Monday, September 19, 2016

Why Pitt football recruits at the level they do

I've been meaning to write this article for months, and I kept putting it off, but after the uproar of Donovan Jeter not committing to Pitt, I thought this was as good a time as any.

Let me start by saying that Pitt fans have big aspirations for the football program. I don't blame them for that because I've not hidden the fact that I believe that Pitt has the potential to be so much more than they have been for many decades.

So let me start by saying that there is a pecking order in recruiting, and the Panthers are not currently in the top group of that pecking order.

Let's look at where Pitt stands by going down each category of program when it comes to recruiting. We will start first with the elite group that the Panthers program aspires to be.

Elite level- This is the blue bloods of the college football recruiting world. They are in this group mostly because of money (coaching salaries, facilities, stadium capacity, etc.), tradition (strong, recognizable trademark with decades of success), recruiting area (it's infinitely easier when you have a lot of top players in your local vicinity), and sometimes even a win at any cost lack of ethics (over half of the programs on this list have had at least one major incident, had probation, or have been rumored to employ suspicious practices at times).

This group includes the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State (sorry, but it's true), Clemson, Florida State, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Notre Dame, USC, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Auburn, and LSU. That's sixteen programs that, for various reasons, often have the potential, because of how well they recruit, to finish in the top 10 in any given season.

Obviously there are circumstances that could prevent each of these programs from having an elite team for a stretch of time, and really only Ohio State and Alabama have avoided that for the most part. But even these programs can be derailed by poor coaching (Michigan, Oklahoma, USC, and Florida are some examples in the past few decades).

But make no mistake about it- and I can't stress this enough- these are the sixteen programs that are at the top of the heap for most kids. When one of these sixteen programs really want a kid, it's hard for for any program not in this group to get them. Not impossible, and there are many instances of top prospects turning down these programs for a program on a lower level, but more often that not these are the programs that kids want to be part of it- sometimes because they truly are the most successful, and sometimes because it's an ego thing from them or their parents to be able to brag about being at one of these blue blood programs.

Here are the recruiting rankings, via Rivals, of last year's recruiting class of this top level- Ohio State (3), Michigan (4), Penn State (23), Florida State (2), Clemson (6), Texas (7), Oklahoma (16), Nebraska (26), Notre Dame (13), USC (12), Florida (14), Georgia (11), Tennessee (15), Alabama (1), Auburn (9), and LSU (5). I didn't even look at the rankings before I listed those teams but I already knew all of their rankings would be high. And they will be just as high next year. And the year after. And so on.

Then there are two types in the second level. One is a traditionally a good, or even, mediocre program that either has a great coach, or cuts corners to win, and the other is very good programs that are below that top level. They are traditionally programs, that with stability, may not be a National Championship contender (unless it's a truly special year when everything goes right), but generally are good enough to be top 25 caliber.

In the first group is the win at all cost programs that will usually end up badly. Currently, that is Baylor and Ole Miss. Both took shortcuts, and both will pay. Enough said on those two. This group also includes schools like TCU, that are likely only in rarefied air because of Gary Patterson. If he's not at TCU, it's questionable whether they would even be in the "very good program" category.

In the second group we have very good programs that could flirt with top 10 status with the right coach. That group includes Louisville, Virginia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Stanford, Washington, Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State, Utah, and Texas A&M.  None of these programs are always excellent, but they've proven that they are good enough programs that with an excellent coach they can be among the elite.

Again using Rivals, here are last year's recruiting rankings for these seventeen programs-  Louisville (36), Virginia Tech (42), Miami (21), North Carolina (24), Pittsburgh (26), West Virginia (38), Oklahoma State (48), Michigan State (18), Wisconsin (35), Iowa (42), Stanford (19), Washington (37), Oregon (28), UCLA (10), Arizona State (30), Utah (34), and Texas A&M (17).

Once again I listed those programs before I looked at their rankings, and once again it's no surprise that most are indeed a level below in their recruiting. And as you may have noticed, of the seventeen schools on this level, Pitt recruited better than ten of them last year. Now look at the six in in this group that recruited better than the Panthers last year: Miami (big name Mark Richt in an area loaded with prospects), North Carolina (Larry Fedora in his fourth season and coming off an 11-3 record), Michigan State (Mark Dantonio coming off a 12-2 season in his ninth season), Stanford (David Shaw coming off a 12-2 season in his fifth season), UCLA (Jim Mora in his fourth season, and in one of the easiest places to recruit), and Texas A&M (Kevin Sumlin in his fourth season, and in a state loaded with talent).

As we can see, coaches like Bobby Petrino, Frank Beamer, Larry Fedora, Gary Patterson, Mike Gundy, Mark Dantonio, Barry Alvarez, and David Shaw are talented enough to turn good programs into excellent programs. The programs that these coaches elevated may not be elite enough to be great after that coach leaves, but they're good enough that an excellent coach can turn them into a top 10 team, and maybe more. Louisville, currently with Petrino, Beamer at Virginia Tech, Patterson at TCU, Dantonio at Michigan State, and Shaw at Stanford made their programs National Championship contenders (Petrino is possibly in the process of doing that).

