Last week, Pitt added 20 more members to the Class of 2017 during National Letter of Intent signing day. Here’s an in-depth breakdown of each position group, the players lost and added for 2017, analysis and comments from the coaching staff as the team prepares for spring football to start next month.
Returning starters: none
Returning lettermen: redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci
Others returning: redshirt freshman Thomas MacVittie
Notable additions: redshirt senior graduate transfer Max Browne (Southern Cal), Kenny Pickett (Ocean Twp., N.J.)
Saunders says: New offensive coordinator Shawn Watson will have plenty of talent to work with at his most important position. Browne was one of the top-ranked quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school and even though he was beaten out by a freshman at USC last season, he is the odds-on favorite to grab ahold of the starter’s job at Pitt.
At 6-foot-5, Browne has the kind of build that pro scouts drool over. He’s completed about 60 percent of his passes in his three-year NCAA career, but he hasn’t been much of a downfield threat. His longest career completion went for 38 yards and he’s averaged just 9.4 yards per completion. Outgoing starter Nathan Peterman was fourth in the country with a 15.43 yards per completion figure in 2016. With the pure speed of receivers Quadree Henderson and Jester Weah, it’ll quickly become apparent how much Browne had to do with that figure and how much should be shouldered by receivers at USC.
MacVittie redshirted in 2016 and should be ready to push Browne as well as provide a backup, along with DiNucci. Pickett will most likely redshirt.
Coaches say: “We jumped in there right away with Max. He was making that choice to leave and we jumped on him full speed and got him early.” — Tim Salem on getting Browne from USC.
“Max was one of those guys that had a lot of faith and kept sticking with us through looking for an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. … He’s been nothing but a leader and a tough guy in the weight room.” — Narduzzi on Browne.
“He’s in town. He’s tough. He’s doing a great job in the weight room right now. He’s smart. I can’t wait to watch him play.” — Narduzzi on Pickett.
Returning starters: none
Returning lettermen: redshirt junior Qadree Ollison, junior Darrin Hall and sophomore Chawntez Moss
Notable additions: Todd Sibley (Archbishop Hovan, Akron, Ohio), A.J. Davis (Lakeland, Fla.)
Saunders says: This is a pretty impressive collection of talent. Ollison rushed for 1,000 yards in 2015. Hall and Moss both contributed as true freshmen, with Moss looking like the best back of the three for most of last season.
Sibley and Davis are both extremely talented, with the bigger Davis providing more power and the 5-foot-9 Sibley bringing elusiveness and speed. I can’t imagine a scenario where they both won’t see the field at some point this season, but it will take hard work on and off the field because this a deep group.
Coaches say: “We’ve got a big pan, so we needed big fish. Everybody in the ACC has good running backs. We’ve got five really good ones. I see Sibley and Anthony as two highly talented players that won a lot of ballgames playing in really good programs. That’s just something that’s nice to have.” — running backs coach Andre Powell on his two big additions.
“It’s a like a two-minute drive. We kicked the last-minute field goal. That’s what it’s like. You’re trying and you’re working to outflank them and get that extra guy. That’s what it feels like.” — Powell on adding Davis to the class on signing day.
TIGHT ENDS & FULLBACKS
Returning starter: redshirt junior George Aston
Returning lettermen: redshirt senior Colton Lively* and senior Nathan Bossory*
Others returning: redshirt sophomore Chris Clark
Notable additions: Charles Reeves (Steubenville, Ohio), Tyler Sear, (Neshannock), Grant Carrigan (Pine-Richland)
Saunders says: The Panthers targeted the tight end position extensively with the losses of Scott Orndoff and Jaymar Parrish to graduation. Clark will very likely be the starter, but he has very limited experience. Reeves can do some impressive physical things, but is a raw player, especially when lined up in tight to the formation.
I wouldn’t be surprised if all three of the freshmen see playing time and this is a spot the Panthers could look to add a graduate transfer if they open another scholarship. Walk-ons Lively and Bossory have been solid special teams players in the past and with the limited depth and experience of this group, they may get an opportunity to play some offense this year, as well. George Aston will again get the bulk of the work at fullback.
