Editor’s Note: Please see our Q&A with @CzarofPGH on Pittsburgh football. Zach has been on our podcast before – and he is terrific with volunteering his time and knowledge.
What’s the Season Outlook for Pittsburgh football?
By any measure, Pat Narduzzi’s first season as Pitt head coach was a success: the best regular season record since 2009 and a recruiting class better than either of his two predecessors ever produced. Despite these successes, Narduzzi faces a challenging schedule that might prevent any improvements from being reflected in the team’s record. Away games at Clemson, Oklahoma State, Miami, and North Carolina leave little margin for error elsewhere.
The season will likely turn on a few position groups. The first, and most crucial, is the quarterbacks. Nate Peterman is a reasonably talented, experienced senior. His backup is Manny Stocker, who walked-on as a wide receiver transfer from Tennessee-Martin. The other option behind Peterman/Stocker seems to be true freshman Thomas MacVittie. If Peterman misses extended time due to injury, Pitt could very well miss a bowl.
The other position group to watch is the linebackers. Narduzzi made his name through defense, but this linebacking corps might prevent his defense from improving on last year’s performance, which was solid but unspectacular. Seniors Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara have been steady but aren’t the kind of athletes who can keep up with the kinds of spread offenses that Pitt will routinely face. The third linebacking spot will be shared by a former walk-on and a converted wide receiver unless senior Bam Bradley adapts to a new position after spending the previous season backing up Caprara. A talented secondary and corps of defensive ends are reason for optimism, but the linebackers will determine whether or not the defense lives up to Narduzzi’s expectations.
Despite all these challenges, there is a lot to like about this team. The running backs and offensive lines units are the deepest and most talented that Pitt has seen in years. The defensive backs and defensive ends are loaded with talent, if not experience. 9-3 looks like the ceiling, 8-4 a reasonable expectation, and 7-5 the most likely. Combined with a strong recruiting class, any of those seasons would be a reasonable step forward in the second year of the Narduzzi era.
Key Panthers to Watch
Perhaps the only position group with no depth concerns is running back. The only givens seem to be that James Conner will be the first option and that Rachid Ibrahim will see plenty of time as the third-down back. Darrin Hall and newcomer Chawntez Moss have earned such positive early reviews that it’s possible reigning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison might be relegated to fifth string. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada has indicated he’ll run a lot of two- and three-back sets in order to get as much talent on the field as possible. With a thin wide receiver corps, Pitt will need to creatively use its stable of running backs to move the ball and control the clock against the many up-tempo teams it will face this year.
On defense, the defensive backfield is talented but young and inexperienced. Narduzzi’s defense is built around the DBs. ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Jordan Whitehead, a safety, is the most important player in the whole group. He needs to avoid a sophomore slump and take a step forward as the lynchpin of the defensive backfield. Returning starters Reggie Mitchell at safety and Avonte Maddox at corner have been strong in run support but need to improve in coverage. The corner spot opposite Maddox was supposed to be manned by highly touted true freshman Damar Hamlin, but he’s been slow to recover from off-season hernia surgery. If even an average option can be found among the various little-used returnees and true freshmen, this position group will be the strength of the defense.
On offense, Quadree Henderson is going to be called upon to help replace Tyler Boyd at wide receiver. Sparingly used as a freshman, Henderson finally had his big moment to open the Military Bowl [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lE45Hm-Y0wc]. As the #2 option at wide receiver, Henderson will be called upon immediately to use his explosive speed to prove that Pitt will have at least enough of a passing game to prevent defenses from loading the box against the run.
On defense, defensive end Dewayne Hendrix is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer from Tennessee. Since setting foot on campus last year, Hendrix has looked the part of an SEC DE and drawn high praise from the coaches. If his play matches how he looks in practice, Pitt will have a substantially improved pass rush and improved defense against the run.
Predicted Record and Finish in Conference
Because I’ve been a Pitt fan my whole life, I’m going to be a little pessimistic here. I feel comfortable predicting an improvement on last year in how the team plays but with a step back to 7-5 in record. The team will be better but the schedule is correspondingly harder and then some. Rather than going game by game, I’m going to structure my predictions as follows:
Sure Wins – Villanova
Likely Wins – Duke, Georgia Tech, Syracuse
Likely Wins except they’re definitely screwing up one of these – Virginia, Virginia Tech, Penn State, Marshall
Likely Losses – Miami, Oklahoma State, North Carolina
Sure Losses – Clemson
From looking at the talent and locations (home vs away), it looks like 8-4 would be a reasonable expectation. Still, I think the quartet of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Penn State, and Marshall are all games that Pitt should win but will, due to one factor or another, probably lose at least one of. Perhaps they can make up for any losses to that group by sneaking one past Miami or North Carolina, but there’s not a lot of margin for error.
8-4 or better would take a level of consistency and performance that wasn’t demonstrated last year. Of course, the team should be more comfortable with Narduzzi’s systems and should, by and large, be more talented than last year’s team. This will hopefully be a good stepping stone year where the team shows improvements across the board and sets the program up well for the future.
Editor’s Note: And we thank @CzarofPGH for joining us on a Q&A to discuss Pittsburgh football!! Spoiler – I’ve picked Pitt as my darkhorse in the Coastal. Sorry, Zach