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Military Bowl loss highlights areas of improvement for next season

Dontez+Ford+will+be+a+key+contributor+next+season+on+offense.+%0ANikki+Moriello+%7C+Visual+Editor
Dontez Ford will be a key contributor next season on offense. 
Nikki Moriello | Visual Editor

Dontez Ford will be a key contributor next season on offense. Nikki Moriello | Visual Editor

Dontez Ford will be a key contributor next season on offense. Nikki Moriello | Visual Editor

By Jeremy Tepper / Senior Staff Writer

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A 44-28 loss to Navy confirmed one fact: The Pitt football team couldn’t conquer high-caliber talent this season.

Still, Pat Narduzzi’s first year as the Panthers’ head coach was an unmitigated success. An 8-5 record might not seem too impressive on paper, but eight wins represents stability in the Pitt program. Even more, the program displayed an upward moving arc, showing signs of a dominant defense and an efficient offense and finishing with its best season since 2010-2011.

The Military Bowl loss continued season-long trends, in which the Panthers allowed several key big plays in losses but leaned on their playmakers in successful scoring efforts.

The next step is beating those really good teams and, of course, Pitt becoming a consistent winning team itself, not just a .500 one. Pitt could reach that level next season, though some question marks dot that path to greater success.

The biggest riddle follows the loss of Tyler Boyd, who will enter the NFL Draft. Boyd finished as Pitt’s leading receiver, second rusher and overall top playmaker. Said simply: He’ll be tough to replace.

In a wide receiver corps full of players that revealed inconsistency game to game, Boyd was the sole receiver certain to always show up. The closest player to match that consistency was Dontez Ford, Pitt’s second leading receiver last year with 505 yards.

The sure-handed Ford would usually catch the ball when it came his way, but he just doesn’t have the look of a No. 1 receiver, settling as more of a solid No. 2.

Pitt’s best chance at a top receiver comes in the form of junior college transfer Juwann Winfree, who played a year at Coffeyville Community College. Winfree also played one season at Maryland, catching 11 passes for 158 yards as a freshman, but he decided to transfer after dealing with multiple suspensions for violating Maryland’s code of conduct.

The 6-2 Winfree will immediately be Pitt’s most talented receiver, showcasing plenty of speed, good size and open field shiftiness. No one player can replace Boyd, so receivers such as Elijah Zeise, Zach Challingsworth, Quadree Henderson, Tre Tipton and incoming freshman Ruben Flowers will have to step up their contributions. Still, Pitt will need one receiver to emerge as its primary, dependable playmaker for its passing game to operate.

The passing offense, though, will benefit from a potentially excellent rushing attack. Pitt will almost certainly return its starter in Qadree Ollison, as well as Darrin Hall, who showed flashes of talent as a freshman. Ollison was the ACC Rookie of the Year and should continue to improve, as should Hall. They’ll also have Jordan Whitehead, primarily a safety who sporadically sparked the rushing attack with speed and big play ability.

Those three will create a more than formidable rushing offense. The potential return of James Conner can make the attack special. It’s odd to think that Conner — who’s receiving chemotherapy for Hodgkin lymphoma — could return to play next year, but there’s precedent.

Eric Berry, a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, returned to the field in a similar period of time after being diagnosed with the same type of cancer. Berry resumed playing at a high level, so there’s reason to believe Conner’s play would hold steady.

Still, no matter Conner’s impact, Pitt won’t reach that next big step without a top-notch defense. Narduzzi made do with what he had on the roster, turning a formerly awful defense into the 27th ranked unit in the country. Against high-level teams, though, there was a noticeable talent difference.

Facing lesser teams, Pitt generated plenty of pressure, which usually determined its success. Against teams like Notre Dame and North Carolina, Pitt was just a light breeze.

Pitt will lose defensive tackles Darryl Render, Mark Scarpinato and K.K. Mosley-Smith, and no particular promising options exist on the roster to replace them. Besides returning starter Tyrique Jarrett, Justin Moody and Jeremiah Taleni will likely see substantial playing time at tackle, though both have played minimally and offered little inspiration.

Luckily for Narduzzi, there’s a chance that defensive end Ejuan Price will return, given he applies for a sixth year of eligibility due to missing two seasons from injury. Price led the team with 12 sacks last season and would find help from Allen Edwards and Dewayne Hendrix. Edwards redshirted this past season, while Hendrix had to sit out as a transfer, but both could add a much-needed punch in pass rushing.

Elsewhere, Pitt will see only one linebacker graduate in starter Nicholas Grigsby. The linebacker group noticeably lacked speed last year, but Anthony McKee and Saleem Brightwell, who redshirted as true freshmen, can help in athleticism, as can incoming freshmen Kaezon Pugh and Chase Pine.

In the secondary, Pitt loses just starting corner Lafayette Pitts to graduation. Pitts was only decent last year, so he doesn’t leave much of a hole. Similar to the linebackers, though, this group lacks playmakers.

Whitehead has the look of a star, and corner Avonte Maddox should continue to be a solid starter. But to thrive, Pitt needs playmakers in the backfield for the defense, such as local prospects Damar Hamlin and Khaleke Hudson, who have Pitt in the mix for their commitments.

Ultimately, there are a number of “if’s” lining the way to national prominence. These are realistic, but uncertain nonetheless. There is no doubt, though, that Narduzzi has the Pitt program on the track to becoming an ACC contender. That’s not a matter of if, but when.

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Military Bowl loss highlights areas of improvement for next season