Pat Narduzzi said something at his weekly press conference that got a lot of attention.
“I think we’re going to be a heck of a football team a year from now.”
This was in reference to how young and inexperienced this years Panther team is on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.
When considering the state of the Pitt program under Narduzzi, things could be taking a similar path to what happened with his mentor Mark Dantonio at Michigan State.
Dantonio after 2 years: 16-10
Narduzzi after 2 years: 16-10
Dantonio Year Three: 6-7
Narduzzi Year Three: ??
Dantonio next 6 years: 65-16
If Narduzzi is correct, next year is the year that this roster is really prepared to win and compete.
All this talk about 2018 got me to think about who’s returning and what the starting offense and defense could look like.
Quarterback: Like it was the year, this will be an open battle between Ben DiNucci, Kenny Pickett and Thomas MacVittie. DiNucci will have the early edge but don’t count out the younger guys. It could be time for Pitt to have a quarterback in place for more than just one year.
Running Backs: Barring a transfer, Qadree Ollison, Chawntez Moss, Darrin Hall, AJ Davis and Todd Sibley will all return in 2018 which makes this the strength of the offense.
Tight Ends: Matt Flanagan and Devon Edwards will graduate but Chris Clark and Tyler Sear return along with freshman Charles Reeves and Grant Carrigan. Pitt’s 2018 recruiting class also has commitments from Jay Symonds and Matt Alaimo so the depth at tight end appears to be strong.
Wide Receivers: Jester Weah will graduate so this unit will need a younger player to step up and replace his production and big play potential.
Aaron Mathews appears to be the most likely candidate to do that. The second half of this season is important for Mathews as he continues to try and establish himself as a receiver.
Quadree Henderson, Maurice Ffrench, Tre Tipton, Rafael Araujo-Lopes, Ruben Flowers are all set to return along with Michael Smith, Darian Street and Dontavius Butler-Jenkins.
Butler-Jenkins is the one player from that latter group that could provide a real and immediate impact. He was the talk of camp and set to play as a true freshman before being sidelined by an injury.
It has to be exciting for the coaches to know that of all of their position players (RB, WR and TE) only Weah graduates. That’s huge.
Offensive Lineman: This will be the key unit. Three Panther offensive lineman will be graduating (Alex Officer, Jaryd Jones-Smith and Brandon Hodges) and Brian O’Neil will have to decide if he’ll enter the NFL Draft.
If O’Neil returns, candidates to join him in the starting unit will be Alex Bookser, Jerry Drake, Chase Brown, Mike Herndon, Jimmy Morrissey, Connor Dintino, Bryce Hargrove, Tony Pilato and Brandon Ford. Plus, Pitt will be adding two highly regarded recruits in Blake Zubovic and Jake Kradel.
The 2018 offensive line could end up being O’Neil, Mike Herndon, Morrissey/Dintino, Bookser and Drake.
This is the unit that will be counted on to take that next step so that Pitt can take that next step. The good news is that only two players will be graduating so this group has a chance to be really good.
The defense line will return Keyshon Camp, Kam Carter, Amir Watts, Jaylen Twyman, Rashad Wheeler, Shane Roy, Dewayne Hendrix, James Folston, Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones. Plus, a player like Kaezon Pugh has had a year to learn his new position and will have the chance to play a key role at defensive end. Devin Danielson is an incoming player that has a chance to be really good and make an instant impact.
At linebacker, 2017 starters Elijah Zeise, Saleem Brightwell and Oliwaseun Idowu return but will be pushed by talented players like Henry Miller, Chase Pine, Elias Reynolds and Jalen Williams.
I believe the three starting spots at linebacker will be wide open and we could see change in 2018.
The most exciting position battles next year will be in the Pitt secondary.
However, the big question will be will Jordan Whitehead return or will he enter the NFL Draft?
If he returns, Whitehead, Damar Hamlin, Paris Ford, Dane Jackson, Damarri Mathis, Jason Pinnock, Jay Stocker, Phil Campbell, Dennis Briggs, Therran Coleman, Phillipie Motley will all battle to start. Plus, a player named Kwantel Raines could be in the mix.