Pittsburgh Panthers fans are wondering, what exactly was 2017? After a pair of 8-5 seasons to begin his tenure, head coach Pat Narduzzi saw his team dip to 5-7, missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 2007.
But was last season just a speed bump on the way to future success? Or was it a sign that things are not going in the right direction? This season will tell us much more and we will get a peek into what may happen in the fall over the next few weeks as the spring session fires up.
5 Storylines to Watch During Pitt's Spring Practice
1. Kenny Pickett
The quarterback position was a mess in 2017. USC graduate transfer Max Browne suffered a shoulder injury that ended his career and his immediate replacement, Ben DiNucci, was not spectacular and transferred to FCS member James Madison after the season. Now Pickett enters the spring at the top of the depth chart. The sophomore from Oakhurst, New Jersey, threw just one touchdown pass in 66 attempts, but he did lead the Panthers to an upset win over then unbeaten Miami in the regular season finale.
2. Piecing together the offensive line
Protecting Pickett could be an issue. When tackle Brian O’Neill declared for the NFL draft, it meant that the left side of the line would be leaving as guard Alex Officer graduated. Right tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith also is out of eligibility, so a major restructuring is needed along the offensive front. Spring will sort things out and finding a suitable replacement for O’Neill at left tackle will be key.
3. Finding a downfield threat
Pittsburgh’s two leading returning receivers, Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Maurice Ffrench, are both solid pass-catching options. But the longest reception of their 68 combined receptions went for just 32 yards. The guy Panther fans are waiting on is 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior Aaron Matthews. Matthews has speed to go with his big frame, but he also has just 22 catches in his two seasons.
4. Developing the secondary
It’s well known that Narduzzi likes to be very aggressive with man coverage allowing more defenders to pressure the quarterback. That worked great while he was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State where he had great cover corners. It has not worked as well at Pitt, as the Panthers have finished 127th and 106th in pass defense during the past two seasons. Now, corner Avonte Maddox is done and star safety Jordan Whitehead has bolted early for the NFL. Dane Jackson and Damar Hamlin will now be looked upon as the leaders of the Pitt defensive backfield.
5. Assimilating the new defensive coaches
The play of the defense during the Narduzzi era has not impressed anyone, so few tears were shed when defensive coordinator Josh Conklin left Pitt to become the new head coach at FCS member Wofford. Randy Bates, who has spent the last 12 years as the linebacker coach at Northwestern, assumes the role of defensive coordinator in 2018. There are also two new coaches in the secondary, Archie Collins and Cory Sanders. Linebackers coach Rob Harley does return for his fourth year at Pitt, making him the most tenured defensive coach. Charlie Partridge will be in his second year coaching the defensive line and will add assistant head coach to his title. Overall, this is a defensive staff that needs to build a rapport with its players.
— 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.