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.