2019 Season Preview: Pitt Panthers

By John Morgan on August 7, 2019 at 8:30 am
Nov 10, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi (left) reacts with an official as a scoreboard replay plays during the second quarter against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Heinz Field.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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51-6

The 100th (and final for the foreseeable future) meeting between the two premier programs in Pennsylvania is set for September 14th. Pitt will head to Happy Valley for the last installment of the current four-game series.

There were high hopes heading into 2018 for the Panthers behind quarterback Kenny Pickett, but his inconsistency was one of the main reasons for their .500 season. As usual, it was a weird season for Pitt which found itself staring a lost season in the face but managed to bounce back to win the embarrassing ACC Coastal division. What happened next was hilariously predictable as they were dismantled by Clemson in the title game and then laid an egg in their bowl game versus Stanford to finish the season with a 7-7 record.


PITT AT A GLANCE
Head Coach Pat Narduzzi (5th Season; 28-24)
2018 Record 7-7, 6-2 (1st Place ACC Coastal) (lol)
2018 Postseason ACC Championship Game (42-10 loss to Clemson; Sun Bowl (14-13 loss to Stanford)
Biggest Losses RB Qadree Ollison, RB Darrin Hall, WR Rafael Araujo-Lopes, T Alex Bookser, G Mike Herndon, DE Dewayne Hendrix
Biggest Returnees QB Kenny Pickett, WR Maurice Ffrench, WR Tre Topton, DE Patrick Jones II, CB Dane Jackson, S Damir Hamlin
Summary Pitt won the ACC Coastal in 2018, but still managed to end the season with a .5b .500 record.
Matchup with PSU The 100th meeting between the two and the last for the foreseeable future as Pitt looks to erase the memory of the 51-6 thumping at Heinz Field.

Offense

Kenny Pickett is back as the starting quarterback again after an inconsistent 2018 season in which he averaged only 9.4 yards per completion and had a mere 12 touchdown passes. Pitt fired offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and hired Mark Whipple from UMass to try and rediscover the offensive success they previously had with Matt Canada a few years back. Whipple’s reputation is improving quarterback play and that’s exactly what Pickett and the Panthers need.

Whipple inherits a group that finished 97th in total offense a season ago. The Panthers were a run-heavy group and now have to replace top running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall who combined for 2,357 yards and 21 touchdowns. A.J. Davis will likely get the first shot as the featured back, but Todd Sibley, V'Lique Carter and Mychale Salahuddin will receive carries and challenge for that role. On the offensive line, Pitt will be looking at basically a brand new unit as they have four starters to replace.

Pitt’s wide receiving corps. returns mostly intact after losing only Rafael Araujo-Lopes this offseason. This is key for Whipple as the Panthers will look to reinvent themselves from a run-first attack to more of a passing offense. Maurice Ffrench is back and is the most explosive player on the offense. Ffrench finished last season with six touchdowns on 35 catches and 515 yards. Alongside Ffrench is former Indiana wide receiver Taysir Mack who transferred and was ruled immediately eligible last season. Though he only scored one touchdown last year, Mack averaged 22.3 yards on his 25 catches and poses another threat for defenses. Tre Tipton and former Penn State commit Aaron Mathews will also be called upon to help redefine the offense.

Defense

Pat Narduzzi was heralded as a defensive genius when he took over at Pitt, but his defenses have not lived up to the initial hype. Still, the Panthers did take a big step forward in 2018, finishing 59th in total defense, which was a major improvement from the previous season (101st). Now that the defense features all Narduzzi recruits, it will be his chance to really show off his chops as a defensive mind. In order to support what looks to be an offense that will leave much to be desired, they will need to take yet another step.

Pitt’s defensive line is led by a pair of ends in Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones II. Last season, the ends combined for 10 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. The interior line is led by senior defensive tackle Amir Watts who chipped in with three sacks of his own. The linebacker group is replacing all three of their 2018 opening day starters. Senior Saleem Brightwell and junior Chase Pine will take on more responsibility than ever before, but have seen plenty of game action and will look to build on that experience and lead the unit.

**Ed Note- Rashad Weaver tore his ACL in practice on Tuesday and will miss the entirety of the 2019 season.

The Panther secondary is clearly the strength of their defense with seniors Damar Hamilin and Dane Jackson returning. Both players were named honorable mention All-ACC a season ago. Hamlin had a whopping 76 tackles last season and Jackson led the team with fourteen passes broken up. Alongside Hamlin at safety will be the highly-recruited Paris Ford.

Special Teams

Pitt’s punting game was a disaster last year and that was on full display in Penn State’s 51-6 win. Naturally, that will need to improve and Alex Kessman enters his third season as the starting kicker. The previously mentioned Maurice Ffrench is back as a returner, while Taysir Mack and Paris Ford could be in the mix on that unit as well.

2019 Outlook

Your guess is as good as mine as far as trying to predict how successful Pitt will be in 2019. Still, the script is pretty much in place as far as what to expect–an inexplicable loss or two, a major upset just when they seem to be at their worst, and a potential sneak through the back door to another Coastal title.

As far as ACC schedules go, theirs is rather daunting, as they are set to face Virginia, Penn State, and Central Florida all in September alone. Once conference play gets into full swing, there will be more adversity to face with likely improved Virginia Tech and Miami squads, as well as a Syracuse team that looks ready to challenge for double-digit wins. So while the Panthers may actually improve on the whole in 2019, it may not result in more wins.

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