Friday, February 13, 2015

A Look Ahead- Defensive Backs

This unit is clearly the unit that's in the best shape on defense right now, and for the foreseeable future. Pat Narduzzi's specialty is defensive backs, and rising defensive coordinator Josh Conklin is also coaching the safeties, so it's safe to say that there's a good possibility this unit will be exceptional in the near future.

As for this year, there are likely three possibilities to start at corner at the moment. Lafayette Pitts, a 5'11" 195 redshirt senior, is a three year starter, but the last two years he has not performed that well. If Narduzzi, Conklin, and new cornerbacks coach Renaldo Hill can't reach him in his final season than he is officially unsalvageable.  He doesn't have great speed, so maybe being forced to be aggressive with the receiver at the line of scrimmage will be good for his game. Time will tell with that one.

Returning after a one year suspension is 6'1" 180 pound redshirt sophomore Titus Howard. His length and athleticism seem like a good fit for what Narduzzi wants to do. But he, along with Pitts, will have to hold off 5'11" 185 pound freshman phenom Jordan Whitehead, the top high school prospect in PA this past year. Whitehead has very good speed and excellent athleticism. He's also strong. In other words, he's the perfect Narduzzi cornerback. If he doesn't start, then he will still play a lot.

Another fast young player that will see the field a lot again this year is 5'9" 170 pound sophomore Avonte Maddox. I'm not downplaying Maddox's talents by not putting him with the potential starters. He was forced into action as a true freshman last year and did well, but he may still be a little light to be a full-time option as long as their are other options. But he's very fast and tougher than his size so he could be an excellent option as a cover corner in the slot this year. Down the road when he gets bigger he could figure in even more.

That's four pretty talented cornerbacks, but it doesn't end there. Redshirt freshman Phillipie Motley, 5'10" 180, has good speed and he should be in the mix in the future. The same goes for two true freshmen- 6'0" 175 pound Malik Henderson and 6'0" 165 pound Dane Jackson. Both have good height at the position to go along with good speed and athleticism. Henderson enrolled early so he could always surprise and find himself getting some time this season.

At safety, things are very similar.  Redshirt junior Reggie Mitchell, 6'0" 195", was forced to start the season at cornerback last season, and he did okay, but when he was forced to strong safety in the second half of the season he excelled. He should be the starter again at strong safety but the original starter at the position last year, 5'11" 180 pound junior Terrish Webb, will be back from injury and he also played well last season. It's always possible that Webb could move to free safety. But there he may have to battle 6'2" 195 pound sophomore Pat Amara who was a pleasant surprise as a true freshman last year. He has leadership skills that will help his chances.

Incoming freshman Jay Stocker may be able to make his presence felt right away. He's still a little skinny but at 6'2" and 185 pounds he's big enough to play right away, and he certainly has the ability to do so.

Rounding out the unit are 6'0" 195 pound redshirt junior Ryan Lewis, 5'11" 205 pound redshirt junior Jevonte Pitts, and 6'2" 185 pound redshirt freshman Jalen Williams.

Bottom line- This group has been woefully thin the past two years but now the growing pains are over and the unit is filled with players with experience. Not only that, but there are young players like Whitehead, Stocker, and Henderson that are capable of seeing the field this season with Whitehead especially having the opportunity to be a big factor.

And things will only get better- probably a lot better. The Panthers have already offered elite defensive backs and even the WPIAL has a few national recruits at the position. Combine that with Narduzzi's track record for turning defensive backs into stars and I would be very surprised if Pitt didn't have an elite secondary in the next few years.


Talent:

Excellent
VERY GOOD
Good
Average
Poor


Depth:

Excellent
VERY GOOD
Good
Average
Poor

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Look Ahead- Linebackers

This unit hasn't been a real strength for many years now, and while it could be very soon, it may be too much to ask for it to be this season. Especially since there are only three veterans, and two of them play the same position.

Junior Matt Galambos is strong and tough at 6'2" and 245 pounds, but the returning starting middle linebacker doesn't appear to have the speed needed for a Pat Narduzzi defense. His backup for most of the season, 6'2" 230 pound redshirt junior Bam Bradley does have that speed so he could be the man to beat in the middle this year. The only other veteran is 6'1" 220 pound redshirt senior Nicholas Grigsby, and he has speed to burn.