Coaches say: “He’s a big athlete. He’s a really good basketball player. He’s probably going to end up the leading scorer in the history of his school. He’s a big guy. That’s how it is nowadays. [All three] are big guys. If you want to play in the ACC against big people, you have to have big people.” — Salem on Reeves.
“[His senior year], he became a physical guy. We knew he could run and we knew he could catch, but he became more physical. He’s a mammoth guy. We can’t wait to get him on campus,” — Narduzzi on Reeves.
“What you love about Tyler is that he’s tough and he’s a competitor. I think he can play tight end, defensive end, he can do a lot of things. He could be one of those lineman that does a little bit of both for us.” — Narduzzi on Sear.
Returning starters: redshirt senior Jester Weah and junior Quadree Henderson
Returning lettermen: redshirt juniors Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Kellen McAlone*, redshirt sophomore Tre Tipton, sophomores Maurice Ffrench and Aaron Mathews
Others returning: redshirt freshman Rueben Flowers
Notable additions: Dontavius Butler (American Heritage, Hallandale, Fla.), Michael Smith (Vero Beach, Fla.), Darian Street (Liberty, Bethlehem, Pa.)
Saunders says: I really like the mix of athletes Pitt got in this class, but it’s tough to envision any of them having a big impact this season, just due to the number of talented players ahead of them on the depth chart. Any time a team can return seven lettermen at a position it should be a strength the following season and that’s certainly the case with Pitt’s receivers.
With the pure speed of Henderson, the size of Mathews and Weah and the clutch possession of Tipton, Pitt has most of the big needs taken care of for the 2017 season. Henderson also returns kicks and punts — a place many young receivers get their start. Don’t sleep on Flowers, either, who was probably talented enough to play as a freshman, but got lost in the deep shuffle.
Coaches say: “The bottom line at the receivers is that you have to consistent playmakers. The more guys we can bring in to push and challenge the guys already on the roster … the more experience you have and the more depth you have, the better off you’re going to be. It’s a long season. They’re going to be a great fit in the room and they’re going to bring a lot of interesting competition this summer.” — wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman on his freshman class.
Returning starters: redshirt senior Alex Officer, redshirt juniors Alex Bookser and Brian O’Neill
Returning lettermen: redshirt senior Jaryd Jones-Smith, redshirt junior Conor Dintino and redshirt sophomore Kyle Benbrook*
Others returning: redshirt sophomore Tony Pilato, redshirt freshmen Brandon Ford, Bryce Hargrove and Justin Morgan
Notable additions: Jerry Drake (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.), Owen Drexel (Montclair, N.J.), Gabe Houy (Upper St. Clair), Carter Warren (Passaic Tech, Paterson, N.J.)
Saunders says: The offensive line was a critical spot for Pitt this offseason and they seem to have hit a home run. With twin 6-foot-5 bookends, Drake and Warren look like the future of Pitt’s offensive line while Houy and Drexel will provide depth right away in the depleted interior.
Pitt has five experienced players coming back, with three 2016 starters, Jones-Smith — who was a starter in 2015 before his knee injury — and Dintino, who has filled in at center and played some fullback the last two seasons.
But beyond the starting five, there is precious little depth, so Pilato and the 2016 trio of Ford, Hargrove and Morgan will have to prove their meddle as second-team players starting with spring ball and through training camp. There remains a possibility that player such as Mike Herndon could move back from the defensive line to add depth.
Coaches say: “A tough, tough guy. He earned a scholarship at camp here. The number one center in New Jersey,” — Narduzzi on Drexel.
“They done a great job of developing offensive linemen there. He came from [Upper St. Clair]. Brandon Ford’s done a great job in his year here and Gabe has been just the same. A big 6-foot-6 athlete, a basketball player and very athletic.” — Narduzzi on Houy.
“Just a gigantic offensive tackle and one of the greatest personalities you’d like to have in your meeting room every day.” — Narduzzi on Warren.
