Previewing the Panthers is a series looking ahead to Pitt’s 2020 season. Each day, PSN will focus on a different coach or position group and look at all of the changes, battles and predictions that can be made in advance of the 2020 season.
Pitt’s cornerback depth was a big question mark entering training camp for the 2020 season.
Even after the departure of Dane Jackson to the NFL, the team returned 2019 co-starters Damarri Mathis and Jason Pinnock, a pair of seniors with a ton of playing experience. So the starting unit seemed good to go.
But the depth behind that unit was largely untested. Redshirt sophomore Marquis Williams had experience as the team’s Nickel back, but little as an outside corner. A.J. Woods played a good bit of special teams in 2019 as a true freshman — enough to use his season of eligibility — but not a lot of defense.
But head coach Pat Narduzzi showed faith in that group. He did not pursue a transfer at the cornerback position despite an open scholarship to do so and the departure of 2019 reserve Therran Coleman. He also moved redshirt sophomore Judson Tallandier to safety because he thought that was a better fit for the player, regardless of the team’s needs.
Pitt looked set to enter the season with two experienced starters and two promising, if inexperienced backups.
“Both of those guys are much, much improved,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said last week. “Quez and A.J. Woods are playing really at a high level right now. I’ve got a lot of confidence putting those guys in.”
On Tuesday, all of that changed. Pitt announced that Mathis will miss the entirety of the 2020 season with a non-football injury, throwing the team’s cornerbacks into disarray. One of those inexperienced players will be elevated to a starting role, and a true freshman will now be forced onto the two-deep.
Pitt has a few options there, but Narduzzi went to Miramar, Florida native Jahvante Royal as the one of the trio of freshman that has stood out the most so far.
“I would say at this point Battle and Royal are ahead of Sellers right now for whatever reason,” Narduzzi said Tuesday before the injury announcement. “But all three of them are working well and one of those three is going to play for us this year. I don’t know which one it’s going to be. We’ll find out who gets it in the 15th round of this heavyweight battle. They are picking things up well, all three of them are tough and they’ve kind of hung with us this whole time and they’ve gotten a lot of reps.”
Those reps will be valuable as Pitt now leans on inexperienced youth to get through the season.
The biggest one now becomes the starting job opposite Mathis. Woods has both a size and speed advantage over Williams, but lacks the on-the-job experience. This could end up in a situation like what Pinnock and Mathis experienced, where the larger and more physical Pinnock got more playing time against bigger receivers and the more technical Mathis drew more playing time against quicker opponents.
The battle for available playing time amongst the trio of freshmen will also likely extend into the season. If Woods is elevated to a starting role, there will also be a lot of special teams reps available.
Not only could these battles run through the 2020 season, but 2021, as well. Pinnock is scheduled to graduate, but no lock to leave, thanks to the blanket eligibility wavier, and Mathis will likely return for 2021 after his injury. So if someone gets pushed down to the bottom of the pile, it could be a while before they are able to resurface.
Pinnock has always been a lock for one job. Woods probably has more physical tools, but the pugnacious Williams has been patiently waiting for his turn behind the more experienced players in front of him. I doubt he’s going to let this opportunity go without a fight. I like Williams to start early, with Woods also getting plenty of work.
Therran Coleman — Transfer, Western Michigan
Dane Jackson — NFL Draft, Buffalo Bills
Damarri Mathis — Season-long injury
Judson Tallandier — Moved to free safety
Sr. Jason Pinnock (10 GP, 16 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 7 PBU, 1 QB hurry, 1 interception)
R-So. Marquis Williams (8 GP, 4 tackles)
So. A.J. Woods (10 GP, 3 tackles)
R-Fr. Hudson Primus* — Redshirted
Fr. Rashad Battle, Atlanta, Ga.
Fr. Jahvante Royal, Miramar, Fla.
Fr. Hunter Sellers, Tyrone, Ga.
R-Jr. Anthony Scott-Naji*, Philadelphia, Pa.