Coming off their fourth five-loss season in six years, there are some knowns concerningPittsburgh heading into spring practice. Kenny Pickett will be back for year number five with the Panthers and what he is as a quarterback is pretty clear. Also, head coach Pat Narduzzi will once again field an aggressive, attacking defense because that is what he puts out every season.
But Pitt has some major questions surrounding the team as well. How these questions are answered will determine whether or not the Panthers can become more than the second-tier bowl option that they’ve been since Narduzzi took over.
5 Storylines to Watch During Pittsburgh's Spring Practices
1. Who will be the primary ball carrier?
The Panthers have finished 13th in the ACC in rushing offense each of the past two seasons. To make a leap forward in the standings, the ground game must improve and it starts by identifying who will be the main running back. Vincent Davis' 2020 numbers — 632 yards on 4.4 yards per carry — were far from spectacular and A.J. Davis led the way with similar totals in 2019. Both return, but Pittsburgh needs more. Much more. Watch for Israel Abankinda, a 2020 signee that appeared in seven games this past fall, to put himself in position for more touches.
2. New faces on the interior of the offensive line
Center Jimmy Morrissey's decision to enter the NFL draft will have the biggest impact on how the 2021 Pittsburgh offensive line looks, but guard Bryce Hargrove's departure will factor as well. Even with those two in the middle, the Panthers' front didn't have a great 2020 season. The running backs can't shoulder all the blame for the rushing woes and the quarterbacks did face too much pressure at times. Owen Drexel is a veteran that should take over for Morrissey while Maryland transfer Marcus Minor will compete with several holdovers for the vacant guard spot.
3. Catch... the... football
Considering the talent at the position, this issue has to be most perplexing for the Pitt coaching staff. Jordan Addison emerged as a star as a true freshman, catching 60 balls for 666 yards while Taysir Mack has 134 receptions for more than 1,900 yards in his collegiate career. But both had their share of missed opportunities as well. Along with quarterback Kenny Pickett, the pass-catching group should be the strength of the Pittsburgh offense and it will be a concern if word leaks out of drops continuing this spring.
4. Revamping the defensive line
Even though Jalen Twyman opted out before the 2020 season began, Pittsburgh still had one of the best defensive lines in America. But now Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver are gone and they have taken 16.5 sacks and 27.5 tackles for lost yardage with them. While there is talent returning, it is not Twyman-, Jones-, Weaver-type talent and depth could be a concern. End Deslin Alexandre saw his production decline last year, but this spring the most experienced member of the defensive line will be asked to become the leader of this group.
5. Piecing the secondary together
Like the line, the defensive backfield suffered its own heavy personnel losses as the season came to a close. Damar Hamlin, Paris Ford, and Jason Pinnock all played a lot of quality football and they will be difficult to replace. The restructuring starts with Erick Hallett and A.J. Woods, two juniors that were key contributors this past fall. Head coach Pat Narduzzi also is hoping that sophomore Rashad Battle cements a starting job at corner this spring.
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— 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.
(Vincent Davis photo courtesy of pittsburghpanthers.com)