Returning starters: redshirt senior Rori Blair, redshirt junior Dwayne Hendrix
Returning lettermen: redshirt seniors Allen Edwards, Devon Edwards and Jeremiah Taleni, redshirt juniors James Folston, Herndon and Shane Roy, sophomore Amir Watts
Others returning: redshirt freshmen Keyshon Camp, Zack Gilbert, Patrick Jones, Rashad Weaver and Rashad Wheeler
Notable additions: Deslin Alexandre (Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach, Fla.), Kamonte Carter (East Mississippi C.C., Germantown, Md.), Jaylen Twyman (Woodson, Washington, D.C.) and Carson Van Lynn (Worthington Kilbourne, Columbus, Ohio)
Saunders says: The Panthers hit it out of the park with last-minute commit Twyman, who should shore up the interior of the line for years to come, but this position group comes with just as much conversation about the players that Pitt missed on as the players that Pitt got, and there’s only more fuel to that fire with Friday’s news that defensive line coach Tom Sims will not return to the team for 2017.
What the new coach will inherit is a group that has some extremely talented players and some experienced players but very few with both traits. Taleni came on when called upon late in 2016 due to Tyrique Jarrett’s injury and Blair has been a steady if unspectacular starter for three seasons now. But the most talented players in the group may also be the least experienced. Hendrix, a Tennessee transfer, redshirted his first year at Pitt and then missed all of 2016 with an injury. Watts played sparingly as a true freshman and Camp not at all, but the two talented tackles — along with Twyman — appear to be the future of the position.
Carter, a junior college transfer, is the one player in this year’s class that could make an immediate impact, especially if Herndon returns to the offensive side of the ball. Devon Edwards is another candidate for a position switch back to offense.
Coaches say: “We felt like we needed a more experienced player to bring in and he was there. We started the process full speed, got the opportunity to meet him and his family, we flew down [to Mississippi]. We’re excited about him. … What he brings is uncanny. He was a 235-pound defensive end in high school. He’s just a guy that got big and doesn’t appear to have lost any athleticism.” — Sims on recruiting Carter out of East Mississippi C.C.
“We definitely have some talented young guys and Jeremiah Taleni played at a high level when given the opportunity. It’s time for him to take it over full time and play at a high level.” — Sims on leadership on the line.
“It wasn’t a numbers thing. We wanted to get someone that could come in here and be a contributor. That was the standard. When you have guys like that, everybody wants them.” — Sims on the team missing on some highly recruited defensive ends.
Returning starters: redshirt juniors Seun Idowu and Elijah Zeise
Returning lettermen: senior Quinten Wirginis, redshirt juniors Brian Popp* and Jalen Williams and redshirt sophomores Saleem Brightwell and Anthony McKee
Others returning: redshirt sophomore Anthony McKee, redshirt freshmen Chase Pine, Kazeon Pugh and Elijah Reynolds
Notable additions: Cameron Bright (Park Crossing, Montgomery, Ala.), Kyle Nunn (Findlay, Ohio) and Albert Tucker (St. Thomas Aquinas, Plantation, Fla.)
Saunders says: The linebacker position is an interesting one for Pitt in 2017. There are a ton of players that have a lot more athleticism than Pitt’s outgoing starters ever possessed, but do the Panthers have players that can think the game at the level of a Mike Caprara or a Matt Galambos?
In the middle, Wirginis will be that player. His work on special teams and as a sub-package player in 2016 suggest that he’s the real deal and should be able to make an impact in the middle.
Outboard, there are some experienced options for coach Rob Harley with Idowu starting most of 2016 because of Zeise’s injury and Brightwell getting plenty of time in behind Caprara.
This year’s trio seems likely to play the same role as last year’s and head to the practice field, while Pugh and Pine could be in play for Wirginis’ old role as a sub-package pass rusher. Reynolds and McKee will vie for second-team reps at middle linebacker.
Coaches say: “A big, rangy athlete. We’re going to put him at the money linebacker spot. He’s just going to continue to grow. He may be a 250-pound defensive end before it’s all said and done.” — Narduzzi on Nunn, a converted safety.