Am I saying that Pat Narduzzi will definitely do that? No, I'm not. But it's certainly possible. The level of Pitt's program is such that a great coach could make Pitt a National Championship contender, if they have an excellent coach. Not every program can say that.  The Panthers definitely have that possibility. And if Narduzzi turns into that coach, and if they want to keep the program at it's newly elevated status, they will need to pay him. All of the coaches in the above programs got raises for their accomplishment. But we will worry about that when/if the time comes.

Now let's look at some specifics when it comes to Pitt. The first thing to look at are the local elite prospects that want to stay home. Pitt fans understandably get bummed out when a top local kid goes elsewhere, but just because you want them badly that does not make them immune to wanting, like kids all over the country, to be in one of the blue blood programs. Kids (and their parents) get stars in their eyes. "I can play for legendary Notre Dame?" or "I can't believe Ohio State is recruiting me!" is a natural response for kids.

But look at the bright side. One, not every local kid is swayed by that. Damar Hamlin, Paris Ford, Kaezon Pugh, Tyler Boyd, and Dorian Johnson are just some of the local kids recently that could have gone just about anywhere, but chose Pitt instead. And there will be others that follow.

Secondly, Dantonio at Michigan State and Gary Patterson at TCU are perfect examples of programs that recruited about the same level as Pitt is recruiting now (actually, in TCU's case they were recruiting at a much lower level), but then when they got better, their recruiting skyrocketed.

Thirdly, you don't need top 20 recruiting classes to be a top 20, or even top 10, team. Louisville is currently No. 3 in the nation. Their last four recruiting classes were ranked by Rivals as 41, 36, 32, and 36.  Houston is No. 6 in the nation and Rivals ranks their last four classes as 48, 77, 91, and 41. Wisconsin is No. 11 and their last four classes are 54, 33, 44, and 35. Just a reminder, in Narduzzi's first class he was ranked No. 26. Even Dantonio's last four classes were 47, 22, 22, and 18, meaning even his classes after he already established himself as a great, highly successful coach, were not that much better than Narduzzi already did in his first year. And if Pitt's class this year slips a little bit into the 35 or 40 range, so what? Dantonio just had a No. 47 class not long ago. Some years things just don't go your way. For the record, I still think Pitt's class will at least be No. 35 when all is said and done, which is still good enough with the right coaching.

Bottom line, don't get caught up in recruiting hype. A portion of Pitt fans ink in a Donovan Jeter and then when they don't get him they think the program is doomed. The problem with social media and message boards are that pessimistic and paranoid people can get people worked up way too easily, and then the doom and paranoia feeds itself with more doom and paranoia. There's no need for doom and paranoia. Narduzzi is recruiting well enough to win big at Pitt. I just proved it. I'm not saying he definitely will win big because until he does it, he hasn't done it. But Narduzzi is adding top 25 talent at Pitt, and if he ends up being the coach that most of us expect, he's also recruiting enough to be a top 10 team from time to time. Nothing has changed with Pitt. They are a very good program that could be a national power with the right coach. And for the first time in decades there are legitimate signs that they have that coach.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Pitt 42 Penn State 39

Well, it's never easy with Pitt, and it wasn't this time either, but the Panthers came up with a huge win, for many reasons. Some thoughts:

1.  James Conner is now all the way back, it would seem. He doesn't carry the ball as often as he used to, but he's not being babied either. He ran hard all day and ended up with 117 yards on 22 carries, plus a touchdown. He also caught 4 passes for 29 yards, and another touchdown. However, it should be noted that he also had a crucial late game fumble deep in Pitt territory that nearly cost the Panthers the game.

2.  The player of the game (again) was sophomore Quadree Henderson. The speedster had 3 catches for 43 yards, and a TD reception, plus 4 carries for 58 more yards. And while he didn't get the ball kicked to him often he had a gigantic 84 yarder in the fourth quarter. He is a special talent and don't be surprised if he is an All-American kick returner at the end of the year.

3.  Nathan Peterman was not asked to do much throwing, because to be honest he didn't need to, but he still completed 11 of 15 passes for 95 yards. He also had 3 touchdown passes and interception. He even ran for 52 yards on 8 carries, and some of those runs were very big. He was also not sacked at all.

4.  Qadree Ollison had back to back nice runs in the second half and ended up with 36 yards on 9 carries. Darrin Hall added 33 yards on 4 carries, and Jordan Whitehead added a 28 yard run down to the 2-yard line. Fullback George Aston played, after missing last week with an injury, and he had 2 rushing TDs.

5. Scott Orndoff played very well in the first half, but then the Panthers stopped throwing. He ended up with 4 catches for 15 yards, and a TD.

