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No Kenny Pickett, no Jordan Addison, no problem for Pitt football? ACC champs look forward

Pat Narduzzi doesn’t want to talk about Jordan Addison anymore because he only wants to talk about the players still on his roster. Not the one who left rather abruptly after going through all of spring ball with the Panthers. Not the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner who would have starred yet again in this offense, albeit with a different quarterback and a new play caller.

“I feel good about where our offense is; obviously, Kenny (Pickett) didn’t do it all by himself,” Narduzzi said. “Nobody else on offense did it all by themselves. It takes a team. I like how we’ve recruited. We’ve got guys who can make plays. It’s like, next up. Let’s go.”

Narduzzi said one of the draws for USC transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis was the returning talent, “not only with the receiver spot but on the O-line.” Yes, Pitt is going to be breaking in a new quarterback because its Heisman Trophy finalist Pickett is off to the NFL. Sure, it has lost stud tight end Lucas Krull to the pros as well. “Then, obviously, the latest departure,” as Narduzzi put it in the wake of Addison’s transfer to USC.

“I’m really not going to get into talking about that situation, to be honest with you,” he added. “I’m worried about the guys that want to play for us. I’m not worried about the ones that want to go somewhere else for whatever reason.”

As for the guys who want to play for Pitt, there’s a ton to like. Most of the roster that won the ACC last year is back, including the entire offensive line, explosive running back Israel Abanikanda, a physical defensive front and good depth in the secondary.

“They’re pretty much replacing their quarterback and a wideout,” said a coach who faced Pitt last season. “That’s it. Everybody else is back.”

It’ll be tough to replicate the success Pitt had a season ago, when it won its first-ever ACC title, finished in the Top 25 for the first time in over a decade and tallied its most wins in a season since Dan Marino played quarterback. Pickett broke a bunch of Marino’s Pitt records and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting. And Pitt extended Narduzzi through 2030.

“Our kids have faith and belief right now that we’re going to win another one,” Narduzzi said.

A new quarterback, a revamped passing attack and a new offensive coordinator all pose interesting questions heading into the season. But so much of what makes Pitt, well, Pitt is still here: a nasty defensive line, a physical offensive line and a blue-collar ethos that focuses on development, not recruiting rankings.

Can Pitt win the Coastal Division in the final year before the ACC goes divisionless? Absolutely. Will the Panthers win the ACC for a second consecutive year? That one is harder to answer, with all that’s back at NC State and Wake Forest (in addition to Clemson still being, you know, Clemson). But Pitt certainly believes it has the pieces to repeat. Now it’s time to see what those pieces can do.

Offense

Kenny Pickett etched his name into Pitt football lore, breaking record after record previously held by Hall of Famer Dan Marino. Pickett was one of the best quarterbacks in the country last season as he led the Panthers to their first-ever ACC title and earned himself a trip to New York City. Those are big shoes to fill for Slovis, a three-year starter at USC who completed 68 percent of his passes while with the Trojans. Pitt coaches think the former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year is the total package, and Slovis has already shown he can win at the Power 5 level. He has not been officially named the starter yet, and the Panthers have another experienced option in redshirt senior Nick Patti, who backed up Pickett and started the Peach Bowl before suffering an injury. Also worth noting: Pitt lost some depth at the position this offseason with the transfers of Davis Beville and Joey Yellen.

The day after Slovis committed to Pitt, all five offensive line starters — including four seniors — announced that they intended to return as a unit for 2022. The group is anchored by left tackle Carter Warren, who has 34 career starts under his belt and was named to the all-ACC second team last season. He’s joined by tackle Gabe Houy, guards Marcus Minor and Jake Kradel and center Owen Drexel. It’s not just the starting five that’s back: All seven offensive linemen who started at least one game for Pitt last season return for 2022. The Panthers coaching staff understands a group like this, filled with tough veteran players, is a luxury. They’ll aim to protect Slovis like they did Pickett, who often found himself with plenty of time and space last season.

They’ll also look to open up a rushing attack that mostly served as a complement to the explosive passing game last season but could lean harder on junior Izzy Abanikanda, the team’s leading returning rusher, top pass catcher out of the backfield and ever-present threat in the return game. But he is just one of four options in the rushing attack. Sophomore Rodney Hammond Jr. became the first Pitt freshman to rush for three touchdowns in the same game in more than a decade. Redshirt junior Daniel Carter dazzled this spring, and coaches are excited about his size and versatility — they note that he could even play some fullback. The unit is rounded out by senior Vincent Davis, who has started 15 games over the past two seasons and led the team in rushing and receiving out of the backfield in 2020. It’s possible the run-pass balance looks a bit different this fall under new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr., who held the same role at Pitt in 2009-10.