“He’s a guy we saw at a satellite camp. It’s hard for guys to come up here, so it was good for us, at least in South Florida.” — Narduzzi on recruiting Tucker from one of Florida’s top programs.
Returning starters: senior Avonte Maddox, redshirt junior Phillipie Motley and junior Jordan Whitehead
Returning lettermen: redshirt sophomores Malik Henderson, Dane Jackson and Jay Stocker and sophomore Damar Hamlin.
Others returning: redshirt freshmen Phil Campbell, Therran Coleman, Bricen Garner and Henry Miller.
Notable additions: Paris Ford (Steel Valley), Damarri Mathis (Lakeland, Fla.) and Jason Pinnock (Windsor, Conn.)
Saunders says: This was the Achilles’ heel of the 2016 Pitt defense and while Ford could be a day-one starter at free safety, there’s still likely to be plenty of growing pains with this group. Motley probably played the best of any corner that lined up opposite of Maddox last season, but none of that group played exceptionally well and both Hamlin and Coleman are expected to contend for a starting job.
If Hamlin and Whitehead can stay healthy, they could provide a significant amount of year-over-year improvement right there. While Ford will be in the mix at free safety, Campbell, Garner and Stocker could contend there, as well.
There’s more talent to this group than there was a year ago, but aside from Whitehead, there appear to be few ready-made top-flight starters for Pitt to put in ink at this point.
Coaches say: “Just that natural energy and enthusiasm. It’s something that’s not put on. It’s a way that a person can effect the whole room. He’s shown it in his play every down. We’re expecting him to bring that same energy and that same want-to into the DB room. Those are things that are contagious and you really want to see.” — cornerbacks coach Renaldo Hill on what Ford can bring to the table right away.
“It’s one of the things we’ll evaluate once he gets in here. He has a great skill set. I think he can play multiple positions and that’s one of the things we’ll have to evaluate.” — Hill on where Ford fits in the defense.
“Both are athletic with great size. Jason played on the offensive side of the ball, so his ball skills really show up. Even Damarri, even know he didn’t play on the other side, you can see his ball skills as well. I think that’s what they both bring — size and the ability to make plays on the ball.” — Hill on his two freshman corners.
“I am definitely looking for him to take a step forward. He needs to lead by example. We need him to be more active and more a student of the game. All of those things are going to help him lead this team. If he’s in the right place and doing the right things, that can be contagious with the younger guys, as well.” — Hill on higher expectations for Whitehead.
Returning starter: senior Ryan Winslow
Returning lettermen: Bossory
Other returners: redshirt freshman Alex Kessman
Notable additions: Cal Adomitis* (Central Catholic), Kirk Christodoulou (Berwyn, Melbourne, Australia), Grant Kersh* (Archbishop Hovan, Akron, Ohio)
Saunders says: Replacing departed kicker Chris Blewitt won’t be easy, but Pitt has a couple of options in Kessman and Kersh. Kessman has a big leg and spent last year apprenticing behind Blewitt, while Kersh, who has a rugby background, will bring a different look to the position. Kessman was a preferred walk-on a year ago and is scheduled to be placed on scholarship, but that’s secondary to earning a job at this point.
Long snapper is in the same boat with the graduation of Pat Quirin, but there are even more options. Bossory has long snapped in the past, 2016 walk-on Conrad Brake spent last season on the scout team and Adomitis will come in to challenge, as well.
At punter, things are in better shape with Christodoulou redshirting in 2017 behind Winslow before taking over in 2018.
Coaches say: “This is all they do [down there] is train punters. Soccer and rugby and Australian football are so big, that’s what kids do.” — Powell on landing Aussie punter Christodoulou.
“That would be ideal where you would bring in the guy that can compete, train and learn and be the heir apparent one year prior to your senior leaving. … When you’re dealing with three positions and four scholarships, it’s a little bit tricky.” — Powell on having two scholarship punters this season.
“We had him in camp, saw him in camp and I always think live evaluation is the best. … We think Cal can earn a scholarship and compete.” — Narduzzi on finding Adomitis.