With Pitt finishing the 2018 season an even 7-7, Pittsburgh Sports Now decided to take a look at seven players, coaches or parts of Pitt’s game that have the arrow pointing up heading into 2019 and seven that aren’t looking so hot after the 2018 season.
Here’s what we came up with:
UP: Rashad Weaver
The big, athletic defensive end did a little bit of everything for Pitt this season, including standing up as a proto-linebacker at times, rushing the passer, fitting the run, dropping into coverage. When it came to big plays on defense, Weaver was everywhere. He led the Panthers in tackles for loss (14), sacks (6.5), quarterback hurries (10) and fumble recoveries (three).
Entering his redshirt junior year, Weaver will not only be expected to be one of the stars of what could be an extremely talented Pitt defense, but will be looked at as a potential underclass NFL draft option.
DOWN: All of the tight ends
Pitt’s tight end wasn’t a position with a ton of depth entering the season, and Tyler Sear’s mid-year departure didn’t help matters at all. But what’s left didn’t provide much of a receiving threat.
Arkansas transfer Will Gragg finished the season with five catches for 31 yards. Former walk-on defensive end and linebacker Jim Medure had three for 29. Grant Carrigan and converted tackle Carson Van Lynn, who got as much playing time as either of the other two down the stretch, finished the season without a catch.
Clearly, something needs figured out at the position this offseason.
UP: Damar Hamlin
Hailed as a potential difference-maker from the second he stepped onto Pitt’s campus, Hamlin finally got the opportunity to play a full, healthy season as a junior and he responded by delivering as advertised.
Starting at field safety, he led the Panthers with 90 tackles and tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Anchoring Pitt’s defensive efforts from the safety position isn’t easy, but Hamlin showed that he’s up to the task and is poised for a dominant senior campaign.
DOWN: Kenny Pickett
After a season of turmoil at the quarterback position in 2017, Kenny Pickett started every game for the Panthers and played all but a handful of snaps in 2018.
His performance left many fans wishing that he hadn’t.
It’s hard to point out what part of the passing game’s failures can be blamed on the sophomore passer. The protection was abysmal all year, which obviously limited offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s play-calling and Pickett never really seemed to be able to get into a rhythm as a result.
But the hype from Pickett’s performance against Miami to close 2017 certainly seems to have passed. If he’s to remain as the starter going forward, it will take a better showing than he gave in 2018.
UP: Maurice Ffrench
Ffrench came to Pitt as a man without a position. As a true freshman, Pitt started him on defense, moved him to offense, and back to defense. Even as a sophomore in 2017, when he finally settled in on the offensive side of the ball, he seemed poised to be a Quadree Henderson in waiting — a contributor on special teams and as a rushing threat from the receiver position, but hadn’t showed promise of more.
That call changed when an injury to Taysir Mack this season thrust French into a top receiver role and jumped up and grabbed it — literally.
How did he reel this in? 😯 pic.twitter.com/Slv9uKA8Ey
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) November 17, 2018
From his route-running to his ball skills and leaping ability, Ffrench showed in 2018 that he can be a total package at wide receiver and not just a gadget-play threat.
DOWN: Young wideouts
Coming into the season, the hope was that Pitt’s young wide receivers would be able to provide an injection of speed that would allow the team to have a more-vertical passing game.
But Dontavius Butler-Jenkins, Shocky Jacques-Louis, Michael Smith and Darian Street combined for just 13 catches and none longer than 15 yards. V’Lique Carter, who was moved into a receiver role mid-season, had three catches for nine yards.
Obviously, the offensive coordinator, the quarterback and the offensive line share blame in the inability to get the ball into the hands of Pitt’s potential deep threats, but one wonders how long those players are going to wait to see the ball. Street has already announced his intention to transfer, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more from this position group, given the circumstances.
UP: Jimmy Morrissey
Stay with me here for a second. Morrissey, a former walk-on and the only underclassman starter on Pitt’s offensive line, probably wasn’t considered the lynchpin of the unit coming into the season despite rave reviews from scouts about his play.
But when he was lost for the season in the waning moments of the Wake Forest game, Morrissey’s value shone through as the Pitt offensive line struggled to deal with Miami and Clemson in his absence.
Returning as a redshirt junior in 2019, Morrissey will be the only returning starter and will be expected to be the leader of the unit, a role he’s already plenty well suited for.
