Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers open spring with a new offensive coordinator, quarterback and re-tooled running game
This will be Pat Narduzzi’s third spring practice as the head coach at Pittsburgh. The former Michigan State assistant has brought stability to a program that needed it in the worst way. But Narduzzi knows that his job is far from done. He loses several important pieces from last year’s team and has not had the personnel on defense to make his scheme truly effective. This spring will be another step in building the Pitt program in his image.
5 Storylines to Watch During Pitt’s Spring Practice
1. Max Browne
The former five-star recruit that left USC after losing his starting job to Sam Darnold comes to Pittsburgh as a graduate transfer. Browne has the tools and is expected to be Nathan Peterman’s replacement, though redshirt freshman Thomas MacVittie may be the long-term answer at the position. Browne needs to develop a rapport with his offensive line and receivers over the next few weeks.
2. Qadree Ollison
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound running back had a very good freshman season in 2015 after star running back James Conner went down. When Conner returned to action last fall, Ollison disappeared. The Panthers need Ollison to step it back up with Conner off to the NFL. Sophomores Darrin Hall and Shawntez Moss also will have big roles, but a rejuvenated Ollison should be the primary ball carrier.
3. Another New Offensive Coordinator
Matt Canada did an outstanding job in 2016 in his only season running the Pittsburgh offense. The Panthers finished No. 38 in total offense and No. 10 in scoring offense and Canada did so well that he was hired by Ed Orgeron to take the same position at LSU. New offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has had an up-and-down recent run. After helping head coach Charlie Strong develop Teddy Bridgewater into a first-round NFL Draft pick at Louisville, Watson was let go by Strong at Texas during the 2015 season.
4. The Defensive Line
After six years at Pitt, Ejuan Price is no longer a Panther. Over the past two seasons, Price had 24.5 sacks and 42.5 tackles for lost yardage. And he’s not the only big producer whose career at Pittsburgh has ended. Defensive tackle Shakir Soto made the most of his final year with the Panthers by registering 10 tackles for lost yardage and 4.5 sacks. Narduzzi hopes that Amir Watts emerges inside, but he will need to see multiple players improve to fill the massive void left by Price.
5. The Secondary
Narduzzi likes to put pressure on the opposing quarterback and when that happens, the cornerbacks are asked to cover man-to-man. The Panthers’ head man loves aggressive, physical play in the defensive backfield. That was a problem in 2016 as the members of the secondary were not equipped for that type of play. Unfortunately, the best Pitt corner in 2016 – Ryan Lewis – has used up his eligibility. To make matters worse, safeties Terrish Webb and Reggie Mitchell are gone as well. The good news is that star safety Jordan Whitehead will return after suffering an arm injury in the Clemson game.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Pittsburgh in the ACC
Pittsburgh has a ton of questions entering spring ball. Beyond the areas mentioned, Matt Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson need to be replaced on the left side of the offensive line and Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara will not be back at linebacker. That makes for a lot of work for Pat Narduzzi and his staff. But let’s look at the positive aspects of this team, and there are a few. QB Max Browne and RB Qadree Ollison could headline a very good backfield. Quadree Henderson is a dynamic playmaker catching the ball, on jet sweeps, and in the return game. And if healthy, safety Jordan Whitehead has the potential to be a defensive star. But with all of their holes – and two very tough non-conference games against Penn State and Oklahoma State – gaining bowl eligibility in year three may be a major accomplishment for Narduzzi.
— 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.