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Pitt football training camp notebook: Week one

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Pitt RB James Conner was one of three Panthers named to the Lombardi Award watch list. Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

Pitt RB James Conner was one of three Panthers named to the Lombardi Award watch list. Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

Pitt RB James Conner was one of three Panthers named to the Lombardi Award watch list. Stephen Caruso | Contributing Editor

By Steve Rotstein / Sports Editor

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Change is in the air at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex this month, and Pitt’s new script jerseys haven’t even seen the light of day yet.

The Panthers opened training camp at the complex Monday, Aug. 8., in preparation for the 2016 season. And while it may be Pat Narduzzi’s second year as head coach, there’s a different feel surrounding this year’s team than last.

With new offensive coordinator Matt Canada barking out orders bright and early every morning, Narduzzi is free to do less yelling and more observing, roaming between practice stations and occasionally stopping to hurl giant pads toward punt returners as they try to catch the ball.

With the season fast approaching, here are three more quick observations from the first week of camp:

Reigning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison looks like a more dynamic and explosive back than he was as a redshirt freshman in 2015. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer

Reigning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison is one of many running backs vying for playing time in 2016. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer

Running Backs – Too much depth?

This time last year, James Conner was getting set for his junior season as Pitt’s starting running back and the reigning ACC Player of the Year. The only question was whether he could top his record-setting sophomore season before leaving for the NFL.

Now, after a successful recovery from both a torn MCL and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the question is whether he can return to being a productive starting running back, or will one of the many capable alternatives take over the top spot?

After Conner went down in last year’s season opener against Youngstown State, then-redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison carried the load for Pitt’s offense on his way to ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Ollison looked noticeably quicker during the first week of camp than he did last season, when the bruising back was listed at 230 pounds. Special teams and running backs coach Andre Powell confirmed that suspicion.

“[The running backs] ran 40s this summer, and you’ll probably be surprised … I think Ollison and [Chawntez] Moss ran the two fastest times,” Powell said. “[Ollison] has really worked hard to change his body.”

Adding burst to brawn could be just what Ollison needed to take his game to the next level in his second season.

“I got my body [composition] down … I’ve gotten faster, gotten stronger,” Ollison said. “I’ve gotten way leaner and I think it’s made me a more versatile back.”

Narduzzi has talked openly about playing multiple running backs at a time this season, something that may be in Pitt’s best interest with a lack of proven playmakers at wide receiver.

With a rejuvenated Conner bouncing around the practice field, a refined Ollison bursting through the line of scrimmage, and a stable of hungry young backs ready to step up if someone goes down, there might not be enough carries to go around.

Having already broken numerous Pitt records, numbers are the last thing on Conner’s mind this season. If he has to cede some playing time so another back can shine, that’s just fine with him.

“I don’t really care about that,” Conner said. “I just want to win.”

WR Dontez Ford leads a young group of receivers that must make take on larger roles after the departure of Tyler Boyd. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer

WR Dontez Ford leads a young group of receivers that must take on larger roles after the departure of Tyler Boyd. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer

Wide Receivers – From Boyd to Ford

While the Panthers are loaded with depth at the running back position, the same can’t be said for the wide receiver group. Ever since Tyler Boyd left for the NFL after last season, fans and analysts have questioned Pitt’s ability to replace his production at wide receiver.

Senior Dontez Ford is the leader of this group, having started nine games last year alongside Boyd. Ford made 26 catches for 505 yards and two touchdowns in 2015, but Pitt will need a lot more than that to compete for an ACC championship in 2016.

Expecting Ford to make up for Boyd’s absence by himself is unfair and highly unrealistic, but wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman does expect him to be a leader.

“He’s an even better leader in the meeting room than he is on the field,” Sherman said. “In the meeting room he’s being very vocal and talking to the younger guys. On the field he leads by example.”

While working on routine bubble screens early at Friday’s practice, Ford set that example for his younger teammates.

When a quarterback airmailed a pass over his head toward the sideline, Ford didn’t just let the pass go. Instead, he reached up and snatched it out of the air with one hand, stayed in bounds, ran upfield and got right back in line for more reps without saying a word.

It’s the type of play Panthers fans came to expect from Boyd. If Pitt can count on Ford to make a few of those same plays this season, that will go a long way toward filling the void created by Boyd’s departure.

Local four-star cornerback Damar Hamlin will need to make an immediate impact as part of Pitt's secondary. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer

Local four-star cornerback Damar Hamlin will need to make an immediate impact as part of Pitt’s secondary. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer

Defensive Backs – An uprising

If there is any area where Pitt is more stocked with talent than running back, it’s in the defensive backfield.

Sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead is the star of this group, having been named to several preseason award watch lists. The reigning ACC Rookie of the Year is one of the most versatile defenders in the country, and he can be just as deadly on offense and in the return game.

His starting spot is secure, and junior cornerback Avonte Maddox seems to have a good grip on his as well after starting every game last season. Maddox totaled three interceptions, 12 pass breakups and 75 total tackles in 2015, and he too is a dangerous returner.

The intriguing battles are for the safety spot opposite Whitehead and the corner spot opposite Maddox.

At safety, a couple of local seniors are entrenched in a battle for the second spot. Shady Side Academy’s Reggie Mitchell and Clairton High School’s Terrish Webb are both proven players, and both likely to see playing time no matter who starts.

Mitchell was a full-time starter in 2014 before a foot injury limited him to just six games last season. Webb has played in 32 games and made 18 starts in his career, starting nine games last year alongside Whitehead.

Narduzzi doesn’t know who will start the first game, but doesn’t think the team will miss a beat either way.

“I think they are both interchangeable,” Narduzzi said. “Reggie being a little bit of a bigger guy might fight into the boundary more than Terrish. He is a bit more physical than Terrish, but they’re both athletic … right now they are both co-starters in my opinion.”

As for the second corner spot, senior Ryan Lewis is in a fight to earn his first starting role after contributing for three years as a reserve cornerback and special teamer.

Lewis’ main competition will come from a stacked group of first-year corners, led by Central Catholic’s Damar Hamlin –– Pitt’s highest-rated recruit in the 2016 class.

Fellow true freshmen Henry Miller, Therran Coleman and Hamlin’s high school teammate Bricen Garner are also in the chase for a starting spot. But Narduzzi cautioned not to forget about redshirt freshman Malik Henderson.

“Some of the other guys like Malik Henderson, who [have] shown some improvement from a year ago, are physical,” Narduzzi said. “You can see that he is really snapping on people. The weight room has really helped him this offseason.”

These position battles will only heat up as camp starts to wind down, but with so many options to choose from, Narduzzi can afford to mix and match until he finds the right fit for the job.

****

The Panthers wrap up camp Thursday, Aug. 25, before taking on Villanova in the 2016 season opener at Heinz Field Saturday, Sept. 3, at 1:30 p.m.

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Pitt football training camp notebook: Week one