Then comes the underclassmen, many of whom are talented, but who are also very inexperienced. Reggie Green, Jamal Davis, James Folston, and Quintin Wirginis have been in the program for at least a year now, and now is the time that at least half of them have to become productive. Green, a 6'2" 230 pound redshirt sophomore, is a converted wide receiver so he has good speed and athleticism. It remains to be seen if he has linebacker skills, though. Davis, a 6'2" 220 pound redshirt freshman, has the speed and athleticism that Narduzzi loves so he could be a factor this season. Folson, a redshirt freshman, has good size at 6'3" and 235 pounds, but he's also athletic. Wirginis, a 6'2" 230 pound sophomore is the only linebacker from last year's class to letter, and especially on special teams he proved to be a playmaker. He seems to be an ideal fit at middle linebacker and could push the veterans at that spot this year.

Two wildcards are true freshmen Anthony McKee and Saleem Brightwell. McKee is only 6'2" and 200 pounds, but he can flat out fly. If he can get to 220 pounds by the time the season starts, it may be impossible to keep him from playing. The same goes for Brightwell who is currently 6'0" and 200 pounds.

Bottom line- Of these top nine contenders, only three are veterans. That's the bad news. The good news is that the younger players have a ton of potential, and that includes the players former head coach Paul Chryst brought in. Still, I expect that the new staff will bring in at least two more big time linebackers with the next class, and there's every reason to believe that very soon this group will be a major factor for years.


Talent:

Excellent
Very Good
GOOD
Average
Poor


Depth:

Excellent
Very Good
GOOD
Average
Poor

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Look Ahead- Defensive Line

This group is the unit that most needs to improve for the program this season. Pat Narduzzi's defense can only do so well without a pass rush and if he, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, and defensive line coach Tom Sims can fashion a pass rush out of this group then they've done something special.

The pet project for the entire line may be 6'4" 240 pound sophomore Rori Blair. In most years Blair would have been redshirted last season but instead he was forced into action. He was sometimes overmatched but he also led the team with 5 sacks. That's an encouraging sign considering he was an undersized freshman reserve. With just one consistent pass rusher on the line, everybody else on the line then becomes significantly better. Blair may have the best chance to be that player because of his pass rushing success last year, and because he has good quickness coming off the edge.

Returning starter Shakir Soto, a 6'3" 270 pound redshirt junior, struggled mightily all last season and to be blunt he was not productive at all. To say that he needs to be much better is an understatement. Pushing both will be upperclassmen Ejuan Price and Allen Edwards. Price, a 6'0" 255 pound redshirt senior, has talent but he's been snake bit in his career with injuries. If he can recover from his most recent season ending injury then it would be a huge help for the defense. Edwards is a 6'4" 235 pound junior college transfer. The junior is well built and athletic, and the hope is that he can be a contributor immediately.

Two redshirt freshmen are also trying to get into the mix. Hez Trahan is a solid 6'4" and 260 pounds, but may lack the explosion to be a big time pass rusher. His size, however, could help him on the strong side. It's not out of the question that he moves inside to tackle eventually. Shane Roy also has added some good size during his redshirt year and is now 6'4" and 250 pounds.

Things look more promising at tackle though somebody needs to step up to at least be better than average. Both starters return in 6'0" 310 pound redshirt senior Khaynin Mosley-Smith and 6'2" 275 pound redshirt senior Darryl Render. Both were solid, if unspectacular. Massive junior Tyrique Jarrett is 6'4" 335 pounds, and he backed up Mosley-Smith last year. Obviously a player that big has the potential to be a force, especially when they have good feet like Jarrett does, but so far he hasn't done much in his career. Backing up Render last season was 6'3" 280 pound redshirt sophomore Justin Moody, and he has a lot of potential. He will push Render this season.

Three more younger players will try to crack that foursome. Redshirt sophomore Jeremiah Taleni, 6'2" 295 pounds, played some at the end of the year and showed a few flashes. Redshirt freshmen Connor Dintino, 6'3" 295, and Mike Herndon, 6'4" 320", are intriguing talents that could be factors in future years.

Bottom line: This was a weak unit last season and not much talent was added. The best case scenario this year is that Narduzzi, Conklin, and Sims use their expertise to improve this group. That's not as impossible as some may think. Sometimes when you're working on a puzzle, you can't figure it out, then someone with fresh eyes walks in and sees it immediately. That may happen here. But, as of right now, it's a pretty average bunch until proven otherwise.