6. Outside of Henderson's big kickoff return, special teams played poorly. A big Penn State punt return in the first half gave the Nittany Lions much needed momentum, and Chris Blewitt missed yet another field goal, his sixth of the last seven that he's missed.

7.  Defensively, the Panthers started like gangbusters, but in the second half they played rather poorly.  They did have 4 sacks, and gave up only 74 yards rushing on 34 attempts, but Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 332 yards and Saquon Barkley had five touchdowns (four running and one receiving).

8. Pitt had 432 total yards and Penn State had 406.

Bottom line, it was an even game, just as it was expected to be, but because Pitt almost lost a big lead, people again mention "Pitting" (I can't tell you how much I hate that whiny term). But at the end of the day, they didn't blow it, Penn State did, thanks to a nice interception by Ryan Lewis.

The win was huge, not only because of bragging rights, or because so many top prospects saw a great game in front of a record crowd, but also because with road games to Oklahoma State and North Carolina looming, a 1-3 start to the season was very possible.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Stallings adds a big man

It's been a long time since Kevin Stallings got his first commitment with PG Aaron Thompson, but the first year coach can finally add another name to the list. Terrell Brown, a 6'10" PF from the Tilton School in Tilton, NH, visited Pitt this weekend and it didn't take long for him to tell Stallings that he was committed.

Brown, whose only other offer was Purdue, is surprisingly under the radar when considering his wide array of skills. Brown is long and very athletic, but he also has become an excellent shooter all the way out to three point range. Any time you can get a 6'10" kid that can shoot from all over the court you have something. If that wasn't enough, Brown also has the ability to be an excellent shot blocker. So why is a player with this much skill not talked about more? That's a good question. For one thing, he has always been young for his age so he developed little later than others in his class. But this summer he has quietly been very good. The other perceived weakness is that he is soft. But, like I said, he was a little younger than others in his class, he is pretty thin, and he's got a great perimeter game. For those reasons many considered him soft. But there have been reports this summer that he has toughened up, and that may be as a result of his getting older.

Bottom line, the Panthers need at least five players in this class, and it may be more than that. Getting a 6'10" kid with great athleticism and perimeter skills, to go with a good point guard, is a good start by Stallings. But the remaining members of his first class will really tell the story about how well he will recruit in Pittsburgh.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Pitt 28 Villanova 7

It wasn't pretty, but if truth be told, in past years the result has often been much worse in the opening game of the year. Some thoughts:

1.  James Conner is back and he looked pretty good. They threw him the ball more, and he even caught a TD pass to go with his rushing TD.

2.  The offensive line, which is expected to be a strong point, played poorly. Center Alex Officer even had two poor snaps out of the shotgun. They better get much better for the rest of the season or the Panthers could be in trouble.

3.  Partly because the offensive line played so poorly, quarterback Nathan Peterman played just okay. He completed 19-32 passes for 175 yards, 2 TDs, and no interceptions.

4.  Tight end Scott Orndoff may finally be living up to his potential and he led the Panthers with 5 catches for 68 yards. Jester Weah had 4 catches for 38 yards, and he also had a TD reception. Almost as importantly, he didn't drop any.

5.  Quadree Henderson had 4 catches for 35 yards, but he was dynamic in the return game, and it's safe to say that he may be one of the best return men in the country this year. He had a 96 yard kickoff return for a TD and returned 4 punts for an average of 14.5 yards a return.

6.  The defense was consistently excellent, and they gave up no points (a fumble recovery was the only Villanova TD). Unofficially, safeties Jordan Whitehead and Terrish Webb led Pitt with 6 tackles, and he also had the lone interception. Avonte Maddox had 5 tackles and 2 late sacks. Ryan Lewis had 5 tackles. Mike Caprara had 4 tackles and 2 sacks.

7.  The second team defense came in on Villanova's last series and Amir Watts looked fantastic. He was destroying his man on every snap. He's going to be a star.

8. Pitt had 261 total yards. Villanova had 172 total yards.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Rating the Pitt Defense and Special Teams for the '16-'17 Season

DEFENSIVE LINE: This unit was pretty weak just a few years ago, but head coach Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, and defensive line coach Tom Sims have turned them around. Defensive end Ejuan Price returns for his sixth season after having 11.5 sacks last year. If he stays healthy again he should have another good season, but the fact that he's in his sixth season shows you that health is not a sure thing with him. The starter on the other end is Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix , a redshirt sophomore with a huge ceiling. If healthy they could be one of the best defensive end tandems in the country.

Behind Price and Hendrix, three juniors- Rori Blair, Allen Edwards, and James Folston- provide very good depth. Blair is a former starter who showed promise two years ago as a redshirt freshman, but did not perform well last year. If he rebounds, it will be a huge development for the Panthers. Edwards is a former junior college transfer that redshirted last season, but has the physical potential to develop into a very good pass rusher.  Folsom is a former linebacker that also has good speed and athleticism. True freshmen Rashad Weaver is physically ready to play right now, but the Panthers should be able to redshirt him. Another true freshman, Patrick Jones, came to Pitt early but the head start probably isn't enough to avoid a redshirt.

