Sostek Selects: Pitt football 2016 midseason awards


Quadree Henderson is the only player in college football with multiple kick return touchdowns in 2016. Meghan Sunners | Senior Staff Photographer

By Dan Sostek | Senior Staff Writer

The Pitt football team entered its bye week on the strength of three straight wins but will face a gauntlet of a three-game stretch coming out of the break.

With a 5-2 overall record and 2-1 record in ACC play at the midway point of the season, the Panthers are in position for a run at the division title. But the team will have no room for error in the grueling three-week stretch ahead with games against Virginia Tech, Miami and Clemson.

Plenty of players and coaches have been key components to the Panthers’ strong record, but these are the few who stand out.

Most Valuable Player: Quadree Henderson, WR/KR

The biggest question entering this season for Pitt was how the Panthers would make up for the loss of wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who left for the NFL after his junior year. Boyd is Pitt’s all-time leading receiver and left a gaping hole of yardage for the team to replace.

It turns out the Panthers didn’t necessarily have to replace his presence through the air.

Quadree Henderson has proven to be as dynamic, if not as productive, as Boyd. Through offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s utilization of jet sweeps, Henderson is second on the team with 349 yards rushing and fourth with 174 receiving yards.

He’s also been arguably the best kick returner in college football, holding the distinction of being the only player in the nation with two kick-return touchdowns. Henderson makes defenses shudder whenever he has the ball –– precisely the type of presence Pitt needed to emerge this season.

Biggest Surprise: Matt Canada, Offensive Coordinator

When Jim Chaney bolted from his post as Pitt’s offensive coordinator after one season, the Panthers were left with a handful of talented puzzle pieces that didn’t appear to fit into a coherent offense.

But in just one offseason, new offensive coordinator Matt Canada has solved that jigsaw, using creative schemes and motion to turn Pitt into one of the ACC’s premiere offenses. The Panthers rank second in the ACC with an average of 38.4 points scored per game.

He’s figured out the best way to use his undersized athletes on offense like Henderson, Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Tre Tipton, constantly moving them around the formation with the threat of jet sweeps, play actions and handoffs to running backs to keep defenses off balance.

Canada is largely responsible for the offense’s transformation into an explosive, high-scoring group. He is proving why head coach Pat Narduzzi said, in hiring Canada, he hired someone “as good or better” than Chaney.

Most Disappointing: Avonte Maddox, CB

As the Panthers’ No. 2 cornerback the past two seasons, Avonte Maddox has shown promise, using quickness and good hand skills to thwart opponents’ No. 2 wideouts.

His transition to Pitt’s No. 1 corner this year has been anything but smooth.

Maddox struggled mightily against Oklahoma State and North Carolina’s talented wide receiver corps. He did return an interception for a touchdown on the last play of Pitt’s 43-27 win over Marshall, but other than that, his season has been filled with negatives.

Things aren’t exactly getting better for Maddox either. The junior corner missed Pitt’s last game against Virginia with his arm in a sling, and redshirt sophomore Phillipie Motley played well in Maddox’s place in his first career start.

Maddox should regain his starting spot when he gets healthy, but it’s worth watching to see how much leeway his coaches will give him.

Most Unsung: George Aston, FB

Fullbacks will naturally get overlooked in offenses, but George Aston is making that tougher and tougher to do every week.

A former walk-on linebacker, Aston found playing time last year primarily as a short-yardage pass catcher, hauling in a pair of touchdown receptions.

He’s been even more involved in the offense this year, tallying five touchdowns already on just 24 touches. He’s emerged as a secondary goal line back to bruising tailback James Conner, forcing defenses to divert their attention away from Conner and account for him when Pitt is within a few yards of the end zone.

Aston doesn’t pile up yardage, but he lowers his shoulder with the best of them, and his penchant for finding the end zone has been key for the Panthers.

Second-Half Player to Watch: Dane Jackson, CB

This spot would have gone to Damar Hamlin if there was any indication that Pitt might burn its heralded freshman’s redshirt, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Thus, Jackson has a chance to be one of the biggest linchpins for Pitt’s struggling defense, particularly with Maddox hurt.

Motley started last Saturday, but Jackson –– a redshirt freshman who subbed in when Maddox got hurt against Georgia Tech –– has a higher upside.

The team is searching for some consistency defending stronger, more athletic wide receivers, and Jackson has as good a chance as anybody on the roster not named Damar Hamlin to help alleviate that concern.

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