After playing in the first seven weeks of the 2018 college football season, Pitt is idle this Saturday before the Panthers start the second half of their season on Oct. 27 against Duke.
It’s a convenient time to take a look at the first half of the Panthers’ 2018 campaign and determine what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong thus far.
Today, I’ll assign some positional grades. Thursday, I’ll hand out some superlatives, give some context to Pitt’s wins and losses and update my preseason prediction using that information.
QB KENNY PICKETT
Pickett has not shown the same amount of promise that he displayed during his late-season run in 2017, when he nearly led Pitt from behind at Virginia Tech and did lead the Panthers to an upset of No. 2 Miami.
Pitt’s entire passing game has struggled and it’s hard to sort out exactly what part of it can be pinned on Pickett as opposed to the pass protection and wide receivers.
Pickett also hasn’t been making as many plays with his legs of late, as he tries to work through the balance of extending plays by moving in the pocket with picking up yardage on the ground.
He has shown strong poise and leadership in late-game scenarios, despite Pitt coming up one or two plays short against both North Carolina and Notre Dame.
Pickett can be better and if Pitt wants to make it to the postseason, he’s going to have to be better. My grade: C-
Before this season, this group looked unsettled, depth-wise, with as many as seven or eight players seemingly having legitimate arguments to be made for playing time, but little to no separation amongst the group.
Since the start of the season Taysir Mack has emerged as the go-to guy of this group, leading Pitt in receiving yards even though he’s missed the last two games with a right foot/ankle injury.
Maurice Ffrench and Rafael Araujo-Lopes have done well enough in their slot roles, with each player owning a long touchdown reception.
But the Panthers haven’t gotten a downfield threat going to partner with Mack. Aaron Mathews has played well in the two games Mack has missed. If he can continue that progress, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel for this group. My grades: Mack A, Araujo-Lopes and Ffrench B, Mathews C+, everyone else D
This didn’t look like a strength of the team from the beginning, with the offseason losses of Chris Clark and Charles Reeves putting a big dent in the playmaking ability. Tyler Sear had been doing yeoman’s work for the Panthers in mostly a blocking role, but his departure before the Notre Dame game leaves this unit bereft of talent and experience.
My grades: Will Gragg C, Grant Carrigan and Jim Medure INC, Sear W
Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison have basically been the only thing going for Pitt’s offense and both players are having outstanding senior seasons. Running backs coach Andre Powell has done a masterful job of getting both players work and keeping both fresh and Pitt’s run blocking has been solid.
Hall has always had a breakaway burst, but he seems to be hitting the hole with more confidence and Ollison has been extremely hard to bring down with arm tackles. A.J. Davis and Mychale Salahuddin have looked good in limited reps, too. My grade: A+
This is probably the toughest unit to grade. Call a running play, particularly an outside zone or a counter trap and it looks like Russ Grimm and Mark May are out there. Ask them to pass block a zone blitz and it looks more like the Southmoreland JV team.
The divergence of abilities seemingly is not just limited to the five starters. Offensive line coach Dave Borbely said that sixth OL Bryce Hargrove was benched during the Syracuse game for a lapse in pass protection. Carson Van Lynn, moved from tackle to tight end after Sear’s departure, was flagged for holding against Notre Dame.
It seems tough to jive that a unit so solid in one aspect of their job could be so poor in the other, and it seems reasonable to think that this group could improve. For now, well just take the average of their performances. My grade: C
Pitt’s defensive line might be the deepest unit on the team, with nine players making an impact so far this season. But outside of Rashad Weaver, who leads the team with 3.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries, there haven’t been a ton of big plays from the rest of the group. Still, Pitt has stuffed the run and when the defense has been gashed, it’s been in the passing game at the second and third levels. My grades: Weaver A+, everyone else B+
The injury to Quintin Wirginis is an interesting turning point for this unit. The three fifth-year senior starters were expected to have big years, but it had been Wirginis that had been doing most of the work so far this unit. Outside backers Elijah Zeise and Seun Idowu will need to take their game to another level to replace his production, along with Elias Reynolds, who will be replacing Wirginis on the field. My grades: Wirginis W, Idowu and Reynolds B-, Brightwell and Zeise C+
Pitt’s cornerbacks are going to get put on an island, and sometimes when that happens, they’re going to get beaten. For the most part, when Pitt’s defensive backs have been given a chance schematically, they’ve played pretty well this season. Dane Jackson has continued his strong play while Jason Pinnock and Damarri Mathis have come on strong in their sophomore seasons.