At tackle, things aren't quite as good, but they are also not nearly as dire as many think. Giant 6'3" 335 pound Tyrique Jarrett has enough talent that he could be a bonafide NFL draft pick if he has a big year, and he is more than capable of that. The other starter inside is former defensive end Shakir Soto, who was forced into being a starting end at the beginning of his career, but has now bulked up to 290 pounds as a senior. He should prove to be a tackle than end.

The most intriguing backups to Jarrett and Soto are true freshman Keyshawn Camp and Amir Watts. Expect them to play a lot as both have star potential. Another former defensive end, Shane Roy, has bulked up (to 280 pounds), and he will also be in the mix, as will 315 pound redshirt sophomore Mike Herndon and redshirt junior Jeremiah Taleni, who played a little last season and performed solidly. A sleeper at the position is another true freshman, Rashad Wheeler, because he already has good size and is mobile.

Summary: This unit has a chance to be very good, especially because of the deep and talented ends. Price has already proved that he can reach double digit sacks and Hendrix has NFL written all over him. As for tackle, many have worried that the Panthers have lost Khaynin Mosley-Smith, Mark Scarpinato, Darryl Render, and Justin Moody, but none of the four were even close to all-star ability. So while numbers were lost, the raw talent is even better because of Camp and Watts. Will they do enough as true freshmen to offset the lack of experience and numbers? It's possible, and at the very least you can do a lot worse than any rotation that has Jarrett, Camp, and Watts in it. If I broke up the ends and tackles the ends would get an A- and the tackles would get a C- since there are questions until they are answered. Grade: B-

LINEBACKER: The coaching staff seems to like this unit much more than most, and the vast majority of talent is still a year or two away from contributing. One player that the staff really loves is starting middle linebacker Matt Galambos, a tough, experienced senior. Galambos has moments when he's really good, but he's also had times when he hasn't been. He's especially lacking with highly athletic teams since he only has average speed, at best. Behind him is junior Quintin Wirginis, who appears to have more ability than Galambos, but for whatever reason has never been given the starting job.

At the two outside spots, the Panthers call the positions the star and the money. Generally, the star linebacker is faster and operates in more space. He's almost like a linebacker/safety hybrid. The money linebacker is more involved in the strong side of the field and has to operate in tighter spaces.

The starter at money linebacker is redshirt senior Mike Caprara, who started as an undersized, supposedly slow late signee that turned into a pretty good linebacker last season. Behind him is another redshirt senior, Bam Bradley, who failed in his bid in camp to be the starting star linebacker. That star position will be manned, at least at first, by walk on Seun Idowu. He's being pushed by former wide receiver Elijah Zeise, a redshirt sophomore that is intriguing because of his athletic gifts and because of the position switch.

Redshirt freshmen Anthony McKee and Salem Brightwell, as well as true freshmen Kaezon Pugh, Chase Pine, and Elias Reynolds will be the next wave of Pitt linebackers but none may get that chance this year.

Summary- Of the six linebackers on the two deep, none are stars- at least yet- but as a unit they have the potential to be at least somewhat productive because Narduzzi and Conklin will put them in positions to be. The Panthers linebackers will fly around and make big plays at times, because that's how the defense is set up, but if they also get lit up too often, it will all even out in the end. Until I see otherwise, I assume that's how it will be. Grade: C

Defensive Back: This is another unit that was hurting badly just a few years ago, but this is also Narduzzi's specialty so it's no surprise that the position is quickly becoming a strength.

The secondary, as well as the defense in general, is led by sophomore strong safety Jordan Whitehead. The fast, muscular Whitehead is already all-conference and is a possible All-American as early as this season. The starting free safety is underrated senior Terrish Webb, who quietly had a good season last year. Former starter, redshirt senior Reggie Mitchell, will give excellent depth, and redshirt sophomore Dennis Briggs should do a good job spelling Whitehead for a small amount of time.

At cornerback, junior Avonte Maddox has already started for the past year and a half, and despite his small size, he has toughness to go with his great speed. The staff asked a lot of him last season, and sometimes it didn't work, but he will only get better and should be well above average this season.

The other corner is much more up in the air. The starter in the opener will be fifth year senior Ryan Lewis, who has been a reserve his entire career, but has great size and speed. If he fails to keep the job, there are many others ready to step in, especially redshirt sophomore Philipie Motley, redshirt freshmen Dane Jackson and Malik Henderson, and true freshman Damar Hamlin. Motley, Jackson, and Henderson are fast and have good ability, but Hamlin has future star written all over him so he will be hard to keep off the field. Incoming freshmen Bricen Garner, Therran Coleman, Henry Miller, and Phil Campbell are the future but they all may redshirt this season unless they can definitively prove that they are a better option than the many players currently above them.

