Enthusiasm was palpable and realistic for Pittsburgh entering the 2020 season. Yet, despite a roster dotted with NFL hopefuls, the Panthers managed only a 6–5 record, their 11th consecutive season with five losses or more, including all eight seasons since moving to the ACC. This left the fanbase lukewarm.
Pat Narduzzi enters his seventh season as the third-longest-tenured Pittsburgh head coach in more than 50 years. And with a contract that runs through the 2024 season, he provides stability. The question is: Can he provide a Top 25 finish and/or a double-digit win total? He's achieved neither. In 2020, the Panthers started 3–0, lost their next four but salvaged a winning record with three victories in their last four games.
With quarterback Kenny Pickett back for a fifth season and an always-aggressive defense, Pittsburgh hopes to build on the strong finish.
Previewing Pittsburgh's Offense for 2021
A rare five-year veteran, Pickett completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 2,408 yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions for Pittsburgh's 39th-ranked passing offense. He twice passed for more than 400 yards. He also added eight rushing touchdowns.
A natural leader, Pickett must coax improved results from a substandard running game that ranked 111th nationally at 119.9 yards per game. This lack of run production weighed heavily on an offense that ranked 96th in yards per play (5.13 per game) and 58th in points (29.0), while converting only 27 of 47 red zone trips into TDs.
All of which raises the question: Can the Panthers fix their running woes? Perhaps. Junior tailback Vincent Davis sparkled in a season-ending win over Georgia Tech with 247 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. If he can build on that performance — and move beyond an otherwise inconsistent 2020 (3.3 yards per carry in his other 10 games) — he could take pressure off Pickett. Other potential contributors are super senior A.J. Davis Jr. (970 career yards, 266 on 61 carries in '20) and Israel Abanikanda, a highly regarded 2020 recruit.
At receiver, a player to watch is ACC Rookie of the Year runner-up Jordan Addison, who led the nation's freshmen in receptions per game (6.0) and total receptions (60). A slick route-runner with breakaway speed, Addison posted Pittsburgh's best freshman receiving season since Tyler Boyd in 2013. His focus in the spring was avoiding drops, as he had 10 in 2020. Complementing Addison are seniors Shocky Jacques-Louis (26 catches for 327 yards in 2020) and Taysir Mack (134 career receptions). Pittsburgh also expects Florida transfer Lucas Krull, who was limited to one game due to a knee injury, to bolster a tight end position that's produced little in recent years.
On the line, the loss of three-time All-ACC center Jimmy Morrissey leaves a void for a unit that underperformed. Tackles Carter Warren (eight starts) and Gabe Houy (eight starts) bring experience, as do guards Jake Kradel (eight starts), Blake Zubovic (two starts), and Maryland transfer Marcus Minor (17 career starts).
Previewing Pittsburgh's Defense for 2021
Always the backbone of Narduzzi-led teams, the Pittsburgh defense ranked second nationally in sacks (4.18 per game) and tackles for a loss (10.1), third in rush defense (93.5), ninth in interceptions (14), and 20th in yards allowed (339.5). Five starters are gone, several of whom could find work in the NFL.
The losses of 2020 All-America defensive ends Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver will sting. A key returner is Deslin Alexandre (15 career starts), who posted 6.5 TFLs, three sacks and a fumble recovery as Weaver's backup. Promising tackle Devin Danielson (21 tackles and two sacks in seven starts) returns. He'll team up with senior Keyshon Camp, a sturdy force who's struggled through injuries the past two seasons, and sophomore Calijah Kancey (seven TFLs).
Linebacker should be a strength with the return of Cam Bright (53 tackles, 8.5 TFLs), Phil Campbell (4.5 sacks), SirVocea Dennis (14.5 TFLs and four sacks), and Chase Pine (43 tackles, seven TFLs). Wendell Davis, who opened 2020 as the starting middle linebacker, is back after a Week 2 injury short-circuited his season.
The secondary, in transition after the departures of star safeties Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford, has experience on the corners with A.J. Woods, Marquis Williams, Rashad Battle and senior Damarri Mathis, who played well in 2019 (11 pass breakups) but missed 2020 with a shoulder injury. Junior Erick Hallett II showed promise (30 tackles, two interceptions) at safety.
Previewing Pittsburgh's Specialists for 2021
Either Ben Sauls or Sam Scarton will replace four-year starter Alex Kessman at kicker. Senior Kirk Christodoulou returns after ranking 16th nationally at 44.7 yards per punt.
Pittsburgh expects better than 11 consecutive years of five or more losses. Narduzzi said a year ago that "I want to win championships here" when speculation swirled that he could leave for the then-open Michigan State job. It was a good soundbite. But in reality, the Pittsburgh fan base would be satisfied with fewer losses, a Top 25 finish and something other than a second-tier bowl game. With Pickett back, there is hope. However, expect Pittsburgh to stay on trend in 2021.
National Ranking: 41
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions