As feel-good stories go, few rivaled that of the 2021 Pittsburgh Panthers. Their leap to ACC champions featured a Heisman Trophy chase, a Biletnikoff Award for wideout Jordan Addison and the most victories for the program in 40 years.
Eighth-year coach Pat Narduzzi, awarded a contract extension through the 2030 season, is ready for the next step. “What happened last year? I don’t even remember,” says Narduzzi, whose program went 11–3, earned a No. 13 ranking and reached its first major bowl game in 17 years. Narduzzi’s Panthers look to overcome the departure of Addison and Heisman finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett and ride the momentum of a season ago.
Previewing Pitt's Offense for 2022
USC transfer Kedon Slovis is not expected to match Pickett’s 2021 numbers, but he is hardly a novice. This former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year completed 68 percent of his passes for 7,576 yards and 58 TDs in three seasons. His first year was his best, when he threw for 3,502 yards and 30 TDs in leading USC to an 8–5 record. Touted by USC as a Heisman candidate entering 2021, Slovis regressed, throwing for 2,153 yards with 11 TDs and eight interceptions. He entered the transfer portal last December due to a coaching change and the emergence of USC freshman Jaxson Dart (who later transferred to Ole Miss). Narduzzi personally recruited Slovis, who called his selection of Pittsburgh a “no-brainer.”
Longtime backup Nick Patti is a worthy challenger. Patti started the 2021 Peach Bowl before suffering a game-ending broken collarbone while diving for a touchdown. Whoever emerges, he must adjust to the departure of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who migrated to Nebraska after helping the Panthers rank No. 3 nationally in scoring (41.4 points) and No. 8 in total offense (486.6 yards). Longtime NCAA and NFL coaching vet Frank Cignetti Jr., a run-first devotee, returns to the coordinator role he held in 2009-10.
Reigning Biletnikoff winner Addison (100 receptions, 1,593 yards, FBS-best 17 TDs) opted to enter the transfer portal in late April and eventually landed at USC. It's no secret he will be missed, but Pitt still has capable weapons returning outside. Jared Wayne, a 6'3" senior who had 47 receptions, 658 yards and six TDs, will need to step up. Two other pass-catchers to watch: Akron transfer Konata Mumpfield, a Freshman All-American last season with 61 receptions for 751 yards and eight TDs, and sophomore tight end Gavin Bartholomew.
Cignetti will be empowered to run the ball behind a line that returns five starters in tackles Gabe Houy and Carter Warren, guards Jake Kradel and Marcus Minor and center Owen Drexel. The Panthers also return a trio of running backs in junior Israel Abanikanda, senior Vincent Davis and sophomore Rodney Hammond Jr. Bruising Daniel Carter emerged during spring drills.
Previewing Pitt's Defense for 2022
Six All-ACC selections return to a unit that ranked second nationally in sacks (3.86 per game) and fourth-down defense (26.9 percent). Pittsburgh also ranked fourth in defensive touchdowns (five), sixth in run defense (89.3 yards), eighth in interceptions (16), and 39th in total defense (353.6 yards).
Defensive tackle Calijah Kancey is the anchor. His seven sacks and 13 tackles for a loss earned him first-team All-ACC honors. Senior end and second-team All-ACC pick Habakkuk Baldonado paced Pittsburgh with nine sacks to go with 12 TFLs. Three other key returners — senior end Deslin Alexandre and senior tackles David Green and Devin Danielson — make this group one of the best in FBS.
At linebacker, second-team All-ACC pick SirVocea Dennis returns after posting a team-best 87 tackles along with 9.5 TFLs, four sacks and a blocked field goal. After Dennis, there is uncertainty. Four key ’backers are gone, most notably captain Cam Bright, who transferred to Washington. Notre Dame transfer Shayne Simon is intriguing but unproven (27 career tackles in 31 games). The former four-star recruit played only one game in 2021 due to a shoulder injury. Senior Brandon George (34 tackles, five TFLs), junior Bangally Kamara (two TFLs, forced fumble), and sophomore Solomon DeShields fortify this untested unit.
Pittsburgh’s secondary is a mixed bag. While three starters return in safeties Erick Hallett II and Brandon Hill and cornerback Marquis Williams, the numbers were uninspiring. Hallett, who received All-ACC honorable mention recognition, was a bright spot with three interceptions, nine pass breakups and two forced fumbles. The other corner spot could be manned by M.J. Devonshire and/or A.J. Woods.
Previewing Pitt's Specialists for 2022
Junior kicker Sam Scarton was named third-team All-ACC after converting 17-of-21 field goal attempts. Freshman Sam Vander Haar, a former Australian rules football player, could take over at punter. Addison and Abanikanda led Pittsburgh in punt and kickoff returns, respectively. Abanikanda had a 98-yard TD return.
Narduzzi put to rest questions about job security in leading Pittsburgh to its first Top 25 finish in 12 years and its most wins since the Dan Marino era. The key is sustaining this success. It is no secret that Pickett was the most impactful Pittsburgh player in decades. His former teammates, along with Slovis, are tasked with creating their own identity, while proving that 2021 was a harbinger of future success. Addison's late departure also adds to the tough assignment of matching last year's squad that won the ACC title.
National Ranking: 23
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions for 2022