Talent:

Excellent
Very Good
Good
AVERAGE
Poor


Depth:

Excellent
Very Good
Good
AVERAGE
Poor

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Look Ahead- Offensive Line

With a new staff it's impossible to say what the offensive line will look like this year simply because there's too many possible combos. But five veterans return who have to be considered the leaders going into spring practice. Redshirt junior Adam Bisnowaty has great size at 6'6" and 305 pounds. He can play guard or tackle, and may be better off at guard so it will be interesting if new offensive line coach John Peterson sees it that way, too. If he does move to guard then 6'7' 335 pound redshirt sophomore Jaryd Jones-Smith will likely move in to start at left tackle. Obviously his size and wingspan are perfect for the position so if would be huge for the offense if he can handle it at a high level. Former elite recruit Dorian Johnson is now a junior and it's time that the 6'5" 300 pound junior moves up to an all-star level instead of the part-time starter that he's been thus far.

The other two veteran starters are both centers that is a position that will very interesting to watch. Redshirt senior Artie Rowell is the heart and soul of the line, but the 6'2" 315 pound redshirt senior missed most of last year with an injury. Now he will have to take the job back from 6'4" 335 pound redshirt sophomore Alex Officer who has more talent and a higher upside than Rowell. It's always possible that Officer can move to guard.

There are many younger options that are promising but have yet to help yet. The one with the best pedigree is 6'6" 300 pound Alex Bookser who the Panthers managed to redshirt as a freshman last year. Perhaps equally promising is another local product that redshirted as a freshman last year, 6'6" 325 pound Mike Grimm.  Others in the mix include 6'5" 305 pound redshirt junior guard Gabe Roberts, 6'5" 330 pound redshirt sophomore Carson Baker, 6'5" 310 pound redshirt sophomore Aaron Reese, and 6'4" 290 pound redshirt freshman guard Connor Hayes. Incoming freshmen- 6'3" 300 pound center Alex Paulina, and 6'5" 315 pound tackle Tony Pilato- will redshirt.

Bottom line- The two lone all-stars for the Panthers- TJ Clemmings and Matt Rotheram- are gone. Others will have to step up to their level. Players like Jones-Smith, Johnson, Bisnowaty, Rowell, and Bookser have that ability, and at least a few better reach that higher level or the offensive line will regress. Potential is great, but performance is all that matters.


Talent:

Excellent
VERY GOOD
Good
Average
Poor


Depth:

Excellent
VERY GOOD
Good
Average
Poor

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Look Ahead- Tight Ends

Senior J.P. Holtz is starting again and while he hasn't been thrown to much, he uses his rugged 6'4" 245 pound frame to block defenders into submission. He caught 21 passes as a junior and 4 went for touchdowns, so he has the ability in the passing game. It remains to be seen if new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will want the quarterbacks more involved, but if he does Holtz will be ready.

Backing him up again is 6'5" 260 pound junior Scott Orndoff, who has been a big disappointment in his first two seasons, though a lot of that seems to be because Pitt just never utilized him. He has great size to go along with good hands, speed, and athleticism, but he had just two catches last season. He should be closer to 40 catches so maybe Chaney will utilize his skills finally.

Three more reserves return to add depth. Redshirt sophomore Devon Edwards is a big blocker at 6'5" and 260 pounds, redshirt sophomore Tony Harper is a smaller receiving tight end at 6'4" and 220 pounds, and giant 6'6" 250 pound redshirt freshman Brian O'Neill obviously has great size, but like the other three he's untested. Edwards doesn't have speed or athleticism so he will probably never be a starter. Harper is more of an H-Back. O'Neill is interesting because of his size and speed combo.

Bottom line: Holtz and Orndoff alone make this a strong position this year and if Orndoff lives up to his potential it will be strong for at least the next two years. With no tight ends coming in this year, and Holtz leaving, another tight end will be needed in the '16 class, preferably a high quality one since the underclassmen are still a little questionable. The staff apparently feels the same because they have already handed out a handful of offers to high quality tight ends.


Talent:

Excellent
VERY GOOD
Good
Average
Poor


Depth:

Excellent
VERY GOOD
Good
Average
Poor

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Look Ahead- Wide Receiver

This is the one unit on offense that is a question mark. Of course for this year it can only be so much of a question mark with All-American Tyler Boyd in the group. The junior has over 1,000 yards receiving in his first two years and with new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney expected to throw a little more this should be his best year yet.

It would be great if Boyd stayed all four years but that seems doubtful since he should be a high draft choice and most wide receivers that are high draft choices leave early for the NFL. Of course if he does stay then this unit should only get better. If he doesn't then the Panthers better find some other options this year because as of now there's a huge drop off after Boyd.