Abanikanda’s all-purpose work for the Panthers will be even more crucial without Pickett and Addison. (Brett Davis / USA Today)

The Panthers’ passing game would have revolved around Addison had he stayed, of course. But the cupboard isn’t bare there, either, with senior Jared Wayne and Akron transfer Konata Mumpfield (who was named to The Athletic’s Freshman All-America team in 2021) likely leading the way. Junior Jaylon Barden will also get some run. Pitt’s fourth- and fifth-most productive pass catchers a season ago were tight ends. Lucas Krull is off to the NFL, but sophomore Gavin Bartholomew is continuing on a high-impact trajectory. He had 28 catches and four touchdowns last season, and he should be even more productive this fall.

Key stats to know: Like Pickett with Addison, Kedon Slovis had a favorite target of his own last fall in Drake London, who was one of the best receivers in college football until he suffered a season-ending ankle fracture in late October. So it may be useful to look at Slovis’ production without London as he prepares to pilot a Pitt offense without Addison. According to Pro Football Focus, Slovis was very accurate when targeting players other than London last season, posting a completion percentage and an off-target rate on such throws that would have ranked 13th and 30th in the FBS, respectively. But he and the non-London pass catchers struggled to create big plays, posting a yards-per-attempt average and a 20-yard-completions rate that would have ranked outside the top 90 in the FBS.

Panthers returning production

CategoryPercent returningTop returner

Passing yards

4

Patti, 161

Rushing yards

90

Abanikanda, 651

Receiving yards

36

Wayne, 658

OL starts

100

Warren, 14

Tackles

67

Dennis, 87

Tackles for loss

70

Kancey, 13

Sacks

70

Baldonado, 9

Interceptions

63

Hallett II, 3

Defense

Everything starts up front, which should not be a surprise to anyone who has watched Pitt’s defense in recent years. Last season, the Panthers ranked second nationally in the FBS in sacks per game (3.9), third in tackles for loss per game (8.1) and sixth in rushing defense (89.2 yards per game). Everyone is back, starting with a pair of redshirt senior defensive ends in Deslin Alexandre and Habakkuk Baldonado, a second-team all-ACC selection who led Pitt with nine sacks. They’ll be backed up by John Morgan III, an experienced and excellent pass rusher who is learning to play the run better.

Redshirt senior tackle Calijah Kancey anchors the inside, coming off a year that saw him earn first-team all-ACC honors as well as third-team All-American honors from the Associated Press. Kancey tallied seven sacks and 13 TFLs last season. Other key returnees include redshirt seniors Devin Danielson, David Green and Tyler Bentley. (Bentley was injured early in spring ball but is expected back in time for the season.) Expect to see redshirt juniors Bam Brima and DeAndre Jules in the mix, too.


Baldonado had two sacks in last season’s Week 2 win over Tennessee and didn’t look back. (Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

There are more questions at the linebacker position, but there’s certainty in the middle with SirVocea Dennis, who led Pitt with 87 tackles last season. But this is another spot significantly impacted by departures, most notably Cam Bright, who left for Washington. Coaches believe Notre Dame transfer Shayne Simon could be a potential breakout player this fall after an injury limited his contribution to the Irish in 2021. Senior Brandon George is coming off a strong spring and a productive season spent backing up Dennis, so expect to see him get some run, too. Missouri State transfer Tyler Wiltz, an all-conference player at the FCS level, has one year of eligibility left and will spend it playing outside linebacker at Pitt; sophomore Solomon DeShields and redshirt sophomore Aydin Henningham are expected to compete for a starting spot alongside him. Junior Bangally Kamara had a terrific spring and should have a much bigger role this fall as well at outside linebacker.

Some of the secondary’s struggles last season stemmed from inexperience, and now three starters are back: redshirt senior safety Erick Hallett II, redshirt junior safety Brandon Hill and redshirt senior cornerback Marquis Williams. Senior cornerback AJ Woods has four career starts under his belt, including the Peach Bowl against Michigan State, and should see significant action this fall. Expect redshirt junior MJ Devonshire to make a push for one of those starting corner spots as well, and for junior Rashad Battle to be in the mix there, too. Redshirt senior safety Judson Tallandier II was hurt this spring but should push Hill and, at the very least, provide depth at the safety position. Beyond that, Pitt will need some of its younger players to step into key reserve roles.

