CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It would be easy to make the case that Pitt’s offense might not be as good in 2019 as it was in 2018.
The Panthers – who had the nation’s 13th-best rushing offense last season en route to winning the ACC Coastal Division – lost four starting offensive lineman and a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison. Rafael Araujo-Lopes, who led the team in receptions, is also gone.
But it would also be effortless to make the argument that Pitt’s offense will be better in 2019. The Panthers brought in a new offensive coordinator in Mark Whipple and a new wide receivers coach in Chris Beatty. In three of the past five years, Whipple’s UMass teams ranked in the top 20 of FBS in passing, ranking 14th last season. At Maryland, Beatty was touted for his recruiting, but also developed 2018 first round pick DJ Moore, who made the NFL’s All-Rookie team last season while playing for the Carolina Panthers.
So, folks can be pessimistic about Pitt’s offense because of the talent that left, or they can be optimistic about the new orchestrators coming in.
Panthers’ head coach Pat Narduzzi falls into the latter group.
“I think (Whipple) has instilled a lot of confidence in our kids,” Narduzzi said Thursday at the Westin in Charlotte at the ACC Kickoff event. “I have an offensive coordinator that I believe is the head coach of the offense. … Mark Whipple has been a head football coach. He’s won a national championship, he’s a leader. I need someone to come in and take the offense over, grab it.
“I’m excited about him. I’ve coached against him in the past when he was at Brown and UMass. I was always — as a defensive coordinator — puzzled by what he did, how he did it. He fits in with what we want to do: pro style. I’m excited about what avenue we’re going down this season.”
This isn’t Whipple’s first stop in the Steel City. From 2004 through 2006, he was the quarterbacks coach for the Steelers under Bill Cowher. During that stretch – you might remember – Ben Roethlisberger went 13-0 in the regular season as a rookie, and then led the Steelers to a Super Bowl XL win in his sophomore campaign.
As Narduzzi mentioned, Whipple has also been the head coach at Brown, UMass and Division II New Haven. His lengthy coaching career has also included stints with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cleveland Browns and the University of Miami.
At Pitt, Whipple walks into a situation with an established quarterback in Kenny Pickett, who showed flashes of greatness last season, but also displayed the lowest of lows. Pickett threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns against Wake Forest in a game that clinched the Coastal for Pitt, but followed that up a few weeks later by completing just four passes against Clemson in the ACC title game.
Senior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench is confident in Whipple’s abilities to amplify each player’s strengths.
“Coach Whipple is very smart and he knows when and what time to give somebody the ball,” Ffrench said. “From what I’ve seen so far, it’s coming together great. I can see that chemistry building.”
Ffrench, who caught six touchdown passes last season, will be part of a receiving core guided by Beatty. That group also includes veterans Taysir Mack, Aaron Matthews and Tre Tipton.
“Our receiver room has a little more discipline,” Narduzzi said. “We had talent a year ago, but didn’t have the discipline. Our kids really believe in Chris Beatty right now.”
Senior corner Dane Jackson has already noticed Beatty’s impact on the receivers in practice.
“Coach Beatty has changed up some of their techniques and has given us defenders something to think about when we line up against them,” Jackson said. “We’re not just lining up and going through the motions. They have a lot of switch-ups that we really have to pay attention to.”
While the receiving corps is an experienced group, Pitt is somewhat lacking in that department when it comes to running backs. But fifth year running backs coach and special teams’ coordinator Andre Powell hasn’t shied away from the fact that someone will have to step up and attempt to provide the production of Hall and Ollison.
Sitting in Powell’s office is a large shoe, the biggest one Pitt’s equipment staff could find. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that Pitt has enormous shoes to fill in the backfield.
“I like that visual every time I walk in,” Narduzzi said. “We have a stable of guys who have the opportunity to get the ball, to be the lead guy. We’re always going to hand the ball to two-or-three guys. We’re going to run the football. … To me, in the way that I’ve grown up, the key to winning football games is, you better be able to run the ball. If you can’t run the football, we won’t be in the championship game.”
The leading returning rusher for Pitt is AJ Davis, who scampered for 134 yards last year on 32 touches. Rounding out the depth chart at tailback will be V’Lique Carter, who rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, and redshirt sophomore Todd Sibley Jr., a former four-star prospect with one collegiate carry on his resume.
Another question mark on offense are the big boys up front. Junior center Jimmy Morrissey is the lone returning starter on the offensive line. Carter Warren, Bryce Hargrove, Chase Brown and Gabe Houy are expected to be the other four starters, but between them are just four career Division I starts. And while he isn’t listed on the depth chart, Michigan grad transfer Nolan Ulizo should be a key part of the offensive line rotation as well.
Again, it’s another position group Narduzzi isn’t too worried about.
“I feel really good about the players we have on the offensive line,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve got plenty of guys that are growing up, that we recruited two or three years ago. It takes time to develop in that position. I feel good with what we’ve got there.”
From 2018 to 2019, the quarterback, center, receiving corps and head coach stay the same for Pitt. There will just be new running backs blasting through holes made by new offensive lineman, and a new offensive coordinator and new receivers coach coming with new ways to maximize talent and exploit defenses.
And that’s a situation Narduzzi seems to be comfortable with.
“I think, top to bottom, the Coastal division is as competitive as you’re going to get. I think anybody can win it every year,” Narduzzi said. “Our goal, obviously, is to always win championships. That’s what we’ll start with when camp starts, is working towards that goal.”