Whoever stars opposite Boyd this season is anybody's guess. Two prime candidates- Adonis Jennings and Ronald Jones- decided to leave the program. Redshirt junior Dontez Ford has good size at 6'2" and 205 pounds but he had a grand total of 3 catches last year. That probably makes him the early favorite because that's more than anybody else has done. Zach Challingsworth, a 6'2" 190 redshirt sophomore, has no career catches. Former walk-on Chris Wuestner, a 6'2" 205 pound redshirt junior, has one career catch. Jester Weah, a 6'3" 205 pound redshirt junior, is probably the fastest player on the team but he has no catches. Elijah Zeise may be the most talented of the group, outside of Boyd, and the 6'2" 195 pound redshirt freshman can hopefully make his presence felt this year in his first action of his career.

That's really not an impressive unit on paper. Help should be on the way, though, with incoming freshman Quadree Henderson. Because of his 5'8" 175 pound size he will have to play only in the slot, but he has great speed and elusiveness. Panthers fans can only hope that he has some Tavon Austin qualities and that he shows them right away. That's definitely possible. And it also may be crucial. Two other incoming freshmen- 6'1" 195 pound Gentry Ivery and 6'0" 170 pound Tre Tipton- would usually be redshirt candidates, but both or either may have a chance to contribute since the depth is suspect. Both are highly under recruited but they appear to be real sleepers. A wildcard could be redshirt freshman Jaquan Davidson, who wanted to be moved to quarterback, and doesn't seem especially happy. But if he moves back to receiver, which is his best position, then he could help both himself and the team because he's athletic and speedy at 6'3" and 180 pounds.

The best case scenario, realistically, is that Henderson hits the ground running in the slot, and a starter is found opposite of Boyd. That's a lot of questions that need to be answered but Chaney is a talented offensive coordinator and Kevin Sherman is a veteran, accomplished wide receivers coach. They will be tested this year, but players often make a big jump under new coaching, and that's what the Panthers are hoping for..

Bottom line: The passing game suffered last season because Boyd was the only receiver. If he's the only receiver this year then it will suffer again. As for recruiting, I expect at least three receivers coming in the '16 class and the staff is already showing interest in a lot of big time receivers.


Talent

Excellent
Very Good
Good
AVERAGE
Poor


Depth

Excellent
Very Good
Good
Average
POOR

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Look Ahead- Running Backs

This unit has both excellent talent and depth, led by 6'2" 250 pound All-American junior James Conner. All he did as a sophomore was run for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns.  That will be tough to duplicate, but new offensive coordinator James Chaney is smart enough to know that Conner has to get the ball a lot.

Because he is used so much, and there's only so many miles on every person's body, you'd have to assume that there's a good possibility that this would be Conner's last year in college. His heir apparent at the moment appears to be 5'10" 210 pound sophomore Chris James who had 437 rushing yards, a 5.0 average, and 4 touchdowns as a true freshman. He is different than the bullish Conner, and utilizes his topnotch speed and quickness. If he has developed enough over the offseason I can see Chaney giving him slightly more carries so that Conner could get some relief, but barring injury he will have to wait another year to get a large number of carries.

Last year's third down back, 6'1" 185 pound junior Rachid Ibrahim, is quietly impressive and should again play that role. Last season he had 263 yards rushing, an 8.0 average, and 11 catches. If the Panthers pass more this season Ibrahim may get more catches. That's a good thing because he usually makes a good play.

With three top players back at the position, it will again be hard for two redshirt freshmen, 6'2" 220 pound Qadree Ollison, and 5'10" 195 pound Dennis Briggs, to get any carries. Ollison has promise and could be in the mix to start when Conner moves on.

Incoming freshman Darrin Hall is solidly built at 6'0" and 205 pounds, and he's a good between the tackles runner with good speed and vision. He has a chance to be the starter some day but barring something drastic he will probably redshirt this season.

It remains to be seen how much Chaney will use a fullback. He did use one at Arkansas on almost half the plays, but that could be because he was running a very run heavy Bret Bielema offense. If he does use one, he may have the best one in the country in 6'2" 270 pound junior Jaymar Parrish, an athletic and brutish player who is a killer blocker. Parrish is athletic enough, especially if he loses some weight, that he can also move to tight end if Chaney wants.

Bottom line:  What a wonderful unit this has become. Not only is there an All-American in the group, but James has big time ability, Ibrahim is always effective, and if he plays fullback, Parrish is at an elite level as a blocker. And Hall has the pedigree to be the main horse some day.

The staff will likely look for an elite running back to bring in because, why not? One possibility could be Aliquippa's Kaezon Pugh, though he could also project as a linebacker.

Talent:

EXCELLENT
Very Good
Good
Average
Poor


Depth:

EXCELLENT
Very Good
Good
Average
Poor