Pitt Football faces uphill battle to defend Coastal title


Thomas Yang | Visual Editor

Pitt’s backfield will likely be led by junior halfback AJ Davis (21).

By Trent Leonard, Senior Staff Writer

Last season, Pitt football (7-7, 6-2) emerged out of nowhere to win its first ACC Coastal title since joining the conference in 2013. The Panthers entered the season projected to finish fifth out of seven teams in the division but managed to outperform expectations thanks to stingy situational defense, an elite backfield and an offensive line that often dominated opponents at the line of scrimmage.

This season, pundits are overlooking the Panthers once again. In the ACC preseason poll released July 22, 173 media members predicted that three teams — Virginia, Miami and Virginia Tech — will finish ahead of Pitt this season. But despite the potential motivation, head coach Pat Narduzzi maintained that his team doesn’t worry about things that it can’t control.

“I’m not worried about what the preseason ranks look like,” he said after Pitt’s opening day of camp on Aug. 2. “I’m worried about what the postseason ranks look like.”

It’s fair to see why Pitt is expected to backtrack — the Panthers are losing the backfield production of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, who combined for 2,422 yards and 21 touchdowns last season but are now on NFL rosters. They’ll miss the bruising blocks of fullback George Aston, also now in the NFL, along with nearly all of last year’s starting offensive line.

The Panthers were also dealt a crushing blow on Thursday, Aug. 8. While performing a drill in training camp, junior defensive end Rashad Weaver went down with a knee injury later revealed to be a torn ACL. He’ll miss the entire upcoming season as a result.

The injury is especially devastating considering Weaver was arguably the Panthers’ best player entering this season. He led the team with 14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits in 2018, establishing himself as one of the top edge defenders in the conference. Weaver also won 17.5% of his pass-rush snaps last season — top among returning ACC defensive ends. He was named preseason All-ACC by several publications.

It’s tough to predict just how much Weaver’s absence will affect Pitt’s defense, but it undoubtedly hurts anytime a team loses their most dominant player. Weaver’s teammates were adamant that he will not have suffered the injury in vain, saying they will dedicate the upcoming season to their friend who will now have to watch from the sidelines.

“That’s our brother. You never want to see one of your boys go down,” redshirt sophomore defensive end Deslin Alexander said. “But we know we’re going to keep fighting for him … we’ll play for him every time.”

As for who Pitt gained rather than lost, the Panthers brought in someone who can provide an instant upgrade to the offense, though it isn’t a running back or lineman. New offensive coordinator Mark Whipple will look to instill a new offensive identity to a unit whose philosophy under ex-coordinator Shawn Watson often seemed to be, “Hand the ball to a running back and hope he takes it 70 yards for a touchdown.”

That’s probably a little unfair to Watson, but the truth is that he failed to develop quarterback Kenny Pickett and the passing game last season. The Panthers ranked 123rd out of 130 Division I FBS teams in passing, averaging a dreadful 139.7 yards per game. Pitt’s Achilles heel was on full display in an embarrassing ACC Championship loss to Clemson in which Pickett threw for just eight yards.

Enter Whipple, brought onto the staff by Narduzzi shortly after Pitt’s season ended last January. The 61-year-old Whipple brings almost 40 years of coaching experience to the table, including multiple stints as a college head coach and NFL quarterbacks coach, both for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.

“Coach Whipple is a mastermind,” Maurice Ffrench said at ACC Media Day. “Every time I’m with him, I try to pick his brain … With us, he goes through everything, makes sure that we know the details of a route, why we’re running this route, making sure we do it to full speed, full detail.”

Now a full year older and with a more passer-friendly coordinator calling the shots, Pickett has nowhere to go but up (knock on wood) from a 2018 sophomore campaign in which he completed just 58% of his passes for 1,969 yards. He’ll have a bevy of options at his disposal including last year’s leader in receiving yards, redshirt junior Taysir Mack, and touchdowns, senior speedster Ffrench.

The pressure is on Pickett to prove last year’s poor production is behind him, but no position group faces greater pressure than Pitt’s backfield, which will be tasked with filling the shoes of Ollison and Hall. Despite that duo’s departure, Narduzzi insists that Pitt’s identity will still be tied up in the run game.

“I like how we’re combining some of the Whipple stuff and what we’ve done here in the past,” Narduzzi said. “Obviously, we’re going to run the football and we’re going to continue to find ways to run the football.”

The Panthers will likely employ a true committee backfield led by junior AJ Davis, who carried the ball 48 times for 174 yards and one touchdown in his previous two seasons. Redshirt sophomore Todd Sibley Jr. Redshirt and first-year Mychale Salahuddin will help carry the load, while sophomore wideout V’Lique Carter, who burst onto the scene last season with 25 carries for 202 yards and two touchdowns despite being recruited as a defensive back, figures to have his speed utilized via the jet sweep.

Pitt’s real strength lies on the defensive side of the ball, where the team held five of its last six opponents in 2018 to 24 points or less. Weaver’s loss will sting, but the Panthers still bring back the majority of their defensive backs and linemen from that unit, making them a sneaky bet to be among the best defenses in the ACC. On the defensive line, Alexander and redshirt junior Patrick Jones II will need to step up in a big way to account for Weaver’s production.

Senior safety Damar Hamlin is set to be Pitt’s leader on defense after leading the Panthers with 90 total tackles and two interceptions last season. He’ll be joined in the secondary by redshirt senior cornerback Dane Jackson, who led the team with 14 pass breakups and four forced fumbles in 2018. Other returning members of the defensive backfield include junior cornerbacks Jason Pinnock and Damarri Mathis, along with redshirt senior Jazzee Stocker. Together this group should form one of the ACC’s top secondaries.

It’s always tough to project how things will shake out in the parity-driven ACC Coastal, which has crowned a new champion each year since conference realignment in 2013. Top to bottom, it’s consistently one of the most competitive divisions in the country. Pitt may lack the personnel to repeat as Coastal champs — but with a formidable defense and an offense that might not regress as expected, the Panthers are once again poised to outperform expectations.