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Freshmen performances highlight senior leadership in final Pitt football game

Freshman Jordan Whitehead avoids two Navy defenders.  Nikki Moriello | Visual Editor

Freshman Jordan Whitehead avoids two Navy defenders. Nikki Moriello | Visual Editor

Freshman Jordan Whitehead avoids two Navy defenders. Nikki Moriello | Visual Editor

By Chris Puzia / Assistant Sports Editor

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While some of Pitt’s freshmen made headlines with explosive plays on Monday, including Quadree Henderson’s opening kick return touchdown, bowl games always mark the end of careers just as much as the beginning of them.

Freshmen accounted for all four of Pitt’s touchdowns in a 44-28 loss to No. 21 Navy in the Military Bowl, but Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said those standout performances wouldn’t have been possible without the team’s senior leadership guiding them all season.

“I told our seniors before the game that they laid the foundation, they’ve done a lot of great things this year,” Narduzzi said. “Our road record was the best since 2008, our overall record was the best since 2009. You can’t have it all at once, but we’ll just continue to pound the rock and send these seniors off the right way.”

Freshmen performances like those from Whitehead, who hit 10 tackles and a fumble return touchdown, and running back Qadree Ollison, who ran for 73 yards and scored twice, lay the groundwork for next season’s success.

Narduzzi said that blueprint comes from the team’s departing seniors.

“I love these guys,” Narduzzi said. “They believed in what we were doing. They’ve gone through a lot, they’ve been through a lot of football coaches and different terminology and schemes, they bought in right away. These guys came every day to work, and that only makes us better.”

Nikki Moriello  |  Visual Editor

Nikki Moriello | Visual Editor

Senior tight end JP Holtz left the field with an ankle injury in the first half and did not return, ending his steady Pitt career one half prematurely. Holtz finished with 81 receptions with 931 yards and 11 touchdowns in his four-year tenure.

Pitt’s senior-led defense finished with respectable stats of their own. Linebacker Nicholas Grigsby recorded seven tackles, defensive end Ejuan Price tallied five and defensive tackle Darryl Render added three on Monday.

“All the hard work that we put in as a family, it just makes us stronger,” Render said. “We’ll always be Panthers.”

Senior center Artie Rowell led an offensive line that experienced turnover on Monday after sophomore lineman Alex Officer went down with an injury. Rowell said despite the several coaching changes that he and the other upperclassmen have withstood, Narduzzi helped keep the team together in his first season as head coach.

“Coach Narduzzi built a family and a team, and we’re not, you know, not part of this family anymore,” Rowell said.

In his first season, Narduzzi guided Pitt to an 8-5 finish, its 6-2 conference record marking the team’s best since joining the ACC. Both the departing and first-year Panthers said that record only figures to improve between the freshman talent and the senior leadership.

One of those freshmen, Whitehead, said despite the loss, some individual performances mark signs of encouragement for next season.

“I think we’ll come back very strong and just having a new season, coach Narduzzi’s second year, we’ll be more confident and get off to a good start,” Whitehead said.

Nikki Moriello | Visual Editor

Nikki Moriello | Visual Editor

Pitt junior receiver Tyler Boyd, who mentioned he has not reached a decision yet regarding his NFL draft status, said he’s had his best season yet under Narduzzi’s leadership.

“I’m very happy for the coaching staff that came in and helped me excel and all the opportunities that they gave me,” Boyd said. “Those are the guys that I love playing with, and they’re the reason that I came. I know we’ll have a good enough team to make it to the top level next year, so it’s hard to just skip out on that.”

Between Boyd, Whitehead and Ollison, the departing seniors know they’re leaving Pitt in good shape. Despite the loss, Rowell said each of their individual performances only confirmed that.

“The family is just beginning, with the new guys coming in,” he said.

Narduzzi marked the redshirt seniors’ third head coach in their five years. But he said Pitt has remained together thanks to those upperclassmen, and for that, Pitt’s future is bright.

“They’re never gone and always with us,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll continue getting one step closer.”

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Freshmen performances highlight senior leadership in final Pitt football game