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Pittsburgh Football: Panthers' 2019 Spring Preview

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Pittsburgh Football: Panthers' 2019 Spring Preview

Pittsburgh Football: Panthers' 2019 Spring Preview

If you watch Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi roam the sidelines during a game, stable is not a word that comes to mind. He is constantly on the move, encouraging players and screaming at referees in his own, unique, emotional way.

But looking at the recent history of the Pittsburgh football program, stability is exactly what Narduzzi has brought. Following Dave Wannstedt’s departure after the 2010 season, Pitt had Michael Haywood running the show for two whole weeks prior to his domestic abuse arrest, Todd Graham for one year, and Paul Chryst for three before he went back home to Wisconsin.

The volatile Narduzzi is now entering his fifth season at Pitt and though the Panthers have not had the success that was seen in the 1970s and early '80s, there have been moments to build upon. That is exactly what Narduzzi and his staff hope to do after winning the ACC Coastal crown in 2018, and the process continues with the upcoming spring session.

5 Storylines to Watch During Pittsburgh’s Spring Practice

1. Running back

It was wonderful that Pat Narduzzi had Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall running the ball last year. It’s unfortunate, though, that they both expired their eligibility at the same time. To a defensive-minded coach like Narduzzi, the running game is vital and developing a backfield rotation this spring is paramount. Junior-to-be A.J. Davis and his career 174 yards is the leading returning rusher but he will be pushed by former four-star recruit Todd Sibley this spring. Mychale Salahuddin was the highest-rated prospect in Pittsburgh's 2018 class, but he may be limited this spring with an injury suffered leading up to the Sun Bowl.

2. Kenny Pickett

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In reality, the running game will not be as strong as it was in 2018. That means that Pitt needs more out of their quarterback. Pickett’s primary objective in 2018 was to limit mistakes and he threw just six interceptions. But he also only passed for 141 yards per game and his 6.4 yards per attempt ranked 93rd nationally among quarterbacks with enough attempts to qualify. With receivers Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack returning, Pickett will have some targets despite the loss of the dependable Rafael Araujo-Lopes.

3. Putting the offensive line pieces in place

Another offensive challenge is that the line is going to be very young. Four starters along the offensive front must be replaced, including Alex Bookser, a versatile blocker who played in 50 games during his Pitt career. The offensive staff needs to figure out which player is best at which position but this group will be aided by the arrival of Nolan Ulizio, a graduate transfer that started six games in his career at Michigan.

4. Linebacker battles

The situation at linebacker may not be as concerning as it is on the offensive line, but that position took a significant personnel hit following 2018, as well. Leading tackler Oluwaseun Idowu is gone as are Elijah Zeise and Quintin Wirginis, the latter a very good player that battled injuries his final two years at Pitt. Elias Reynolds and Saleem Brightwell are the two linebackers that have played real minutes and they go into the spring as starters, but everything else is wide open on the two-deep. Watch out for Wendell Davis, a redshirt freshman from Richmond, Virginia.

5. Who is the safety next to Hamlin?

Damar Hamlin broke through in 2018 with 76 tackles and a couple of interceptions. He gives Narduzzi some options in that he can play both free and strong safety. Dennis Briggs has run out of eligibility, so someone must step up at one of the safety positions to complement Hamlin. Phil Campbell will likely enter the spring atop the depth chart at strong safety, but he will have competition. With two solid corners, it would not be a surprise to see prized 2017 recruit Paris Ford get a look at free safety.

— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.