The 2021 season was a long time coming for the University of Pittsburgh. A school with a proud football tradition featuring the likes of Hugh Green, Tony Dorsett, and Dan Marino, the Panthers had not been to a major bowl game since 2004 and that was their only appearance on college football's big postseason stage in nearly 40 years.
This past fall, with head coach Pat Narduzzi making the right calls and quarterback Kenny Pickett leading the way on the field, Pittsburgh won the ACC championship and played Michigan State in the Peach Bowl. Now the goal is to remain on top, something that will be a challenge in the chaotic Coastal Division and with Clemson reloading on the other side.
One step in defending the crown is making sure spring sessions are successful. Pitt opens that portion of their season this week and here are five things to keep an eye on as the pads start popping.
5 Storylines to Watch During Pittsburgh's Spring Practice
1. The new offensive system
In a bit of a surprise, Mark Whipple decided to leave Pittsburgh, accepting the offensive coordinator position with Nebraska. The veteran play-caller had been with the Panthers for three seasons and saw the fruits of his labor last fall when his unit led the ACC and finished third nationally with 41.4 points per game. Taking Whipple's place is another experienced assistant in Frank Cignetti Jr. The well-traveled Cignetti has had two previous stints at Pitt, first as a graduate assistant in 1989 and then as a coordinator in 2009-10. It will be interesting to see the changes he makes to the offense, especially considering the arrival of…
2. Kedon Slovis
It is unfair to expect Slovis to do what Kenny Pickett did last fall. But the USC transfer is an accomplished passer that may be exactly what this Pittsburgh team needs. As a freshman in 2019, Slovis completed 72 percent of his throws for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns. While his numbers dipped the past two seasons and he won't be a running threat at all, the Panthers just need a quarterback that can get the ball in the hands of their talented receivers accurately and on time. Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison is back and he is aided by a solid No. 2 receiver in Jared Wayne. Developing a rapport with those targets will be important over the coming weeks.
3. Can the Panthers crank up the running game?
They did improve in this area last fall, but there’s still a ways to go. After two years of averaging under 120 yards per game on the ground, Pitt jumped up to 149 yards a contest in 2021. The trio of Israel Abanikanda, Vincent Davis, and Rodney Hammond split carries fairly evenly last season and all return, but watch for Abanikanda, who may have the highest ceiling of the group. Pickett could pick up first downs rushing when needed, something that won’t be a part of Slovis' game, so the backs will have to step up even more.
4. Clean up the pass defense
It was kind of a bizarre thing. Pittsburgh led the ACC and finished third in the country with 54 sacks. But they also were 114th in passing yards allowed per game. So when the opposing quarterback had time to throw, the Pitt D was exposed. Ten times opponents passed for more than 300 yards and four times Pittsburgh allowed 400-plus yards. The Panthers surrendered 150 pass plays of 10 yards or more, which was 128th out of 130 FBS teams. Narduzzi likes to be aggressive and as a result, they will give up some home runs, but those numbers are not acceptable.
5. Developing depth at linebacker
Sirvocea Dennis and Phil Campbell are proven commodities with Dennis coming off a second-team All-ACC season. After those two, things get a bit thin with Cam Bright, Wendell Davis, John Petrishen, and Chase Pine not returning. Senior Brandon George will probably step into the third starting spot, though watch out for Notre Dame transfer Shayne Simon. The defensive line could be as good as any in the land and the secondary is experienced, but Pitt needs to get to a place where one injury at linebacker is not devastating.
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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.