Monday, February 6, 2017
Post-LOI Look at the Roster
QUARTERBACK: The emergence of Nathan Peterman coincided perfectly with the arrival of Matt Canada, as Peterman was the perfect quarterback at the perfect time. But even though both are gone now, all is not lost. Enter accomplished veteran offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and USC transfer quarterback Max Browne. The 6'5" 220 pound Browne was once rated the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the country, and he has the size, arm, and brains to still reach his massive potential. He also has a lot of incentive to be great this year. With a big year he could go as high as the first round, since he does have that type of raw talent. Now we'll have to see if Watson can get it out of him.
Behind Browne will likely be his heir apparent, 6'5" 240 pound Thomas MacVittie. The redshirt freshman has even more physically impressive than Browne. He's bigger, his arm is just as good, and he is a big time athlete that runs extremely well. Because he's expected to take over in 2018, we will probably see the field next season.
Behind the big two there are 6'2" 215 pound redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci, and 6'2" 190 pound freshman Kenny Pickett. DiNucci did a few nice things in the bowl game when he was called on, but barring injury he may not see the field much, if it all, next season. Pickett is athletic, and he's a very accurate passer, but he will definitely be redshirted.
Bottom line- The lack of big time quarterback play has held back many good teams from being excellent teams over the years, and that includes Pitt. Peterman turned into a pleasant surprise, and just as it looked like the Panthers would have to get by with the inexperienced MacVittie, Pat Narduzzi hit the jackpot again with Browne. When Narduzzi arrived, the starting quarterback was the struggling Chad Voytik. If he can go from Peterman, to Browne, to MacVittie, and have all three succeed, then the Narduzzi regime will be very successful. And in the 2018 class, elite quarterback prospect Kevin Doyle, who already liked the Panthers, is also very close with Watson from when he was offered at Indiana. Landing him would make this promising position even more exciting over the next five years.
RUNNING BACK: James Conner is gone, but this may still be the deepest unit on the team. There are five halfbacks that are good enough to start next season. The favorite going into spring practice may be 5'11" 210 pound sophomore Chawntez Moss. A surprise this past season, because most thought he'd redshirt, Moss used his speed and toughness to get on the field. Against Marshall in the first half of the season, he had 97 yards on 12 carries, and some actually thought he had passed Conner on the depth chart. However, Conner then sprung back to full health and Moss saw less carries the rest of the year.
The other veterans in the mix are 5'11" 225 pound junior Darrin Hall, and 6'2" 230 pound redshirt junior Qadree Ollison. Hall was a coveted, highly ranked prospect coming out of high school, but so far he has not lived up to his potential with only 417 rushing yards combined over his first two years. Worse yet, at one point in the offseason he was considered the top choice to pick up the slack for Conner until he got back into playing shape, but instead he got passed up by Moss. The talent is there, but if he doesn't take advantage of Conner's absence this time, he probably missed his window forever.
Ollison came out of nowhere two years ago to fill in for Conner after he went down in the first game with a season ending knee injury. He responded with 1,121 yards and 12 total touchdowns while being named the ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year. As a sophomore, though, his carries fell from 212 carries to 33 carries. Ollison always runs hard, but his overall skill set is not at the same level as the other backs, so the chances of him getting a lot of carries again are probably not very good.
And two of the reasons for that are incoming freshmen Todd Sibley and Anthony Davis. The 5'9" 215 pound Sibley is a between the tackles chain mover with enough breakaway speed to sometimes turn an 8 yard run into a 20 yard run. He's also the type of back that could carry 30 times every once in awhile, if you need him to do that. The 6'0" 205 pound Davis is a different type of back in that he's fast, quick, and great in the open field. He also has good hands, and could be used in the same ways that Quadree Henderson is used.
If having five talented running backs isn't good enough, the returning starter at fullback is living legend George Aston, a 6'0" 245 redshirt junior that had 10 total touchdowns last year and viciously blocked every defender that came his way.
Bottom line- It wasn't long ago that Rushel Shell transferred away from Pitt, and the Panthers were forced to start a little known freshman named James Conner. Even two years ago, when Conner went down, the Panthers had no choice but to throw in another freshman, Qadree Ollison. There was a very fine line in both seasons where disaster was very close. But both running backs came through. Things are different now because there are now five running backs that are capable of running for 1,000 yards on this team, if they got starter carries. One of them actually did run for 1,000 yards in college, as a freshman, and he may be the fifth best one as far as pure talent.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Six of the seven top receivers are back, with only Dontez Ford graduating. And he had only 288 yards receiving. If that wasn't good enough, there could be two newcomers that will be in the mix.
