ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the ACC in kickoff and punt returns, respectively.
Seven years. Five coaches. Zero continuity. That is the storyline for Pittsburgh, which hired Narduzzi in December. The situation is confounding and maddening to a fan base that’s been witness to a program mired in mediocrity. Whether Narduzzi can provide stability is unclear, but the former Michigan State defensive coordinator offers a snappy résumé as a career assistant. Under Narduzzi, Michigan State was the only school in the FBS to rank in the top 10 in total and rushing defense the past four seasons. He inherits a Panthers team that was the youngest in the nation with 81 underclassmen (53 freshmen and 28 sophomores). Fifteen starters return.
Pittsburgh features game-changers in Conner and Boyd, but a transition to a new coaching staff — again — and uncertainty at quarterback and on defense will surely create challenges.