Pitt Offense Looks to Light Up Scoreboard
By TRACY WATSON
PITTSBURGH — Even with its all-time leading receiver gone to the National Football League in Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh heads into the 2016 season with what could be one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country.
That is assuming Coach Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers can stay healthy.
Pitt is coming off a season in which it finished 8-5 overall and 6-2, and in second place, in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division. However, three of its five losses came by seven or fewer points.
And that all came without the services 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year James Conner, who went down with a season-ending knee injury in the Panthers’ first game against Youngstown State. Conner, who has also battled Hodgkins lymphoma in the offseason, rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2014.
With his return Pitt may have one of the most explosive backfields in all of college football. Senior quarterback Nathan Peterman returns after throwing for 3,387 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first season in a Panthers uniform. Peterman was second in the ACC in completion percentage (61.5), third in touchdown passes and fourth in passing efficiency (138.57).
However, keeping Peterman healthy is of major importance with the three players vying for playing time behind him, senior Manny Stocker, redshirt freshman Ben Dinucci and true freshman Thomas MacVittie having never taken a snap at Pittsburgh.
Conner’s return at running back makes an already explosive and crowded backfield even moreso. Sophomore Qadree Ollison, who began the season as the Panthers’ No. 3 back last year, rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 scores and was named as the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year and second team all-conference selection. Ollison rushed for 207 yards against Youngstown State in one half after Conner was injured in last year’s lid-lifter.
Narduzzi did not hesitate when asked earlier this summer what his expectations for Conner were.
“I guess that’s the $100 million question,” Narduzzi said. “I expect nothing but his best performance. When you look at what James has done, what he’s been, what he’s been through, the size of that heart inside his chest cavity, you know, I think you’re going to get his best effort.
“What is that? I don’t know. I know when you look at him in strength and conditioning, our program this summer, he’s measuring his body up to where it was. Based on our measurements, he’s close to prime condition right now. I think he’d like to lose a few more pounds. But we’ve got him back to where we want to. We still got a couple more weeks to fine tune him.”
Junior Rachid Ibrahim also returns from injury after sitting out last season with a torn Achilles. Ibrahim averaged 6.7 yards a carry in his first two seasons serving as Pitt’s change-of-pace back. Darrin Hall also rushed for 257 yards and two scores as a true freshman last season and looks to contribute even more in 2016.
Boyd may be gone, but the Panthers still have seven returning letterwinners in the receiving corps. Senior Dontez Ford leads the way, having ranked third in the ACC with a 19.4 ypc. average last year. Ford caught 26 passes for 505 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Junior Zach Challingsworth had 12 catches for 171 and a touchdown while Jester Weah has lettered the past two seasons in a reserve role.
Senior Chris Wuestner missed last season due to an injury, but could play a big part this year while sophomores Quadree Henderson, Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Kellen McAlone along with junior Mark Bernsforff and freshman Tre Tipton will add plenty of depth.
Tight End J.P. Holtz graduated but senior Scott Orndoff, who was second on the team with five touchdowns grabs and had 13 catches for 244 yards returns to make that transition a little easier. The Panthers also have senior jack-of-all-trades Jaymar Parrish, who has played in every single game the past three years at either tight end, H-back or fullback.
Also in the mix will be juniors Devon Edwards, Nathan Bossory and Zach Poker as well as redshirt freshman DeAndre Schiffino. Another talented tight end, Chris Clark, has transferred in from UCLA and was the No. 1 prospect in the country coming out of high school in 2014. Clark, however, will have to sit out this season.
There are four returning starters on the offensive line, including a pair of All-ACC selections. First-team senior tackle Adam Bisnowaty leads the way along with second-teamer Dorian Johnson, a senior guard. Junior Alex Officer has all-conference potential and will move to center after starting at right guard last season.
The fourth returning starter is sophomore Brian O’Neill at right tackle. Junior Jaryd Jones-Smith was a projected starter at tackle last year before an offseason knee injury but will be in the lineup in 2016.
More experience at tackle comes in the form of junior lettermen Carson Baker and Aaron Reese, while Tony Pilato and Aaron Britton, both redshirt freshmen, will add depth.
Leading candidates to start at right guard include sophomore Alex Bookser and Mike Herndon while senior John Guy, sophomore Mike Grimm and freshmen Alex Paulina and Kyle Benbrook could all see playing time. Sophomores Connor Dintino and Alex Galiyas provide backup at center.
Defensively the Panthers will be led by first team All-ACC defensive end and All-American candidate Ejuan Price, who had been limited to six games in the three seasons prior to 2015. Last year Price collected 19 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. Junior Allen Edwards and sophomore James Folston are his top backups.
Junior rush end Rori Blair returns after starting 10 games last season but is getting a big challenge from sophomore Dewayne Hendrix, a highly regarded transfer from Tennessee who sat out last year. Sophomore Dom Cuono and freshman Patrick Jones II, the top defensive end prospect in the country, will compete as well.
Pitt will have to replace a pair of four-year contributors on the defensive front in Darryl Render and Khayin Mosley-Smith, but there is still experience in senior Tyrique Jarrett at nose tackle and junior Jeremiah Taleni. Sophomore Shane Roy and freshman Calvin Hamilton will also be available.
Senior Shakir Soto and junior Justin Moody are in a battle at defensive tackle with six highly regarded freshmen also in the mix.
Matt Galambos enters his third season as Pitt’s starting middle linebacker, coming off an 88-tackle season that included 10 for loss and five sacks, with junior Quintin Wirginis the top backup. Veterans Mike Caprara and Bam Bradley will be the Money backers while sophomores Oluwaseum Idowu and Elijah Zeise will be at the Star position.
A veteran secondary will be led by strong safety Jordan Whitehead, a third team All-ACC performer and the conference’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. Whitehead led the team with 109 tackles, the most by a true freshman in school history. Seniors Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb return at free safety with freshman Jay Stocker competing.
The boundary corner will be junior Avonte Maddox with relief help from Malik Henderson and Rob Boatright, while field corner goes to senior Ryan Lewis, a three-year letterman who takes over for Lafayette Pitts, who had made 51 career starts for the Panthers.
Senior kicker Chris Blewitt returns after leading Pitt in scoring with 87 points as a junior. Blewitt hit 15 of 23 field-goal attempts and was 42 of 43 on PATs. Junior Ryan Winslow will again handle the punting chores.
The Panthers will face eight teams that appeared in bowl games last season, including the renewal of the series with arch-rival Penn State, who Pitt hasn’t played since 2000. The two schools have played 96 times, but not since the Panthers’ 12-0 victory Sept. 16, 2000.