As for those returning, the top receiver last year, 6'3" 210 pound redshirt senior Jester Weah, is back after one of the more surprising Pitt seasons in recent history. Criticized even up into the beginning of the season for having bad hands, he shut everybody up by coming up with a season that included 870 yards receiving, 10 touchdowns, and an incredible 24.2 yards a catch. Weah not only has great size, but he's also one of the fastest football players in the country, and that includes the NFL. And the NFL is where he may end up if he has another season like that. And with Browne behind center, his reception totals may go up, too.
It remains to be seen how new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson uses 5'8" 190 junior Quadree Henderson, but rest assured, he'll be used. The All-American return man has to do better in the passing game, where he had just 286 yards receiving last year, but on jet sweeps Henderson was a terror with 631 yards rushing on a crazy 10.5 yards a carry, and 5 touchdowns. If Watson is smart he'll continue to use the jet sweeps with Henderson because he's too talented to waste.
Four other returning veterans are Tre Tipton, Aaron Mathews, Maurice Ffrench, and Rafael Araujo-Lopes. The 6'0" 190 pound redshirt junior, Tipton, has battled injuries for two years. If he isn't healthier this season he will be in danger of getting passed over on the depth chart. The talent is there to be a solid all around receiver, however. Mathews showed as a true freshman last year that he has a bright future. At 6'4" and 190 pounds he has the length, and he also proved to be a superb blocker. Ffrench was utilized as Henderson's backup, and while he caught no passes, he did run 12 times for 10.2 yards a carry and 2 touchdowns. Late in the season he was used on defense for a few plays, so there's always a chance that he could move to cornerback. Araujo-Lopes is a quick little 5'9" 185 pound redshirt junior that ran 6 times and caught 3 passes. He also did well on special teams, which could be his future with such competition.
Speaking of competition, things will get even more competitive now that 6'3" 190 pound redshirt freshman Ruben Flowers, and 6'1" 205 pound true freshman Michael Smith, have entered the fray. Flowers was a highly ranked, coveted receiver that redshirted last season. With a year in the system he could now be heavily in the mix for playing time. Smith has a nice array of traits, including speed, and he may just have to enough talent to see the field in his first year.
Incoming freshmen Darian Street and Dontavius Butler will probably redshirt, though Butler has a college ready body that gives him a chance to get on the field as a freshman.
Bottom line- This is going to be a very interesting group next season. There is some talent here, but the group was very young and raw last year so the results weren't overwhelming. But with a year of seasoning, a new offensive coordinator, and a quarterback with a big arm, the results could improve a good deal. The only thing we know for sure is that Weah will start, and Henderson will get the ball in a variety of ways. After that, there will be a mad scramble to see who joins them at the top.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter Scott Orndoff is gone, as is his backup, Jaymar Parrish. But the talent that is arriving is extremely impressive. Leading the way are 6'6" 255 redshirt sophomore Chris Clark, and 6'5" 280 pound freshman Charles Reeves.
Clark took a circuitous route to Pittsburgh, and he has a lot to prove to his detractors. But he is the former No. 1 tight end prospect in the country so he has massive talent just waiting to be tapped. He sat out last year after transferring from UCLA, and while sitting out he hurt his knee in preseason practices. Now it's his time to shine.
Clark can not falter as the starter because Reeves is right there with him as far as talent. He's a huge 280 pounds, but amazingly he's not overweight. He's just an enormous human being. And if that's not impressive enough, he has excellent speed and athleticism for that size. He was used mostly as a huge wideout in high school, but obviously the size is there to be a good blocker, too.
Two other freshmen arriving on the scene are two locals- 6'4" 245 pound Tyler Sear, and 6'7" 260 pound Grant Carrigan. Sear is the smaller of the two, but he's hardly small. Cardigan is big, but can get downfield pretty well. He's more of a receiver than an inline blocker right now. One of them may have to come through as a blocker immediately. But the Panthers staff are also looking to add a graduate transfer so that the position can have more experience.
