Column | D-Line, QBs will lead the way in Pitt’s 2021 campaign

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Pitt Football will look quite different on the defensive side of the ball, but writer Frankie Richetti believes the defense will pick up the slack lost to the NFL while the offense is led by returning quarterback Kenny Pickett.

By Frankie Richetti, For The Pitt News

“Next man up” is a cliche and overused phrase in sports media, but it’s a mantra Pitt must embrace to succeed this year. An ACC-leading six Panthers heard their name called during this year’s NFL draft, leaving the roster looking much different heading into the 2021 campaign.

Here are the position groups that will lead the way.

1. Defensive Line

Pitt’s Defensive Line has been among the nation’s best for the past two seasons and has the potential to repeat for a third. 

Pro Football Focus ranks the Panthers as the No. 8 pass-rush unit in the country heading into the season, and a number of players from last season’s unit that led the nation in both total sacks and tackles for loss are returning.

Among those not returning are First-Team AP All-American defensive end Rashad Weaver and Second-Team AP All-American defensive end Patrick Jones II, who the Panthers lost to the NFL. Weaver and Jones combined for 17 of the Panthers’ 46 sacks in 2021.

The line has big shoes to fill but will look to pick up where they left off last season. This season’s defensive line will be led by the defensive end duo of senior Deslin Alexandre and junior Habakkuk Baldonado alongside defensive tackles junior Devin Danielson and pre-season All American sophomore Calijah Kancey. 

Alexandre started in all 13 games in 2019 when Weaver missed the entire season due to injury. The senior defensive end will be tasked with stepping in and wreaking havoc in the backfield, just as Weaver did in his time with the Panthers.

Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and head coach Pat Narduzzi have excelled at recruiting and developing defensive linemen — a strength that will provide the squad with much needed depth should a player fall to injury.

With 17 sacks to make up for with Weaver and Jones’ departure, this year’s talented defensive line will certainly have its work cut out for them.

2. Linebackers

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, another group that will flourish is the linebackers — a group ESPN writer David Hale ranks as the second best LB unit in the ACC. The group has something many other positions don’t — experience. Seniors Cam Bright, Phil Campbell III, Chase Pine and juniors Wendell Davis and SirVocea Dennis will all return to the Panthers in 2021.

Bright, a Pro Football Network preseason first-team All-ACC Linebacker, finished top five in sacks among ACC linebackers last season.

Dennis is also listed as a preseason first-team All-ACC Linebacker in the College Football News’ rankings, as well as a top 30 player in the conference by the site, after he was third in Tackles for Loss in the 2020 season in the ACC.

Davis started two games before missing the rest of the season due to injury. The junior linebacker will look to resume his starting role in the team, and is excited about what the group as a whole has to offer.

“We have a lot coming back,” Davis told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We are probably the most underrated group in the ACC.”

Considering all of the players mentioned have played together for multiple seasons under the same scheme, it seems that their success both individually, and as a unit, is more likely to become a trend rather than an outlier.

The linebackers will also be playing behind what’s likely to be one of the best defensive lines in the country. Behind them in the secondary, they have what PFF lists as a top 10 cornerback tandem in the nation in junior Marquis Williams and senior Damarri Mathis. Having an elite collection of talent in front of and behind you, makes their job a whole lot easier. 

The LBs also head into 2021 with defensive coordinator Randy Bates entering his fourth year as the Panthers signal caller. Bates was named the 2020 American Football Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year and is perceived to be one of the premier play callers in College Football. Playing under him for another season should pay dividends. 

3. Quarterback

On the opposite side of the ball, another position that will flourish is quarterback. 

If super-senior quarterback Kenny Pickett stays healthy, he has the potential to have a huge year. Pickett’s return to the program was met with surprise by the fan base as well as the coaching staff

Pickett also brings a much needed veteran presence and is the most experienced player at the position in the conference. 

In order to succeed, Pickett must have help around him, and he has a collection of weapons surrounding him this season.

Pickett has been a victim of dropped passes with 68 in the past two seasons — more than any other QB in the nation. PFF puts his expected completion percentage at a whopping 72.2% — a clear reason why he is so underrated coming into this season.

The wide receiver room is the most talented and deepest it’s been in years. Led by sophomore All-American Jordan Addison, the Panther receivers should improve greatly as a whole. Veteran receiver Taysir Mack had an injury-riddled 2020 season but looks to start opposite Addison. The two will form one of the better WR duos in the conference. 

Tight end Lucas Krull is getting much praise out of camp as he returns after playing in just one game last season due to injury. The former Florida Gator is poised for a breakout season, as FOX Sports analyst Bruce Feldman lists him as one of the top 35 players who will break out this upcoming season.

Pickett has the weapons around him to succeed. He now finally has the stability to as well. Since Pickett arrived at Pitt in 2017, he has played in two very different offensive schemes. In 2017 and 2018, Shawn Watson called the plays, employing an extremely rush-heavy offense. In 14 games in 2018 under Watson, Pickett threw just 310 passes.

Watson was released from his duties at the end of the 2018 season and Narduzzi opted to hire pass-heavy play caller Mark Whipple. In 12 games in 2019, Pickett threw the ball 469 times, a drastic uptick in comparison to the season prior. Over the course of the past two seasons, Pickett has averaged more passing attempts than any other quarterback in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.

The talent on the offensive side of the ball and the stability granted to him should result in Pickett having the best statistical year of his Pitt career.

With what’s expected to be an elite front seven, an experienced quarterback with exciting talent around him and a favorable schedule, could this be one the best Pitt football seasons in recent memory?

Only time will tell.

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