PITTSBURGH — When Pitt’s spring practice opens on Thursday, the biggest thing head coach Pat Narduzzi will be looking for is leadership.
Of course, there are on-the-field concerns, as well, as the Panthers will be installing a new offense under coordinator Shawn Watson, breaking in Charlie Partridge as defensive line coach, getting their first looks at six midyear enrollees and finding homes on the depth chart for the players that redshirted in 2016.
But Narduzzi’s primary concern over the next 15 sessions is building a team, and that starts with identifying the young men that will step us as leaders of this year’s squad.
“We have 14 seniors in this class and 11 of them are on scholarship, so we really have a small group,” Narduzzi said in his press conference Wednesday. “I think we’re looking for new leaders. That’s one of the things you look for coming into spring ball. Who are those new guys, those new leaders, that are going to continue to lead your program?”
The new leaders of the Panthers will have big shoes to fill. Not only did last year’s group lead the team to wins over Penn State and Clemson on the field, they’re moving on the NFL en masse, with six players performing at the NFL combine and more slotted to work out at the team’s pro day.
“We had some great seniors across this front,” Narduzzi said, referring to the first row of seats in the team room, where the seniors are seated. “I’m looking forward to watching them at pro day next Wednesday. [Adam] Bisnowaty, [Nate] Peterman, Reggie Mitchell, those are guys you miss. Now, you have new guys moving into those seats. The leadership we had last year was pretty strong. That’ll probably be the biggest role we have to fill.”
It’s not always the case, but oftentimes, a team’s leadership begins with its quarterback, and though Narduzzi says there will be an open competition at the position, it’s pretty clear that Browne has the inside track on the job as a graduate transfer from USC.
“With Nathan Peterman gone, we lost a major leader there,” Narduzzi said. “[Browne] is fitting in great. To say he’s a leader yet, it’s so hard to come in as a transfer — because I did it — and be a guy that someone says, ‘he’s the leader.’ But as a quarterback, you’d better be.”
Narduzzi said the team is “95 percent” healthy. The two players he singled out as not being totally ready to go are Dwayne Hendrix (foot) and Darrin Hall (knee).
“You’re never fully healthy going into spring ball,” Narduzzi said. “Who knows what you’re going to be after practice No. 1? You could go back down to 80 real quick. But I feel good about where we are there, health-wise.”
Hall was injured in what appeared to be a non-contact injury during Pitt’s Pinstripe Bowl loss to Northwestern and was still on crutches as recently as February. He will not participate in practices this spring and that brings into question his readiness for the beginning of the season if his knee injury is as significant as it appears.
Hendrix, who missed the entire season after breaking his foot in the opener against Villanova, is expected to practice this spring, but on a limited basis. As is typical, Narduzzi did not give specific injury updates on the rest of his players, but he did say that Jordan Whitehead will be ready to go for practice.
Pitt adds a mid-year walk-on at quarterback. Jake Zilinskas joins the team after spending one season at Division III John Carroll. Zilinskas is an Indiana, Pa., native and played for Indiana High School. He was a four-year letterman but played just three games as a senior due to injury. As a junior, he led WPIAL Class AAA in passing. He’ll be ineligible due to transfer rules in 2017.
We’ve known about most of Pitt’s departing players since back at signing day, but you can add one to the list, as defensive end Zack Gilbert has been removed from the roster. Gilbert, if you’ll recall, was a promising prospect coming out the Charlotte area last summer, but was flagged before training camp with a heart condition. At the time, the team said there was a chance he could continue his football career in 2017, but he is not on the roster and university sources could not confirm his continued enrollment at the school.
Also, five walk-on players will not return to the team this spring: Aaron Britton, Dom Cuono, Nick Goldsmith, Calvin Hamilton, Jake Knight and Nico Lodovico. None of those players lettered in 2016.
Positionally, there were few changes made to the depth the chart. The biggest of which was Kaezon Pugh, who will make the move from linebacker to defense end. Maurice Ffrench, who split time between corner and wide receiver last season, is listed at both again. Devon Edwards and Mike Herndon, who were switched to defensive line midseason last year, both remain on that side of the ball.
Several players had their weights change. Edwards went from 255 to 270, Pugh jumped from 210 to 245, Chase Pine from 220 to 240, Amir Watts from 270 to 285, Keyshon Camp from 275 to 285, Ruben Flowers from 190 to 200, Aaron Mathews from 195 to 205, Rashad Weaver from 255 to 265 and Elijah Zeise from 225 to 230.
Slimming down were Justin Morgan, who went from 365 to 355 and Qadree Ollison, who cut down from 230 to 225.
The team didn’t announce an official depth chart, but here’s my best shot at what it looks like as of right now.
Pitt will practice 14 times before the Blue-Gold Game, which will be held at Heinz Field April 15 at 1 p.m. They’ll have three this week, practicing Thursday, Friday and Saturday before settling into a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday pattern. The Saturday practices will be held at Heinz Field, weather and turf conditions permitting. Pitt’s pro day for recently graduated seniors will be held on Wednesday, March 22.
Pitt’s six new players will get their uniform numbers in time for the spring. Browne will wear No. 4, Kenny Pickett No. 8, Zilinskas No. 19, Drake No. 74, Alexandre No. 97 and Kirk Chistodoulou No. 98.