Preview | Pitt football poised for a solid season in 2021

Pitt+football+returns+experience+on+the+offense%2C+such+as+sophomore+running+back+Israel+Abanikanda.

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt football returns experience on the offense, such as sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda.

By Carson Zaremski, Staff Writer

Head football coach Pat Narduzzi is entering his seventh season, and the team he’s bringing to the field boasts both experience and young talent. Fifth-year quarterback Kenny Pickett is back to lead the offense along with many familiar faces. On the defensive side, a lot of young talent is set to be tested after several members of the defense, including both defensive ends, left the program to pursue a career in the NFL.

Here’s what Panther fans can expect from Narduzzi and his squad heading into the 2021 season.

Offense

Pickett is entering his fifth season and ranks third all-time at Pitt in total offense. He showed steady progress each season and trends point toward him having his best season yet with experience on his side.

One of the deepest groups Pitt has at its disposal is its wide receiving core. The team returns sophomore Jordan Addison, seventh-year senior Tre Tipton, fifth-year senior Taysir Mack, senior Shocky Jacques-Louis and sophomore Jaylon Barden. On top of that, the Panthers will have access to a talented tight end in fifth-year senior Lucas Krull, who sat out most of last season due to injury.

The running back situation is peculiar because there is no clear starter just yet, but sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda stands out as a potential lead back for the Panthers this season, according to Narduzzi. The speedster will share the backfield with fifth-year running back AJ Davis Jr. and junior running back Vincent Davis, who had a stellar 247-yard performance in Pitt’s final game of the season.

One of the biggest question marks left on the offense is the Panthers’ offensive line. After losing their leader in center Jimmy Morrissey to the Las Vegas Raiders, the group will look for some new faces to take the reins.

Defense

Much like the receivers group, the linebackers return a lot of depth and reliable talent. They’re headlined by junior SirVocea Dennis, redshirt senior Cam Bright and fifth-year senior Phil Campbell, who have all seen playing time and thrived. The depth comes from players such as fifth-year senior Chase Pine, redshirt junior Wendell Davis and sophomore Dayon Hayes.

Redshirt senior cornerback Damarri Mathis returns after a year away due to injury and is one of the most talented players on the Panthers’ roster. Mathis is accompanied by redshirt junior Marquis Williams and backed up by young talent in junior AJ Woods and redshirt sophomore MJ Devonshire. Even with Jason Pinnock’s departure, Mathis brings new blood and looks to improve upon last year’s group.

Some viewers aren’t sure what to expect from the defensive line. With only one returning starter in fifth-year senior defensive tackle Keyshon Camp, the defensive line will have little experience under their belts coming into this season.

But what this group may lack in experience, they certainly will make up for in talent. Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Calijah Kancey will look to build off of his impressive first year. The defensive lineman showed flashes of excellence and The Athletic recognized him as a Freshman All-American.

Junior defensive ends Habakkuk Baldonado and Deslin Alexandre both sat behind Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver — who were both NFL Draft selections this year.

After Paris Ford opted out of the season, a void was left at strong safety. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Hill quickly filled this vacancy. He had an instant and much-needed impact on the defensive end of the ball and looks to build off of his success this year.  

Damar Hamlin leaving for the draft leaves yet another void at safety. Rashad Battle, a young and talented sophomore, is fighting with redshirt junior Erick Hallett II to fill the role with a starter yet to be named ahead of week one.

Special Teams

Pitt returns one of the best punters in the country in redshirt senior Kirk Christodoulou and one of this year’s captains, fifth-year long snapper Cal Adomitis. The young, agile and very talented Jaylon Barden will return punts and kickoffs for the Panthers this season.

The kicking position is up for grabs after four-year starter Alex Kessman left for the NFL. As of now, redshirt first-year Ben Sauls and redshirt sophomore Sam Scarton are competing for the starting job. 

Schedule

The Panthers’ schedule includes many winnable games, including three games against non-Power Five teams. But they will have to take on all three ranked ACC programs in the No. 3 Clemson Tigers, the No. 10 North Carolina Tar-Heels and the No. 14 Miami Hurricanes.

The season kicks off against UMass this Saturday and a trip to Knoxville for a nationally televised game against an SEC opponent in Tennessee will soon follow 

Prediction: Eight wins

With several games the Panthers should win on the schedule and an experienced offense and a talented defense, expect them to notch eight wins. How the team puts it together on the field is still yet to be seen, but all things considered, it should be a solid year for Pitt football.

Leave a comment.