There appears to be solid depth at corner, as well, with Pinnock pushing Phillipie Motley out of the starting lineup but not totally out of the game plan and Therran Coleman, Paris Ford and Marquis Williams waiting in the wings. My grades: Jackson, Pinnock A, everyone else B
Pitt’s safeties have the unenviable task of frequently having to provide off-ball coverage against slot receivers and as a result, they’re frequently on the wrong end of big passing plays against. Damar Hamlin is finally starting to come into his own as a player and even won ACC Defensive Back of the Week after the Syracuse win. The other spot has been less settled, with a few younger players rotating in behind Dennis Briggs.
Pitt needs its safeties to be big-time playmakers in the defense and it’s obvious that the early departure of Jordan Whitehead to the NFL has left a gap that the Panthers weren’t prepared to fill. My grades: Hamlin A-, Jazzee Stocker B, Phil Campbell C, Briggs C-
This unit has been a mess. Kicker Alex Kessman missed a pair of kicks against Penn State when holder Jake Scarton was injured and then missed two more under ideal conditions at Notre Dame last week. Kirk Christodoulou had a turnover and has struggled with punting all season. My grades: Adomitis A, Scarton A- when healthy, Kessman C, Christodoulou D
Ffrench has a pair of kickoff return touchdowns, Araujo-Lopes has a punt return touchdown and these units have been one of the bright spots for Pitt in 2018. My grade: A
It was a slow start for Randy Bates’ unit, but after getting thrashed by Penn State and North Carolina, the Panthers made a big change to the nickel for UCF, went through some growing pains in the new scheme, played well enough to get a win against Syracuse and then played its best game of the season back in its base against Notre Dame.
As a result, the trend line looks a lot better than the grade. If the last three games are more representative of the way Pitt’s defense is going to play the rest of the way than the first three, this grade will have massively improved by season’s end. My grade: C
Shawn Watson deserves a lot of credit for incorporating some new schemes along with offensive line coach Dave Borbely into Pitt’s running game that have really paid off for the Panthers. But Pitt’s uninspired and vanilla passing offense has impressed absolutely no one and Pickett has not developed as many hope. Watson’s hands are tied a good deal when it comes to play calling by the way his offensive line has been unable to pass protect, but the lack of development shown by Pickett has to go as a mark against him. My grade: D
In year four of Pat Narduzzi’s tenure, the expectations just have not been met. Yes, the Panthers have played a difficult schedule, but were also uncompetitive in games against Penn State and UCF before a better showing against Notre Dame last Saturday.
Narduzzi also must own a bad loss at North Carolina, when the lowly Tar Heels put up 486 yards of offense against his defense. The decision to shelf the nickel until Week 5 was probably Narduzzi’s and looks awful in hindsight. Pitt has also played undisciplined football for much of the season.
“In the first seven games, we’ve had one of the toughest schedules in the country, period,” Narduzzi said Wednesday. “We didn’t finish that up, but I was happy the way our guys competed against, probably, our third top 10 team. … We went head to head with them. We gave them all they wanted. You get evaluated week by week.”
Like Bates, if Narduzzi can continue the pace of the last two games, his evaluation will rise as the season progresses, but right now, with a 3-4 record, two blowout losses and a loss to a bad team, it’s below the line. My grade: C-
Part two, with mid-season awards, a deeper reflection on what we can learn from Pitt’s wins and losses and an adjustment to my preseason prediction is here: