Pitt Beats the Big Boys, Struggles Against Others
By TRACY WATSON
PITTSBURGH — With three losses to nationally ranked teams and three more losses by six points or less, the 2017 college football season may be one to forget for Coach Pat Narduzzi and his Pittsburgh Panthers.
However, while Pitt finished off a 5-7 campaign, and 3-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division, the last taste in Narduzzi’s team’s mouth last season was a pretty sweet one.
While the Panthers did not qualify for a bowl game, they were able to pull off one of the biggest upsets of the college football season on Nov. 24 at Heinz Field when they stunned then-No. 2 Miami, costing the Hurricanes any chance of making the four-team playoff field.
“We made some major strides, I think, last year,” Narduzzi told a group of media members at the annual ACC media days earlier this summer. “I think we probably got as far as we could with our coordinator there at the time.
“I would say (this team) for sure has more ingredients than it did a year ago. We had a lot of unknowns.”
And one of the biggest things to come out of the Miami game was the emergence of then freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett (6-foot-2, 225), who became the first freshman to start a game under center at Pitt in 10 years. Pickett played in part of three other games, finishing 39 of 66 overall for 509 yards, a touchdown and one interception. He also ran for a pair of scores against the Hurricanes.
Giving Pickett a run for his money at the starting job this season will be junior college transfer Ricky Town (6-3, 220) and sophomores Tyler Zelinski (6-4, 210) and Jake Zilinskas (6-2, 225).
There is an experienced duo at tailback in senior Darrin Hall (5-11, 225) and redshirt senior Qadree Ollison (6-2, 230). Both averaged more than 4 yards a carry last year with Hall gaining 698 on 128 carries and scoring 10 touchdowns and Ollison 398 on 90 totes and five scores. Ollison was the 2015 ACC offensive rookie of the year after rushing for 1,121.
Sophomore A.J. Davis (6-0, 215) and freshman Todd Sibley, Jr. should also see plenty of action at tailback.
Senior fullback George Aston (6-0, 255) is back following an injury-filled season that saw him play in only two games. However, Aston scored 10 touchdowns the previous campaign and will be pushed for playing time by junior Ryan Sliwoski (5-11, 225).
While both starting wide receivers from 2017 will need to be replaced there are five returning lettermen, including leading receiver senior Rafael Araujo-Lopes (5-9, 190). Araujo-Lopes capped last season off with 43 receptions for 531 yards and a pair of scores. Junior Maurice Ffrench also returns having caught 25 passes for 272 yards as a sophomore. Juniors Aaron Mathews (6-4, 215) and Tre Tipton (6-0, 185) will also play a huge part in the Pitt receiving corps. Others seeing playing time will be freshmen Michael Smith (6-1, 215), Dontavius Butler-Jenkins (6-0, 210) and Darian Street (6-1, 180).
Sophomore Tyler Sear (6-4, 250), who played in nine games and started a pair as a freshman, will be the starting tight end while freshman Grant Carrigan (6-7, 285) will be his top back-up. The Panthers could also get a big boost from Arkansas graduate transfer Will Gragg.
There are three starters that need replaced on the offensive wall, however, the new line will be made up of four seniors and a sophomore. Senior right tackle Alex Bookser (6-6, 320) is regarded as one of the best linemen in the ACC.
Senior Stefano Millin has been added at left tackle after starting 30 games at Kent State before coming to the Panthers as a graduate transfer. He will be pushed by sophomore Bryce Hargrove (6-4, 310). Senior lettermen Mike Herndon (6-4, 310) and Connor Dintino (6-3, 315) will be the guards while sophomore Jimmy Morrissey (6-3, 300) returns at center.
Other top candidates on the line include junior Chase Brown (6-5, 310) and freshmen Owen Drexel (6-3, 285) and Jerry Drake, Jr. (6-5, 300).
On the other side of the ball it is the line that is the strength of the unit. Pitt was relatively inexperienced and young a season ago, but return four on the defensive front with nine total lettermen in all.
Leading the way is senior nose tackle Shane Roy (6-4, 280), who started all 12 games in 2017. Sophomore Rashad Wheeler (6-3, 290) and redshirt freshman Jaylen Twyman (6-2, 310) offer depth.
Junior Amir Watts (6-3, 285) and sophomore Keyshon Camp (6-4, 285) are the main options at tackle with Twyman redshirt freshmen Deslin Alexandre and Brian Burgess also available.
A pair of seniors bolster a strong defensive end corps in Dewayne Hendrix (6-4, 265) and James Folston, Jr. (6-4, 250). Sophomores Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones II will also see playing time.
The Panthers return three starters and six total letter-winners at linebacker including third-year starter Oluwaseaun Idowu (6-0, 230) at the Star spot. Idowu was a first-team All-ACC selection, leading Pitt in tackles (94), tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (5).
Senior Elijah Zeise (6-2, 240) returns at the Money linebacker spot with junior Quintin Wirginis (6-2, 250) the Mike. Key reserves include junior Saleem Brightwell, junior Athony McKee, Jr. and sophomore Chase Pine.
While there are 11 lettermen returning in the defensive backfield, including seven with starting experience, the Panthers will have to do without a pair of All-ACC performers who are now in the NFL in Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead.
Junior cornerback Dane Jackson (6-1, 185) returns on one side while classmate Damar Hamlin (6-1, 195) is back at free safety. Redshirt freshman Paris Ford (6-0, 195) is the heir-apparent to Maddox with Therran Coleman and Jason Pinnock both pushing for playing time.
Whitehead’s strong safety spot appears to be going to senior Dennis Briggs (5-10, 195), however, Phil Campbell III and Jazzee Stocker are both also vying to fill the position. Others who could see playing time include Phillipie Motley and Bricen Garner.
“They’re confident, they’re passionate about what they’re doing and they’re working hard,” Narduzzi said about his defense. This is a long process.
“I think we’ve got some quality depth back there (defensive backfield), There is going to be a (positional) war back there. Right now, Damar Hamlin is playing at a high level.
“If I had to pick my number one, he is playing fast and doing all the little things right.”
Pittsburgh’s leading scorer, sophomore Alex Kessman (6-3, 190) returns as the team’s placekicker after hitting 11-of-19 field goal attempts and converting a perfect 34 PATs. He also kicked a school-record 56-yard field goal as well as a 55-yarder.
Red-shirt freshman Kirk Christodoulou will have big shoes to fill in replacing four-year starter, and All-ACC performer, Ryan Winslow, as the team’s punter. Cal Adomitis is the long-snapper with Ffrench a key contributor on kick returns.
While the Panthers will have to face national powers Miami and Notre Dame on the road, they have a huge out-of-conference affair with in-state rival Penn State slated for 8 p.m. on September 8 at Heinz Field.
In Narduzzi’s first three campaigns the Panthers have beaten three national heavyweights, including a victory over eventual national champion Clemson two seasons ago. On the other hand, Pitt has struggled to beat small-school power Youngstown State twice during that time.
The Panthers are 21-17 overall in Narduzzi’s three campaigns, including a pair of bowl bids. However, a string of 10 consecutive bowl trips was snapped during last year’s 5-7 season.