DOWN: Shawn Watson
There was plenty that went wrong with Pitt’s offense in 2018 that was beyond the capabilities of Shawn Watson to fix. The pass protection was the most pervasive of those, with Kenny Pickett’s struggles coming in a close second.
But scheme can be a great equalizer of ability. Unfortunately, Watson never seemed to find the right mix that would minimize Pitt’s shortcomings in protection and inexperience at quarterback. The only thing he seemed able to do well was lean on the running game, and while that worked at times, it doesn’t take an offensive genius to call the same four counters and zone handoffs.
In general, there seemed to be a lack of creativity and spontaneity to Pitt’s offense that only exacerbated the talent-level issues that they possessed. For that reason, and the lack of development from Pickett, Watson’s seat is a hot one as the calendar turns to 2019.
UP: Elias Reynolds
Reynolds was suspended for the Sun Bowl, which was certainly an inauspicious finish to the 2018 season. But it was still a good one for the redshirt sophomore middle linebacker. Thrust into an increase role thanks to a season-ending injury to senior Quintin Wirginis, Reynolds filled in so well that the defense barely missed a beat.
He finished the year with 49 tackles — fourth on the team — despite not starting until the seventh game of the season, and should have a lock on a starting role in 2019, provided he can stay away from any further off-the-field trouble.
DOWN: Young safeties
Dennis Briggs started every game for Pitt in 2018, which was probably something of an upset. Briggs was never Pitt’s most athletic defensive back, and the thinking of many around the program, was that one of Pitt’s younger safeties would unseat him by the end of the season.
But that never transpired, as Paris Ford was moved to corner and Phil Campbell and Bricen Garner were unable to capitalize on limited minutes. Garner didn’t travel to El Paso for disciplinary reasons. Jazzee Stocker was able to work his way from a sub-package role into some regular rotations, but was never able to completely unseat Briggs.
Ford is moving back to safety for 2019, so it’s looking like a three-way competition for one of three opening starting jobs on the defense. Perhaps he’ll be the spark this unit needs.
UP: Jason Pinnock
Unlike Briggs at boundary safety, another veteran on Pitt’s defense was forced aside throughout the course of the season, and that was redshirt senior Phillipie Motley at corner. The man doing the forcing was Pinnock, a true sophomore that first worked into a role by showing his ability to jam larger, stronger receivers at the line.
Pinnock worked that into more and more playing time, and eventually became the primary starter opposite Dane Jackson at corner. He finished with two interceptions, tied with Hamlin for the team lead and six pass breakups, which was good for second on the team.
DOWN: Kirk Christodoulou
The redshirt freshman Aussie had about as bad of a game as a punter can have in Pitt’s early-season loss to Penn State, botching two holds, dropping a punt snap and averaging 33.4 yards per punt.
Christodoulou did have better games, including a three-game stretch where his average was over 48 yards per punt. But he finished the season with just a 41.4-yard average, which is currently 56th in the country.
He’s just a freshman, and he’s shown the ability to hit a long one from time to time, but Christodoulou’s game will need to improve if he’s going to be Pitt’s starting punter for the next three seasons.
UP: Andre Powell
Pitt’s veteran running backs coach is a fairly low-key guy, but of all of the Panthers’ assistants, he might’ve had the best year in 2018.
The hard work actually started far earlier than that, as Powell got Darrin Hall and Quadree Ollison to buy into a team concept that allowed them to remain as a tandem all the way through their senior seasons, despite neither player getting as many carries as his talent level warranted.
Rewarded with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Powell has already laid the groundwork for another such feat, as four-star backs A.J. Davis, Mychale Salahuddin and Daniel Carter will vie for playing time in 2019. That’s depth that no other Pitt position group can even fathom.
DOWN: Pat Narduzzi
Yes, the bottom line was that Pitt improved from 5-7 to 7-7 while winning the program’s first Coastal Division title and that should reflect positively on the head coach.
But there were many times this season that it felt like the head coach was holding the Panthers back from being even better — or at least things the head coach should be responsible for.
After being one of the least penalized teams in college football for the first three years of Narduzzi’s tenure, Pitt averaged 69.5 penalty yards per game in 2018, the 19th-most in all of FBS and the 10th-most amongst Power Five teams.
The Panthers also had an infuriating number of plays that they made the wrong substitution, didn’t have enough players on the field, couldn’t get the pay called in quickly enough, took a delay of game, or had to burn a precious timeout to get a personnel situation rectified. Those aren’t things that ought to be coming up in year four of a coach’s tenure.