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Pittsburgh Football: 2020 Panthers Season Preview and Prediction

Pittsburgh Football: 2020 Panthers Season Preview and Prediction

Pittsburgh Football: 2020 Panthers Season Preview and Prediction

Pat Narduzzi’s name swirled around the rumor mill after his former boss at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio, retired in February. It was widely believed that, if offered, Narduzzi would return to the school where he served as defensive coordinator for eight seasons. For some Pittsburgh faithful, this was a concern, given that Narduzzi has produced a 36–29 record and four bowl appearances since arriving in 2015.

For others, this might have served as a timely change, given that Narduzzi is 25–26 versus Power 5 conference teams and owns just one bowl victory. His 2019 team went 8–5, 4–4 in the ACC Coastal Division.

Narduzzi's response? “I’m here at Pitt. I want to be here at Pitt. That’s where I’m going to be.”

And so he is. Narduzzi will lead a Pittsburgh program that enters 2020 with a top-rated defense, a veteran quarterback and more optimism than at any time in his tenure.

“I want to win championships here,” Narduzzi says. “That’s our goal.”

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2020

Previewing Pitt's Offense for 2020 

In Pittsburgh’s 34–30 Quick Lane Bowl victory over Eastern Michigan, quarterback Kenny Pickett’s performance — 27-of-39 for 361 yards with three touchdowns — gave hope that he and second-year coordinator Mark Whipple could put an ineffective 2019 in the past. While Pickett completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,098 yards, he threw only 13 touchdown passes.

A year after the Panthers produced two 1,000-yard rushers, Pittsburgh’s top runner was rising senior A.J. Davis with 530 yards. The question is: Who can turn the running game around? Maybe Davis. Or, perhaps, freshman Israel Abanikanda, the New York Gatorade Player of the Year. There is also sophomore Vincent Davis (314 yards, 5.1 per carry) and junior Todd Sibley Jr. (249, 5.0).

At wideout, the loss of Maurice Ffrench (96 receptions, 850 yards) could be assuaged by acrobatic senior Taysir Mack, who had big games versus Penn State (12 catches for 125 yards) and Delaware (5 for 124) en route to averaging nearly 12 yards on 63 catches. He’ll be joined by Shocky Jacques-Louis (23 receptions) and sophomore Jared Wayne (18) in the starting lineup.

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At tight end, Pittsburgh hopes to get a jolt from graduate transfer Lucas Krull, a 6'6", 260-pounder who had nine catches for 108 yards in two seasons at Florida.

First-team All-ACC center Jimmy Morrissey and senior left guard Bryce Hargrove, a third-team All-ACC pick, anchor a line that looks to improve on both pass protection (64 quarterback hurries) and run blocking. Carter Warren (13 starts) and Jake Kradel (seven) are back at left tackle and right guard, respectively. Look for juniors Gabe Houy and Carson Van Lynn and converted tight end Grant Carrigan to compete at right tackle. Hampton graduate transfer K.J. Wilson will join the team to push for a starting job in the fall.

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Previewing Pitt's Defense for 2020 

Eight starters return from a unit that ranked first nationally in sacks (3.92 per game), ninth in tackles for a loss (7.9), 11th in pass efficiency rating (112.93), 12th in rushing yards allowed (108.5) and 15th in total yards allowed (312.9) last season.

The line, led by All-ACC picks Patrick Jones II and Jaylen Twyman, sets the tempo. Twyman’s 10.5 sacks ranked 16th nationally at 0.81 per game. He tied for the team lead with 12 TFLs with Jones, who himself forced four fumbles (fifth in the NCAA) and had 18 quarterback hurries, 8.5 sacks and 43 tackles.

The synergy between that duo and the tandem of projected 2019 starters Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp (both of whom missed the season with injuries) could be seismic. Weaver, a long and athletic end, led Pittsburgh with 6.5 sacks and 14 TFLs in ’18. Camp had 2.5 TFLs and two sacks two seasons ago. Deslin Alexandre (5.5 sacks, 10.5 TFLs) was a productive starter in Weaver’s absence.

The linebacking corps of senior Chase Pine (middle), junior Cam Bright (outside) and senior Phil Campbell III (outside) is promising, yet relatively inexperienced. Campbell, a converted safety, had 56 tackles, 8.0 TFLs and two forced fumbles in nine starts. Bright ranked third on the team with 62 tackles, including nine TFLs, and Pine had 19 tackles as a reserve. “If (Pine) stays consistent,” Narduzzi says, “he can be a freaking big-time NFL middle linebacker.”

The safety duo of Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin rivals any in the ACC. “I would say it probably is the best tandem in the country right now,” Narduzzi says. Ford, a devastating hitter, led Pittsburgh with 97 tackles and three interceptions and added 11 PBUs, while Hamlin finished with 84 tackles, 10 PBUs and a pick. Each considered turning pro. That duo joins corners Damarri Mathis and Jason Pinnock in a defense with the potential to rank among the nation’s best.

Previewing Pitt's Specialists for 2020 

Four-year starter Alex Kessman has a career field-goal rate of 68.7 percent (46-of-67). Three-year starter Kirk Christodoulou averaged 42.9 yards per punt last season.

Final Analysis 

Ten wins or bust? Doesn’t seem far-fetched for an eight-win team that returns 15 starters. Three years ago, athletic director Heather Lyke showed faith in Narduzzi after a 5–7 season by extending his contract to 2024. Now, the sixth-year coach can reward his AD by coaxing greatness out of the most talented team of his tenure.

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National Ranking: 39