Pittsburgh beat a pair of conference champions (Clemson, Penn State) last season, but the 2017 Panthers are going to look a lot different. More than half of the starting lineup is gone as the offense will be led by a graduate transfer quarterback and the defense features a practically brand-new front seven. Pitt has been a solid team in the first two seasons under head coach Pat Narduzzi, but this fall could feature some growing pains with so much inexperience at key positions.
Previewing Pittsburgh Football’s Offense for 2017
If the Pittsburgh offense has any hope of duplicating its explosive numbers from last season, graduate transfer Max Browne must emerge as a capable replacement for two-year starting quarterback Nathan Peterman. A former five-star recruit who played three seasons at USC, Browne lost his job last fall after his third career start. He believes he can reignite his career in Pittsburgh, which went 8–5 and upset eventual national champion Clemson and Big Ten champ Penn State. The challenge for Browne and the rest of the offense is overcoming the departures of coordinator Matt Canada (who left for LSU), record-setting running back James Conner and Peterman, the 2016 ACC pass-efficiency leader. That trio helped Pittsburgh rank 10th nationally at 40.9 points per game.
Despite the losses, third-year coach Pat Narduzzi’s team is not bereft of playmakers. Junior Qadree Ollison stepped in for an injured Conner in 2015 and ran for 1,121 yards, earning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Also, Pittsburgh landed a stud back in freshman A.J. Davis.
Wideouts Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson are electric. Weah, a legit speedster, ranked second nationally at 24.2 yards per reception. He had 36 catches and 10 touchdowns. Henderson did it all, producing 10 touchdowns via runs (five), receptions (one) and returns (four). His average of 160.2 all-purpose yards ranked 11th nationally.
The offensive line lost two All-ACC performers but returns three experienced starters. Tackle Brian O’Neill and guard Alex Bookser both earned All-ACC honors.
Previewing Pittsburgh Football’s Defense for 2017
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With seven starters gone, the Panthers are hoping there can be a case of addition by subtraction on defense. Despite tying for eighth nationally in sacks and ranking 16th against the run, the defense was porous. It ranked 106th in points allowed (35.2 ppg) and second to last in pass defense (333.2 ypg).
Immediate relief should come in the form of Jordan Whitehead, a junior strong safety who missed four games (three with a broken arm). The 2015 ACC Rookie of the Year, Whitehead is a bona fide star, in the mold of former Pittsburgh great Darrelle Revis. Senior Avonte Maddox, who has led the Panthers in pass breakups and interceptions the past two seasons, returns at the boundary corner.
Questions abound about a front seven that features six new starters. The Panthers need defensive end Dewayne Hendrix to be a game-changer. A transfer from Tennessee, Hendrix has the size and athleticism to be a disruptive force, a necessity for a unit that must get better. Quickly.
Previewing Pittsburgh Football’s Specialists for 2017
Redshirt freshman Alex Kessman has the task of replacing the top-scoring placekicker in program history in Chris Blewitt. Senior Ryan Winslow enters his fourth season as the punter. Henderson led the nation in kickoff return touchdowns (three) and ranked third and fifth in punt and kickoff returns, respectively.
Pittsburgh made headlines by defeating national champion Clemson and Big Ten champ Penn State last season. The question is: What can it do for an encore? “We did some good things,” says Narduzzi, whose team lost four games by seven points or fewer. “But we still have work to do.”
Despite the loss of 12 starters, and a schedule that features back-to-back games with Penn State and Oklahoma State, Narduzzi believes the wins will keep coming. “The culture we’ve got going on right now and the enthusiasm of the players is at a high level,” he says.
Based on his first two seasons and a couple of strong recruiting classes, there is reason to believe Narduzzi can produce another solid year for the Panthers.