Summary: The one cornerback spot is suspect until, and unless, someone comes through there, but the unit also possesses three really good starters, including a possible All-American. There is also good depth, numbers, and raw talent. For those reasons, I see no reason why this can't be at least a good unit. Grade: B

SPECIAL TEAMS: This is another unit that has struggled over the years, but with a ton of experience amongst the kickers and a potential star returning kicks and punts, it could quietly become a strength this year.

Amazingly, kicker Chris Blewitt is a senior already, and he will be the starting kicker for his entire career when the season is over. Unfortunately, despite some highs, Blewitt's junior season was his worst so he will need to rebound for him to go off on a high note. As a freshman Blewitt made 77.8% of his kicks, as a sophomore he made 76.2%, and last year he dropped to 65.2%.

Redshirt junior punter Ryan Winslow will be the starter for the third season, and at 41.1 yards a punt last year, he still has room for improvement.

Electrifying sophomore Quadree Henderson will return both punts and kicks, and as he showed last year with 28.0 yards a kick return this is a good thing. If he's banged up, Maddox is currently the next in line, and that's not much of a drop off.  Tre Tipton, Whitehead, and true freshman Maurice Ffrench are just some of the others that can do the job if need be, and that's a far cry from when the Panthers would put kids in to mainly just catch the punt.

Redshirt senior Pat Quirnin returns as the long snapper.

Summary:  Blewitt and Winslow have been doing this forever and it's time to take the next step. They certainly have the talent to do so and if they don't then it will be very disappointing. The return game could be exceptional. Grade: B

Monday, August 29, 2016

Rating the Pitt offense for the '16-'17 season

QUARTERBACK: Fifth year senior Nathan Peterman returns as the starter and a senior quarterback that returns as the starter almost always have a good season. There's no reason why Peterman won't do the same. His arm is strong enough, he is accurate, he is mobile, and he's very though. If he stays healthy I expect him to have a very good season. Not an All-American season, or maybe not even all-conference, but he's good enough to be a plus quarterback.

After Peterman, though, things get a little murkier. Another fifth year senior, Manny Stocker, will be the backup. Pitt is Stocker's third school, and he's never been on the field much in his career. He's very athletic, but his passing is very hit or miss. If Peterman goes down for any length of time, the Panthers will be even more run heavy with Stocker, and that won't be good.

Redshirt freshman Ben DiNucci is not nearly ready to see the field in a meaningful game yet and it's very unlikely that he will. The wildcard is freshman Tom MacVittie, who may be the starter next season, so it will be interesting if Pat Narduzzi gets him into a game. It really won't hurt the program if MacVittie doesn't redshirt. If he ends up being a star he could leave after three years no matter what, and if he's not good enough to leave early then it won't matter anyway.

Summary- Peterman should have a good year. If the Panthers need to go to a backup that will be trouble, but the same can be said for just about every team in the country. Grade: B

RUNNING BACK: Football fans never thought they'd see James Conner in a Pitt uniform again. First, it looked like Conner would take his immense skills to the NFL, and then he was diagnosed with cancer. But one of the better players in Pitt history is back, and it appears that he is pretty healthy. Will he regain his All-American form? That's the big question, but because of his health and the Panthers' depth at the position he probably won't match his huge numbers of two seasons ago. But don't be surprised if he still ends up with over 1,000 yards. He's that great of a player.

Behind Conner I think you can expect to see sophomore Darrin Hall the most. Of the reserves he has the most talent and the highest upside. Last year's ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison is also back, and while he won't carry the ball nearly as much as he did last season, it's good to know that he's there as a safety valve.

Also looking for playing time will be redshirt junior Rachid Ibrahim, who is back this season after a bad leg injury, and true freshman Chawntez Moss, who surprised in camp. Ibrahim always seemed to make good plays in the past, but he still may not be all the way back yet, physically. Moss is good enough to play now, and it seems like the staff seems determined to play him some even though he may not play much because of the depth.

When the Panthers use a fullback, they have redshirt sophomore George Aston, who has already reached mythological status among fans due to his toughness and vicious blocking.

Summary: What's not to like? This may be the best, most deep running back group in decades at the school. At the very least, Conner, Hall, and Ollison could put up well over 1,000 yards if they were the starter. And if that wasn't enough, the Panthers have a vicious blocking fullback, too. Grade: A

WIDE RECEIVER: Tyler Boyd is gone, and no receiver that remains is as talented as he is. That's the bad news. The good news is, the Panthers relied on Boyd entirely too much last season so it may help the offense in the long run to spread the ball around more.

The three starting receivers heading into the season are redshirt senior Dontez Ford, redshirt junior Jester Weah, and sophomore Quadree Henderson.  Ford quietly had a good season last year starting across from Boyd, but it remains to be seen how well he will do as the No. 1 starter. Weah has barely played in his career, mainly because he has shown poor hands, but he also has elite speed. If he has improved his hands, his speed will cause problems. Henderson is just 5'8" but he is electrifying with the ball in his hands. He is my pick as the breakout player on offense. Expect him to be used in a variety of ways.

Behind those top three, redshirt freshman Tre Tipton, former junior college transfer Rafael Araujo-Lopes, a redshirt sophomore, redshirt junior Zach Challingsworth, and tall true freshman Aaron Mathews will be the main backups leading into the season. Tipton is a local kid that could be very good, Araujo-Lopes is a quick slot receiver that will give Henderson competition, and Challingsworth is a veteran that was solid in limited time last season. Mathews has flashed enough that not only will he avoid a redshirt, but I would also not be surprised if he ended up starting before the season is over.

True freshmen Ruben Flowers and Maurice Ffrench have bright futures, but both will probably redshirt, though if needed Ffrench could be called on to return punts sometime during the season.

Summary: This is probably the most interesting unit on the team this season, and may prove to be the most important. None stand out as a sure star, but on the other hand there's a lot of players with promise. Weah and Henderson, especially, can fly, so their development is especially huge. I wouldn't be surprised if this group did well this season, but right now there's too many questions to rate them too highly. Grade: C+

TIGHT END: J.P. Holtz is gone, after starting for nearly four full seasons, and now it's time for senior Scott Ordnoff, who has been as the other tight end his entire career. The 6'5" 255 pound Orndorff has the size and athletic ability to be a star, but so far he has not put it all together. He has NFL potential and this is his last chance to prove it.

After that, the tight end position has more questions. Former fullback and H-back Jaymar Parrish is an excellent blocker and very athletic for his size, but he was mostly forgotten last season. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada needs to find a better way to utilize him because former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney clearly didn't. Redshirt junior Devon Edwards is big, and he has blocking ability, but he's not a threat in the passing game. Redshirt junior Zach Poker is a former defensive end.

Summary- This one is a hard grade. Orndorff has star potential, but he hasn't done it yet, and Parrish has good skills, too. If the Panthers have to go beyond those two, though, it could be a problem, and Orndorff has had injury issues in the past. If Orndorff stays healthy and lives up to his position, this position will be a strength, but he hasn't done it yet. Grade: C+

OFFENSIVE LINE: Back to the good news, and boy, is it good news. The offensive line had been a problem for the program for years not that long ago, but thanks to former Pitt head coach Paul Chryst this unit is absolutely loaded right now.

Left tackle Adam Bisnowaty and left guard Dorian Johnson, both locals in their last year, have all-star and NFL potential. Expect the Panthers to run behind them constantly. But they are far from the only two good players on the line. In fact, there are at least four more really good lineman.

On the right side, there are a pair of redshirt sophomores that are at least as talented, even if they are less experienced. Another local, Adam Bookser, will be the right guard, and former tight end Brian O'Neill will be the right tackle. I would not be surprised to see O'Neill be a first round draft pick in the future if he continues to improve as quickly as he has so far. At center, giant redshirt junior Alex Officer will get the start after starting at guard last year and taking over as the starting center two years ago when Artie Rowell was injured.

All five of the starters have NFL potential, as does big redshirt junior Jared Jones-Smith, who should be the top reserve at tackle, and who can also play some guard. Redshirt senior, and former walk on, John Guy, has improved enough to see time at guard if he's needed. Redshirt juniors Aaron Reese and Carson Baker, as well as redshirt sophomore Connor Dintino, are all listed on the second team and may see action.

Summary: There's at least six very good offensive linemen in this group, and there are a few others who would do well in a pinch. It has to be considered one of the better offensive lines in the country, with at least the top six of them having NFL potential. Grade: A

Overall: Barring injury, this offense, on paper, has very good potential. Peterman now has the experience to be very good this season, and the running backs and offensive line are both loaded. Any team that has those three factors should be a really good offense. In fact, there isn't a coach in the country that wouldn't kill to have all three of those strengths. The key, other than injuries, will be the wide receivers, and to a lesser degree, the tight ends. Opposing defenses will stack the line to stop the Panthers running attack and Peterman and the receivers will need to make them pay. If they can, the offense could be one of the most efficient offenses in the country.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A look at where Pitt football's roster stands and what they still need to add

QUARTERBACKS:  The Panthers have Thomas MacVittie and Central Florida transfer Bo Schneider coming in this season and Ben DiNucci will be a redshirt sophomore next year. Schneider will have to sit out this season so he will also be a redshirt sophomore next year. Verbal commit Kenny Pickett will also be added to the mix next year. With four young quarterbacks returning, the numbers won't be a problem. Many fans may want to add yet another quarterback in the 2017 class but that is unlikely. You never want to use too many scholarships on quarterbacks because only one can play at a time which means you have a lot of scholarships being used for players that won't be on the field. On the other hand, you have to make sure you have at least one that can be a quality starter.

