PITTSBURGH — On Thursday, Pitt ruled starting cornerback Avonte Maddox out for Saturday’s game against the Virginia Cavaliers at Heinz Field.
That means that the Panthers won’t start a single senior on defense Saturday. On offense, there will be just four. On the entire travel roster for the Duke game last Saturday, there were just nine scholarship seniors.
The mantra has been since the very beginning that the 2017 version of the Panthers would be a young one, but it seems to keep getting younger as the year goes on.
Maddox has joined Max Browne and Quintin Wirginis as seniors that aren’t playing due to injury. Allen Edwards has lost his starting job to Rashad Weaver at defensive end. Before the season started, would-be seniors Rori Blair and Jeremiah Taleni were dismissed from the team.
Make no mistake, Pitt’s lack of experience is real and a real reason that the Panthers have started the season 3-5. But why? Injuries, poor play and and dismissals played a part, but even with those players in the mix, Pitt would have less than 15 seniors on scholarship. There are 85 available, meaning that at most, less than a fifth of the team would be in their fourth year of play.
To find the real reason for that, you have to go back to 2013. The members of the recruiting Class of 2013 are redshirt seniors in 2017 and across college football, they are some of the most pivotal contributors to teams.
Pitt has just five: starters left guard Alex Officer, right tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith, punter Ryan Winslow and wide receiver Jester Weah and reserve tight end Devon Edwards. Those are what remains out of a 27-player class signed four years ago.
What happened to the rest? Part of the issue is that an inordinate number of them played as true freshmen. Matt Galambos, Tyrique Jarrett, Dorian Johnson, Scott Orndoff, Jaymar Parrish, Shakir Soto and Terrish Webb all have already seen their four years with the Panthers come and go, and they’ve been joined by Tyler Boyd and James Conner, who each left early for the NFL.
While Pitt had plenty of hits, there were also misses. Four-star quarterback TraVon Chapman was dismissed from the team and is now a senior wide receiver at Akron. Titus Howard was also dismissed from the team and finished his career at Slippery Rock.
Rachid Ibrahim re-joined former head coach Paul Chryst at Wisconsin. Defensive tackle Luke MacLean joined Chapman in the MAC and transferred to Eastern Michigan. Reggie Green dropped down a level and is playing at Robert Morris. Tight end Tony Harper did the same and is at Western Illinois.
Carson Baker, Zach Challingsworth, Zach Poker and Aaron Reese all graduated and did not return to the team for their final year of eligibility.
A large number of players that saw the field as true freshmen and two early departures for the NFL wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Pitt. But that, combined with happened in 2014 conspired to leave Pitt with very few seniors this season.
After so many of the 2013 signees played as freshmen, very few members of the Class of 2014 did. Of those that remain on the team, only Maddox and Wirginis were contributors as true freshmen.
The combination has left Pitt with something of a leadership vacuum, and it’s something that still effects the team, even at Week 9 of the season.
“When you compare our leadership from this year to last year, the fewer seniors you have, the lesser it’s going to be,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said Thursday. “Are you happy with it? No. I don’t think we have the best group of leader on our football team, because it’s just not as many.”
That’s why one of Pitt’s captains — safety Dennis Briggs — is a redshirt junior, and when the team needed someone to step up to the plate to help the offensive line get out of a funk, it was redshirt junior Brian O’Neill.
While years of history have conspired to limit Pitt this season, the fact that so many juniors have stepped into leadership roles this year portends good things for 2018.
“It’s their football team,” Narduzzi said. “I truly believe that. Coaches can talk, talk, talk, but its their football team, and the more (leaders) you have, the better you are.”
Here’s the rest of Narduzzi’s Thursday remarks: