It was an adventurous first season for Pat Narduzzi at Pittsburgh. The year started with an injury to his best player, who was later diagnosed with cancer. There was a tough loss at Iowa, the result of a 57-yard field goal converted by the Hawkeyes at the final gun. There was ACC Coastal contention that was ended with a Thursday night loss to North Carolina at the end of October.
All in all, an 8-5 record and a bowl appearance in your first year as an FBS head coach is not a bad start. Also, Narduzzi looks like he will be at Pitt for the long haul, which is something that is very important for a program in search of stability.
Let’s take a look at the Panthers heading into the spring.
5 Storylines to Watch in Pittsburgh’s Spring Practice
1. James Conner
Obviously, coming off of Hodgkin’s lymphoma treatments, contact drills will not be in Conner’s near future. But the 2014 ACC Player of the Year will be the main talking point for Pitt followers this spring. It will be interesting to see how much he is participating and how he looks. The early reports are very promising and Narduzzi expects Conner to be on the field come this fall. Undoubtedly, Conner will be excited to get back on the field with his guys.
2. Finding a New No. 1 Wide Receiver
Tyler Boyd caught 43 percent of Pitt’s completions in 2015. He had 65 more receptions than the Panthers’ second leading receiver, Dontez Ford. Quarterback Nathan Peterman’s security blanket is now gone and a new top target needs to emerge. No one person is going to replace Boyd, but younger receivers like Zach Challingsworth, Elijah Zeise and Quadree Henderson will be asked to help Ford carry the load. Challingsworth is recovering from shoulder surgery, making it unlikely that he will see significant action this spring.
3. The Development of the Offensive Line
The left side of the line is very experienced with guard Dorian Johnson and All-American candidate Adam Bisnowaty. The center position and the right side are young, but it’s not like they are without experience. Redshirt freshman Brian O’Neill, a converted tight end, started the last 11 games of the season at tackle and sophomore Alex Officer was the starting right guard. The Panthers lose center Artie Rowell and it is possible that Officer is bumped to that spot. Sophomore-to-be Alex Bookser would appear to have the inside track on the open line spot over veterans Gabe Roberts and John Guy. Jaryd Jones-Smith also returns after missing 2015 due to injury.
4. The Jordan Whitehead Experience
The Aliquippa, Pa., product was expected to make an impact in the defensive backfield. But his play on both sides of the ball, a performance that resulted in ACC Rookie of the Year honors, was a surprise to many. How he is used this spring will be fascinating to watch. Obviously, Whitehead will be at his safety position on defense, a spot from which he led the Panthers with 109 total tackles. He carried the ball just 12 times last year, but averaged 10.2 yards on each of those chances. Will he see more touches out of the backfield in 2016? With the lack of playmakers at wide receiver, will Narduzzi get the ball in his team’s most electric athlete that way? No one knows at this point, but one would expect that Whitehead will be even more involved on both sides of the ball than he was in 2015.
5. Finding a Rotation at Defensive Tackle
Along with Whitehead, Pitt has a lot of talent returning on the defensive side of the ball. Ejuan Price was granted a sixth year of eligibility and he is coming off a monster season where he piled up 11.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss. Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara are a solid linebacker duo and corner Avonte Maddox helps Whitehead out on the last level of defense. But Pittsburgh needs to develop some depth on the interior of the defensive line. With all those productive players at other positions, Narduzzi does not need tackles that are stars. But with Darryl Render and K.K. Smith-Mosely out of eligibility, the Panthers hope that guys like Tyrique Jarrett, Jeremiah Taleni, Connor Dintino and Justin Moody can make an impact.
Pre-Spring Pittsburgh Outlook in the ACC
Once again, the ACC Coastal Division should be wide open. With what Pitt has returning, the Panthers should be a major factor in the division race. The one glaring issue is finding a No. 1 receiving option for Nathan Peterman. Perhaps a receiver currently on campus steps up, but it’s also possible that an incoming freshman like Ruben Flowers, Henry Miller or George Hill become a factor in the passing game. Plus, this is a Pat Narduzzi-coached team. The first order of business will be to play good defense. Pitt will do that. Second will be to run the football. With an experienced offensive line and a good stable of backs with or without James Conner, it’s likely that the ground game will not be a problem. In year two of the Narduzzi regime, Pitt should be able to improve on last year’s 8-5 record.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.