The most likely of the group to fit the bill as a potential quality starter is MacVittie, who hasn't even started attending classes at Pitt yet. That's obviously not ideal. Unless he really shows he's ready to see time, which is unlikely for most true freshman quarterbacks, he may redshirt, which means he could be the starter next year without ever taking a snap. Schneider has some skill and appears to be the most likely competition for MacVittie, but since MacVittie has a much higher ceiling it wouldn't be ideal if he can't beat out Schneider. DiNucci is a wildcard but he didn't see the field last year and he probably won't see it this year so his future is currently very much up in the air. And of course Pickett will be a true freshman in '17 so he will likely redshirt.

Bottom line: Not to much too much pressure on him, but it's not an understatement to say that the success of the Pat Narduzzi era pretty much depends on the success of MacVittie. Of course there's always a chance that somebody else comes in out of the blue, and that someone could be either someone on the roster already, or not on the roster currently, but as of now it pretty much comes down to MacVittie. Pickett could also turn into a very good quarterback but that's at least three years down the road. Pitt's program can go far with a good quarterback but an All-American quarterback can take them to a completely different level. That's why finding a quarterback with excellent potential every year is a must, and why finding an elite talent is even better. Whether or not this staff is capable of finding that special quarterback is still left to be determined. It could be MacVittie or it could be Pickett. But it will be a constant struggle to find that special one that the program needs to become a top 20 caliber program.

RUNNING BACKS: This may be, along with the secondary, the deepest and most talented group for the near future. Returning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison will be back for two more years after this season, and Darrin Hall, who has all-star potential, will have three years. That's good enough right there, but then Rachid Ibrahim will be back for two more years, and spring camp surprise Chawntez Moss will just be a true freshman this year. If that's not enough, highly talented Todd Sibley has verbally committed to Pitt and big time Florida athlete Bruce Judson is still a possibility. Fullback is even strong for the future as excellent blocker George Aston will have two more years after this season.

Bottom line: This unit is an embarrassment of riches for the Panthers and with running backs like this Pitt will be running the ball down the throats of opponents for many years.

WIDE RECEIVERS: There's a lot of candidates in this group, but it still remains to be seen if any of them have all-star potential, and truthfully only incoming freshman Ruben Flowers even looks like a possible No. 1 receiver. The good news is that there are some really good, if untested, possibilities as a No. 2 and slot receiver. Zach Challingsworth and Jester Weah will be redshirt seniors in '17, and beyond that will be Tre Tipton, who will be a sophomore this season, and incoming freshman Aaron Mathews and '17 verbal commit Darian Street. There's some potential there, but none have produced much yet, if at all, so their future contributions are still very much up in the air. In the slot, Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Quadree Henderson will have two years left after this season, and incoming freshman Maurice Ffrench, like Henderson, has speed to burn. Henderson could be very good and may get his chance to show if he's a special player starting this season. Judson, if he ends up at Pitt, could join Henderson and Ffrench to form a ridiculously fast trio in the running back/wide receiver/return man jack-of-all trades game breaker department.

Bottom line- This unit is in desperate need for an elite talent that will help the No. 2 and slot receivers succeed. Without a big time No. 1 receiver opening things up for the rest of the offense, it will be more difficult for the other receivers, and the running game, to flourish. Flowers may fit the bill, but there needs to be at least one elite receiver added in each of the '17 and '18 classes. One wildcard here may be '17 verbal commit Paris Ford, an elite talent that's been pencilled in at free safety, but has the ability to be a big time receiver too.

TIGHT ENDS: Former UCLA transfer Chris Clark is scheduled to start in '17 after sitting out this season, but behind him there isn't much. And even though Clark will only be a redshirt sophomore next season, if he shows a lot he could leave early for the NFL draft. Even if Clark stays for the '18 season there won't be much to go with him unless the staff adds two more tight ends in the '17 class.

Even with the former No. 1 high school tight end in the country on the team, which Clark was, there appears to be an opportunity for a good prospect to play right away at Pitt. For that reason, one would think that it's possible that the staff can land two good ones. And they have offered many, which is all the proof that you need that Narduzzi knows just how much two tight ends are needed. One option is big, athletic Charles Reeves who would be a huge pickup at the position because the other tight end then could be a developmental tight end with a high ceiling.

Bottom line- The numbers here are very week and if for whatever reason Clark doesn't work out things could get ugly. On the other hand, if Clark lives up to his potential and the staff lands a talent like Reeves then the unit is suddenly a strength. It's a very important time for Tim Salem's unit.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: The unit is pretty loaded at the moment but thanks to former head coach Paul Chryst most of the talent are in the upper classes. Stars Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty will be gone after this season and Jaryd Jones-Smith and Alex Officer will only have one more season after this year. Converted tight end Brian O'Neill will be a redshirt sophomore this season but he has potential to be a high draft choice so there's no guarantee that he will be at Pitt for his full eligibility. If he does stay for two more years after this season that would obviously be very helpful for the future. Alex Bookser is also a redshirt sophomore this year that has excellent potential.

The fact that Jones-Smith, Officer, O'Neill, and Bookser will be available for at least '17 means the line is not a desperate stage, but after those four, things are more up in the air and the next group has to be developed . That group will come from the likes of Aaron Reese and Carson Baker, who will both have one more year after this season, Mike Grimm, who will have two, Tony Pilato and Alex Paulina who will have three, and incoming freshmen Justin Morgan, Zach Williams, and Brandon Ford. Owen Drexel is the first to verbally commit for '17. Reese, Baker, and Grimm are veterans that haven't shown star potential and the rest are completely untested. And while the younger group have very good potential they are not considered elite prospects.

Bottom line: The unit could still be very good or maybe even excellent in '17 because Jones-Smith, O'Neill, Bookser, and Officer are very talented, but then things get a little more suspect. That's not unusual as offensive linemen develop later and you never know when someone like the lesser recruited O'Neill will turn into a star. Offensive line coach John Peterson could do an excellent job with the young players and get the most out of them, but as former elite prospects Johnson, Bisnowaty, and Bookser show it's best if the big talent is already within them. For that reason, the staff needs to add at least an elite lineman in each of the next two classes, and preferably a total of three over the next two classes, but the new staff has yet to show that they can secure that type of lineman.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: This unit was very weak until Narduzzi arrived on the scene but he strengthened it to a large degree very quickly. Even with Ejuan Price, Shakir Soto, and Tyrique Jarrett  moving on after this season there's plenty left. But Rori Blair, Justin Moody, Jeremiah Taleni, and Allen Edwards will also be gone in two years. Tennessee transfer Dwayne Hendrix has the highest upside of the bunch and if he lives up his potential he could leave after this, his redshirt sophomore season, and at the very least will likely be gone after next season. And if he's not then he didn't live up to his potential.

With eight members of the line likely moving on in the next two years there needs to be young talent to take up the slack, and thankfully for Pitt fans Narduzzi has already started that process. Converted linebacker James Folston has potential, and he also has two more years after this season, but the future mostly rests with incoming freshmen Zack Gilbert, Rashad Weaver, Keyshon Camp, Amir Watts, Rashad Wheeler, Patrick Jones, and Bryce Hargrove. That's an excellent group and next season they should be running the show on the line. But it may not stop there as more elite prospects are interested in playing on the line for Narduzzi, including local star Donovan Jeter who appears to have the Panthers as his leader. In fact, the Panthers are involved in so many good linemen that it's pointless to list them all at this time.

Bottom line: There will be a transition period in two years when the next group will take over but it's such a talent group that it should be seamless. Despite the large group of players leaving over the next few years, this is looking like a very strong unit in the future.

LINEBACKERS: The veterans in this group are solid, but the younger bunch have much more upside. Bam Bradley, Mike Caprara, and Matt Galambos will be gone after this season, and Quintin Wirginis will be gone after next season, but waiting in the wings are Jalen Williams and converted wide receiver Elijah Zeise who are redshirt sophomores this season, and redshirt freshmen Anthony McKee and Saleem Brightwell. Zeise is especially intriguing if he stays at the position, and McKee can fly. The incoming freshmen group of Kaezon Pugh, Chase Pine, and Elias Reynolds are very good, and '17 verbal commitments Cameron Bright and Kyle Nunn are very good athletes that with development could be very good college players. But it doesn't stop there and the staff has targeted many top prospects at the position, including elite Nathan Proctor, local Kenny Robinson, and legacy Connor Heyward.

Bottom line: Zeise (if he stays at the position), Brightwell (if he gets bigger), McKee, Pugh, Pine, Reynolds, Bright, and Nunn are potentially the best group of linebackers the program has had in years, but none of them have done a thing yet so the talent needs to keep being added. Luckily for Pitt fans, Narduzzi and his staff seems to be on the case.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Terrish Webb, Reggie Mitchell, and Reggie Lewis will be gone after this season and Avonte Maddox will be gone after next season. The star of the group, Jordan Whitehead, will be a true sophomore this season and if he leaves for the NFL after his junior year than he will also need to be replaced. But top defensive backs love to play for Narduzzi so there's a lot of top talent to take over.

Dennis Briggs and Phillipie Motley will have two more years after this year and Dane Jackson, Malik Henderson, and Jay Stocker will all have three years left after this season. But most of the talent will be in the superb incoming freshmen class of Damar Hamlin, George Hill, Henry Miller, Bricen Garner, Phil Campbell, and Therran Coleman. If that's not enough, the '17 verbal commitments includes Paris Ford already. But, like I said previously, defensive backs love to play for Narduzzi so the staff is not done adding big time talent at the position for this class, and beyond.

Bottom line: This group is clearly flat out loaded, as was expected when Narduzzi was hired, and there's no reason to think that it won't continue.