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2018 Opponent Previews: Pittsburgh

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A late surge last season could mean a better outlook this fall, but Pitt may still be a year away

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Tech Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Countdown to Kickoff: 32 days

For the second straight year, Tech will open ACC play with Pitt, a division rival that made some noise in 2016 but fell off dramatically this past season.

As Pitt enters the fourth season of the Pat Narduzzi era, the Panthers are coming off a transition year that ended on a high note, and their coach does seem to be gradually laying the foundation for success in the future. But Pitt will very likely need another transition year to reach that future... and while Narduzzi’s job is in no immediate danger, it’s not clear how much of a leash he will be given to see it through, particularly if Pitt misses a bowl again.

Last Season in Review

As Bill Connelly described in his preview of the Panthers in mid-July, Pitt’s season divided rather nicely into two parts: their 2-5 start and their 3-2 finish. To Pitt’s credit, their early schedule was brutal: three of those early losses were to teams that went on to win nine or more games. But it was still telling that they got blown out in multiple games and their only wins were over Youngstown State (in overtime) and Rice.

The Panthers improved down the stretch, beating bowl-bound Duke and Virginia (okay, both were 6-6 in the regular season, but still) and narrowly falling short against UNC and Virginia Tech. And to wrap things up, they pulled one of the most stunning upsets of the season, taking down then-No. 2 Miami 24-14 to end the Hurricanes’ undefeated run. In some ways, the upset had been preordained... but what made it even more incredible was that Pitt won the game behind third-string quarterback Kenny Pickett, a true freshman who was making his first career start.

A 5-7 season cannot be called a success, but Pitt was leaning on young players at several positions—particularly on defense—and did show marked improvement down the stretch, culminating in the Miami upset. It all ultimately left plenty of reason to be hopeful for this coming season.

Departures

The passing game will be overhauled this offseason, as almost all of the key pieces from last season are gone. That includes the two most seasoned quarterbacks: Max Browne has used up his eligibility, and Ben DiNucci transferred to James Madison after losing the starting job to Pickett. Top receiver Jester Weah is gone, taking away the team’s biggest deep threat in the passing game. Pitt must also replace three offensive linemen, including both tackles, leaving pass protection as a question mark.

To top it off, the Panthers lose one of their top offensive playmakers in the versatile Quadree Henderson, who averaged 7.0 yards per carry last season and has been a weapon in the return game for multiple seasons. Losing Henderson means having to replace a change-of-pace back, kick returner, and punt returner... and they'll also be replacing their punter. Of the three units, special teams will be biggest question mark for Pitt.

On the defensive side, the secondary must replace longtime starters Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead, and finding replacements for two NFL draft picks is no trivial task. The good news for the Panthers, though, is that they have few critical losses in the front seven.

Returnees

Pickett, now a sophomore, has been penciled in as the starter at QB. He wasn’t overly impressive on paper last season—his final passing line was 39-66 for 509 yards with one touchdown and one interception—but he had a respectable showing for a freshman who saw most of his action against Virginia Tech and Miami. He has several receivers returning, including second-leading receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes, but none can stretch the field and force defenses to respect the deep pass. Redshirt junior Tre Tipton has a chance to fill that role after missing last season with an injury, but the door will be open for a young player to prove himself in that role.

With a young quarterback and uncertainty in the receiving corps, the Panthers will lean heavily on the ground game. Leading the way is senior running back Darrin Hall, who was a key figure in Pitt’s late-season surge, rushing for 254 yards in the win over Duke and topping 100 yards in the next two games. Veteran Qadre Ollison will battle him for the starting job, and the offensive line brings back a pair of veterans in center Jimmy Morrissey and guard Alex Bookser to pave the way.

Defensively, the Panthers return lots of players with experience at every level, including all three starting linebackers. The most crucial returnee is linebacker Oluwaseun Idowu, who led the team with 94 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and five sacks. Plenty of experience returns in the secondary even with the loss of two starters, and cornerback Dane Jackson appears ready to step in as the new leader of the unit. And up front, sophomore defensive end Rashad Weaver could be on the cusp of a breakout season, as could Amir Watts on the interior. Redshirt senior Shane Roy will be the elder statesman in a young but deep rotation across the entire defensive line, and the unit should take a step forward this fall.

Key Newcomers

The biggest-name arrival this summer was Ricky Town, who—like Browne a year before—was a former five-star recruit who signed with USC and later transferred out. Town had a more circuitous journey, bouncing to Arkansas and then a junior college along the way to Pittsburgh. He’ll have two seasons of eligibility, but he's also never played a snap at the FBS level. It’s unlikely that he can unseat Pickett at quarterback, but he’ll get a shot in fall camp.

Pitt also filled a major need at left tackle by bringing in Stefano Millin, a graduate transfer from Kent State. A three-year starter for the Golden Flashes, Millin will bring valuable experience to an offensive line that only returns two starters.

The 2018 recruiting class was lacking in star power, but Pitt hit several needs and several of the freshmen will get a chance to play immediately. The top-rated recruit (per the 247Sports Composite ratings) was four-star running back Mychale Salahuddin, who is a long shot to start but could very well break into the rotation. Wide receivers Shocky Jacques-Louis and Cameron O’Neil and a quartet of offensive line signees are all at positions of need, which bodes well for their odds of playing.

Outlook

Pitt’s outlook for the season ahead is as nebulous as any team in the conference. The defense has had few holes to fill and was (mostly) outstanding down the stretch last year, but it's still a young unit that will likely have plenty of ups and downs. Pickett could be the answer at QB for a team that's had no luck lately finding a long-term solution there, but seven quarters is not enough of a sample to know how he'll do over a full season, and the receivers are a collective question mark.

Even if things come together, the schedule is a major hurdle. Pitt plays a daunting non-conference slate of Penn State, UCF, and Notre Dame. They'll dodge the most dangerous teams in the Atlantic, but their rotating opponent, Wake Forest, will not be a pushover.

The real payoff could be a year away. In 2019, the Pott defense is set to bring back as many as nine starters from a unit that already has experienced players pretty much everywhere. They will have a seasoned quarterback at the helm, and while they will have to replace their key pieces in the run game, they've recruited well at running back recently. If Pitt can at least get back to a bowl game this year—which seems reasonable, even with the tough schedule—then it will set Narduzzi up for a true make-or-break season next fall.

Because the Panthers are relying so heavily on young players, Tech should benefit from playing them early in the season. Pitt’s run game will be a major test for Tech’s rebuilt front seven, but the secondary should be up to the task against Pitt’s receiving corps. The seasoned linebacker corps could pose problems, particularly when Tech tries running to the perimeter, but if Tech’s offensive line can take advantage of Pitt’s relative youth up front on defense, the Jackets should be able to move the ball just fine. There's no clear favorite here, and the outcome should be telling for both teams.