Kenny Pickett looks to take a step forward this spring
The Pittsburgh Panthers didn't play their best football at the end of the 2019 season. Sitting at 4-2 in the wide-open ACC Coastal Division with two games remaining, Pitt was drubbed by Virginia Tech and then fell at home to Boston College. A team that had hopes of winning a second straight division title and earning a possible Orange Bowl bid ended up in the Quick Lane Bowl, where the Panthers narrowly beat Eastern Michigan.
But with spring comes new life and that is exactly what the Panthers are hoping for in 2020. Over the next few weeks, Pat Narduzzi and his staff will be focused on developing the offense as the team returns the core of the nation's 15th-ranked defense.
Here are some items to follow during Pittsburgh's spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch During Pittsburgh's Spring Practice
1. Kenny Pickett
Can he become a difference-maker at quarterback? To this point in his career, the senior-to-be as been at best a competent game manger, but this offense needs more. He threw for nearly 3,100 yards last season, but he had just 13 touchdown passes and his 6.6 yards per attempt ranked 91st nationally out of 98 qualifying quarterbacks. Maurice Ffrench is gone from the receiving corps, but Pickett still has good pass-catching options like Taysir Mack and Shocky Jacques-Louis.
2. Can Pittsburgh run the ball?
They couldn't in 2019, averaging just 119 rushing yards per game. The team's leading rusher, A.J. Davis, returns, but he only had 530 yards on the ground and may not be considered the leading candidate to log the most carries this season. Freshman Vincent Davis was the primary ball carrier in the Quick Lane Bowl, going for 69 yards and a score. Of course, there is more to a successful ground game than just the backs.
3. Can the offensive line improve?
They were young and inexperienced last fall and it showed. The running game was an issue and Pickett oftentimes wasn't throwing out of the cleanest pocket. But now that group is a year older and a season stronger. Center Jimmy Morrissey was named first-team All-ACC last year and guard Bryce Hargrove was named to the third team. The line will lose tackle Nolan Ulizio, but he is the only departing starter. And this unit will certainly be tested this spring.
4. How good can the defensive line be?
The O-line could really make strides because they will be knocking heads with an exceptional defensive line. Returnees Jalen Twyman, Patrick Jones, and Deslin Alexandre combined for 24.5 sacks and 34 tackles for lost yardage. As a group, the Panthers ranked third nationally in sacks with 51 and were No. 10 with 103 tackles for lost yardage. With two starters also returning at linebacker, Pitt's front seven could be one of the nation's best.
5. Developing depth in the secondary
The four starters are set: Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford at safety with Jason Pinnock and Demarri Mathis at corner. And much like the front seven, this unit should be very good. But with corner Dane Jackson out of eligibility, it will be interesting to see how some of the younger players progress this spring to provide depth. Marquis Williams has played sparingly during his time at Pitt, but he has talent as does classmate Erick Hallett. Plus, there is early enrollee freshman Jordan Addison, Pitt's highest-rated recruit in the most recent class.
— 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.