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On Thursday morning, Pat Narduzzi and the Pitt football team will take to the field for their first official 2107 spring practice.
Gone will be familiar names such as James Conner, Dorian Johnson, Adam Bisnowaty, Nate Peterman, Scott Orndoff, Ejuan Price and others. Narduzzi and his staff are counting on returning lettermen and other new faces to emerge as leaders and playmakers in 2017.
Despite losing some big names, Pitt returns a bunch of talent that should allow them to once again compete for an ACC Coastal Division title.
Here’s a look at Pitt’s Depth Chart heading into spring practices and also some of the biggest questions facing this year’s team.
Barring injury, Max Browne will be Pitt’s starting quarterback when they open the season on September 2nd against Youngstown State. Like Peterman a couple of years ago, Browne is a highly skilled player with some experience at the position. Honestly, I don’t expect much if any drop off from what Peterman gave Pitt last year. Browne is a big-time talent and will display that this year at Pitt. Redshirt freshman Thomas MacVittie and Ben DiNucci will battle for the backup position. 2018 is when Narduzzi will turn the keys for the Pitt offense over to MacVittie.
This is the hardest position to project the starter and backups because it’s filled with so many talented options. This may sound like a generic “coaches answer” but it’s really true. The depth chart and playing time will be determined by what takes place on the practice field this spring and during fall camp. Last year, no one would’ve predicted that Chawntez Moss would’ve been the backup to James Conner but he earned that on the practice field.
But last year is in the past and Narduzzi and OC Shawn Watson will wipe the slate clean and watch to see who emerges and earns the carries this year. Moss, Darrin Hall, Quadree Ollison, AJ Davis and Todd Sibley will all have the chance to take over as Pitt’s starting running back.
Obviously, Moss has to enter the spring as the favorite but let’s see how things play out.
A year ago, wide receiver was viewed as a question mark for Pitt but that’s not the case this year. The Panthers return six wideouts from 2016 including starters Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson.
Weah emerged as Pitt’s big play receiver and led them with 36 catches, 870 yards (24 yards/catch), and 10 touchdowns. Considering Browne’s big arm, the Browne to Weah combination looks to be lethal combination in 2017.
Henderson proved to be dangerous as a runner in Pitt’s offense but only had 26 receptions. I look for that to change and for Watson to look to get Henderson more involved in the passing game. Maybe sophomore Maurice Ffrench will get some of Henderson’s carries and Pitt will look to utilize Henderson’s speed in the vertical passing game.
Another player that should get more involved this year is sophomore Aaron Mathews. The former Clairton star has the size, speed, work ethic to be a future star and I think he could be Pitt’s breakout player on offense this year.
Other players that will have roles this year are Tre Tipton, Ffrench and possibly redshirt freshman Ruben Flowers.
Pitt will definitely miss the production from Orndoff who had a great senior season and put himself in position to possibly get his name called in April’s NFL Draft. Luckily for Pitt, they’ll be replacing him with a former 5-star recruit.
After sitting out after transferring from UCLA, Chris Clark will take over as Pitt’s starting tight end. Clark staying healthy will be crucial because they have no experienced depth behind him.
Incoming freshman Tyler Sear, Grant Carrigan and Charles Reeves will all have the chance for playing time in 2017. I’m somewhat surprised that Pitt didn’t try and bring in a grad transfer for some experience.
After losing Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty to graduation, this might be the most crucial aspect and biggest key for the 2017 season. Who will Pitt try and replace these future NFL players with?
Here’s my pre-camp starting offensive line: Brian O’Neil, ?, Alex Officer, Alex Bookser and Jared Jones-Smith. Offensive line depth includes Connor Dintino, Brandon Ford, Alex Paulina, Justin Morgan and the incoming 2017 freshman (too early to speculate about them).
After having his season end in last year’s opener, Dewayne Hendrix hopes to show off his enormous talent this year in Josh Conklin’s defense. Hendrix will likely be paired with Rori Blair at the other defensive end spot. Allen Edwards, James Folston, Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones will also compete for playing time. One other thing to keep your eye on is whether talented redshirt freshman Kaezon Pugh is moved to rush end to fill a similar role that Price played the last couple of years. If that happens, considering his talent, I’d look for Pugh to be on the field.
Like at running back, this is a position that’s wide open and has various candidates that can win the starting spots.
Rob Harley will have to replace Matt Galambos, Mike Caprara and Bam Bradley to graduation. Luckily, the top candidates to start at linebacker all received playing time.
My early guess is that Quintin Wirginis, Saleem Brightwell and Elijah Zeise are your pre-camp starters. Brightwell is someone that I can see having a big year. From what I’m hearing, Zeise is healthy and has put on good weight and muscle.
Don’t count out redshirt freshman Chase Pine because it’s only a matter of time before he emerges in Narduzzi’s defense.
The secondary. Honestly the position that prevented the Panthers from winning at least two more games last year.
Will it be any better this year? It can’t be any worse… right?
Who will the starters be? I’ll go with Damar Hamlin, Avonte Maddox, Jordan Whitehead and Paris Ford. The good news is that unlike last year, Conklin will options to turn to if someone is struggling.
Young but talented players like Therran Coleman, Henry Miller, Dane Jackson, Jay Stocker and Bricen Garner will compete for playing time.