At first glance, the 2018 season could be viewed as unremarkable for a Pittsburgh team that finished .500.
But a deeper look reveals that the Panthers won their first ACC Coastal Division championship, played in the conference title game and briefly broke into the national rankings after a one-year hiatus. Progress? Yes. Unfinished business? No doubt.
"Our goal is to win football games," says coach Pat Narduzzi, entering his fifth season. "Obviously, we got to a championship game, but we still would like to win them all."
Signed through 2024, Narduzzi is the longest-tenured Panthers coach since Dave Wannstedt from 2005-10. Three coaches followed Wannstedt — one lasted two weeks, another one year and another three years — before Narduzzi delivered stability. His challenge in Year 5 is replacing two 1,000-yard rushers, four offensive linemen and 12 starters. The hope is for quarterback Kenny Pickett to show marked improvement, and for the defense to build on a solid finish.
Previewing Pitt's Offense for 2019
Dissatisfied by his team's lack of production (26 total points in its final three games), Narduzzi fired coordinator Shawn Watson and replaced him with former University of Massachusetts head coach Mark Whipple. The hope is for Whipple, who once mentored a young Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers, to be a quarterback whisperer to Pickett. In his first season as a starter, Pickett steered an offense that ranked 121st nationally in passing yards (141.8 ypg), 98th in total offense (369.7 ypg) and 94th in points (25.6 ppg). In his final three games, he threw for a combined 274 yards and zero TDs. He finished with 1,969 yards, 12 touchdowns, six interceptions, 33 sacks and a 58.1 completion percentage.
This area must improve dramatically, particularly with the departures of 1,000-yard running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Whipple placed a large emphasis on throwing the ball in the spring, prompting wideout Aaron Matthews to say, "This is practice nine, and I feel like I have more touches than I had the past three years."
Senior Maurice Ffrench displayed intriguing potential last season, finishing with 35 receptions for 515 yards and six TDs. Those totals included TD catches of 70, 58 and 50 yards. Junior Taysir Mack, who averaged 22.3 yards on 25 catches, could benefit from Whipple’s presence.
Narduzzi-led teams have always produced solid run games, and it will be up to relatively untested junior A.J. Davis (134 yards on 32 carries in '18) and sophomore Todd Sibley Jr. to set the tempo early. Mychale Salahuddin, the top recruit of '18, and V'Lique Carter could be factors as the season progresses. Carter ran for 202 yards last season, including 137 and two touchdowns on only seven carries versus Duke.
"Don’t believe, 'Air Narduzzi,'" the Pittsburgh coach says. "We're going to run the ball."
On the line, Michigan graduate transfer Nolan Ulizio and third-year starting center Jimmy Morrissey must set the standard for what will be an inexperienced unit.
Previewing Pitt's Defense for 2019
The final statistics do not tell the entire story of the 2018 Pittsburgh defense. Sure, there were forgettable moments, but the Panthers also held Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest to a combined 48 points during a late-season surge. And, in their final six games, opponents averaged only 323 yards.
Safety Damar Hamlin and cornerback Dane Jackson, both honorable mention All-ACC picks, offer senior leadership in the secondary. Hamlin led with 90 tackles and two interceptions in '18. Jackson finished with a team-high 14 pass break-ups and four forced fumbles. This duo could be joined in the secondary by junior corner Jason Pinnock (two interceptions) and sophomore safety Paris Ford, a highly regarded recruit who will attempt to live up to his billing.
The linebacking corps lost a trio that combined for 171 tackles and 20.5 tackles for a loss. Look for junior Elias Reynolds, who started seven games in the middle, to be the catalyst for this new wave of starters. The junior registered 49 tackles, including 12 versus Duke. Converted safety Phil Campbell III and 2018 backups Saleem Brightwell (14 games), Chase Pine (14), and Cam Bright (14) will share playing time. Florida transfer Kylan Johnson was added to the roster in May and will push for time in the fall.
At end, junior Rashad Weaver is back after leading Pittsburgh in sacks (6.5) and tackles for a loss (14). Oft-injured junior tackle Keyshon Camp led the interior line with 18 quarterback pressures and two sacks in just seven games.
Previewing Pitt's Specialists for 2019
Everyone returns, including placekicker Alex Kessman (24 career field goals), punter Kirk Christodoulou (19 punts inside the 20) and standout returner Ffrench (two kickoff returns for touchdowns).
Where do the Panthers go from here? When, if ever, will the breakthrough occur? Pittsburgh has not finished in the end-of-season top 25 in 10 years and last recorded double-digit wins in 2009. Narduzzi won eight games in each of his first two seasons, but those totals shrunk to five and seven in 2017 and '18, respectively.
This Pittsburgh team is made up entirely of Narduzzi recruits. And while the roster includes talent, Pittsburgh still needs more time to break into the upper echelon of college football and into a top-end bowl game.