Bottom line- The experience is practically nil, but the talent is highly impressive. The staff needed to restock, and they did a fantastic job of doing that. Both Clark and Reeves have NFL potential, and Sear and Carrigan are good developmental prospects. A grad transfer would be a nice touch.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The unit lost two really good linemen in Adan Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson, but the cupboard is not bare. The next star on the line is 6'6" 300 pound redshirt junior Brian O'Neil. A former 2-star tight end, O'Neill is now looking like a possible future first round pick thanks to his length and great feet. He's been the starter the past two seasons at right tackle, but with Bisnowaty gone from the left tackle spot, he could switch over.
The other starting tackle will be 6'7" 325 pound redshirt senior Jaryd Jones-Smith, who finally gets his chance to shine in his last year. He has a lot to prove, and should play accordingly. The talent is there to play in the NFL. It's still unknown if he'll be on the left side or the right side.
At guard, 6'6" 315 pound redshirt junior Alex Bookser returns to one of the spots, and he should be reaching an all-conference level next season. At the other guard spot, 6'4" 335 pound redshirt senior Alex Officer had mixed results last year as the center, but that was mostly due to snapping issues from time to time. He should be more solid at guard. His expected replacement, should he make the expected switch to guard, will be 6'3" 310 pound redshirt junior Connor Dintino, who made the switch from defensive tackle last year and impressed the coaches in practices.
The depth is much more questionable, but that's more because of experience than talent. At tackle, 6'5" 320 pound redshirt sophomore Tony Pilato, and 6'6" 365 pound redshirt freshman Justin Morgan, have to come through if there is going to be depth. Two incoming freshmen, 6'6" 325 pound Carter Warren, and 6'5" 315 pound Jerry Drake, are going to be very good, but it's hard to see time as a true freshman on the offensive line. One of them may be forced into action, though. Another incoming freshman, 6'6" 265 pound Gabe Houy, also has good potential, but he will redshirt next season because he needs to get bigger.
At guard, 6'5" 300 pound redshirt freshman Brandon Ford showed in practices last year that he could possibly help this year, and he may be needed. At 6'4" and 280 pounds, another redshirt freshman, Bryce Hargrove, will also be in the mix. Mike Herndon, a 6'4" 315 pound redshirt junior, was on defense last year, but was on offense before that. He may need to move back to offense again.
If Dintino goes down, Officer will need to go back to center and Ford may have to step in. Another center, 6'3" 270 pound Owen Drexel, was brought in, but he's not big enough yet, and will have to redshirt.
Bottom line- The starters should be good, and O'Neill is All-American caliber. Jones-Smith and Bookser are all-star candidates, too. The depth is very questionable, however. There's always a chance that Warren or Drake could see reserve minutes, and they do already have college size, but it would be better for their development if they redshirted. Realistically, barring a rash of injuries, only an extra guard and an extra tackle are needed, and local products Pilato and Ford may have to really come through to provide solid backup minutes. I would also suspect that the staff is on the lookout for a grad transfer to provide some experience as a backup.
Conclusion: The Panthers offense will have a very different look next season. That's a scary thought for an offense that was one of the best in school history. There's a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback, and a new tight end, plus two future NFL offensive lineman and one of the best, most inspirational players that Pitt ever had, are gone.
While it sounds dire when you say it like that, there's still a lot to like. New offensive coordinator Shawn Watson is an experienced coach that has a lot to prove after his stint at Texas did not go well. He will get a chance to do what he wants from Narduzzi, but only to a certain extent. Narduzzi wants an explosive offense that was similar to the offense he had last season. As long as Watson is somewhat similar in style to the offense Matt Canada ran, the offense should do well. Will it be as good as last year's offense? That's asking a lot, but it doesn't have to be as good. It just needs to be good.
Watson was given a gift when he arrived to see Browne on the campus. He has first round NFL potential, and this is his last chance. MacVittie as his backup will also see the field, and he's just as exciting.
The running backs are among the most talented and deep running back groups in the country. There's so many good running backs that it's impossible to tell now who will get most of the carries. In fact, there are so many that one back may not even get a large portion of the carries. But no matter who is doing the running, though, the Panthers should have a very good rushing attack.
When Browne and MacVittie aren't handing it off to the vast array of running backs, they have a lot of other weapons. Weah and Henderson have game breaking speed, and more importantly they known how to use it. Tipton and Mathews will be one year better, and Flowers and Smith are now on the scene. At tight end, Clark and Reeves have the potential to be a dominant duo.
The offensive line has some questions that need to be answered as far as depth, but O'Neill, Bookser, and Jones-Smith all have all-star potential. If the young depth comes through, the line has the potential to be excellent again.