Key stat to know: Narduzzi, a defensive guy, has had to get comfortable winning shootouts in the current college football landscape. But although Pitt did give up a lot more yardage through the air than usual, it had success doing what Narduzzi defenses always do: applying a ton of pressure up front. The boom-or-bust nature of that approach shined through in 2021.

Pitt blitzed on 45.5 percent of opponents’ dropbacks last season, highest among Power 5 teams and third-highest in the FBS. On those dropbacks with a blitz, the Panthers sacked the opposing quarterback 12.9 percent of the time, good for 18th in the FBS. But when Pitt didn’t get a sack on those blitzes, it allowed 8.2 yards per attempt (98th in the FBS). And Pitt ranked 72nd in the FBS in opponent red zone touchdown rate last season (59.6 percent), the worst rank for the program since 2016. (All data courtesy of Pro Football Focus and SportsSource Analytics.)

This wasn’t necessarily a huge problem with Pickett under center, but it’s worth noting as the coaching staff looks for areas to improve on that side of the ball. More experience on the back end of the defense can only help.

Special teams

Redshirt junior kicker Sam Scarton returns, following a third-team all-ACC season that saw him convert 17 of 21 field goals (81 percent) and 69 of 72 PATs (96 percent) in his first season as the team’s starter. The walk-on set a Pitt scoring record with 120 points on the season and ranked 13th nationally. Look for true freshman (and Aussie) Sam Vander Haal to take over punting duties and for the explosive Abanikanda to be a focal point in the return game once again.

Opposing scouting report

A coach that faced Pitt last season astutely observed that Pitt is clearly “at a high point.” The Panthers just won more games than they have in any season since 1981, and they just won the ACC for the first time since joining the league in 2013. The coach noted that last year’s offense was explosive and the defense was young at key positions.

“But their front had a ton of experience, and they just got better as the year went on,” the coach said. “They were constantly physical. I use the word ‘constantly’ because it doesn’t happen with every place. A lot of time, you get their 1s and you get them tired, and their 2s aren’t as good. It’s the consistency of the physicality that makes them unique.

“They play hard every single play. Always. And it just wears you down. It’s just a matter of time. … You’ve got to be mentally going into that game and know that your quarterback is going to have to stand in there knowing he’s going to get hit every time he throws the ball.”

There’s the added mental challenge — both for coaches and quarterbacks — of thinking about what you’ll face if you end up off schedule. Pitt ranked 14th nationally and second in the ACC in third-down conversion rate, allowing opponents to convert just 33.5 percent of third down opportunities.

“If they get you to third down, you’re done,” the coach said. “They’re pretty standard on first and second down, like a lot of teams in the country, schematically. Then, when they get to third down, it’s like a whole new world of hell for an offensive coordinator to try to figure out. Stay out of third-and-long and you have a chance.

“You’re in their wheelhouse. Trying to figure out where they’re coming is next to impossible.”

How the Panthers recruited from 2019 to 2022

In the past four years, Pitt ranks 50th nationally in average recruiting ranking, good for eighth in the ACC. For Narduzzi, it’s always been more about recruiting the right personalities and work ethic. This program loves to emphasize its blue-collar approach to developing talent, and it has sent quite a few players off to the NFL.

“We’re not looking for stars,” Narduzzi said. “Some people are looking for stars, like, ‘This is a four-star, five-star guy.’ We’re looking for guys that fit our program. It comes down to character and intelligence. Some people are just looking at athletic ability. We’re looking at guys who are selfless, who are smart. And team players. There are a lot of individuals out there in this game who are worried about themselves. We have a team attitude.

“We don’t necessarily win with the most athletic guys, the best supposed players in the country. We look at this just a little differently. Evaluation is everything.”

Narduzzi said he doesn’t view recruiting “as race to see how many commitments we can get and say that we’re done recruiting. I’d rather be the last one done than the first one done who is then going, ‘Wow, that guy is better than what we’ve got already,’ so you’re trying to get rid of guys from your class. Just taking your time and have patience in the process. There are going to be players available. Get the best players available that fit what you’re doing offensively and defensively.”

In the transfer portal

Jordan Addison was arguably the highest-profile transfer of the offseason, even beyond the frenzy of quarterback movement. That was largely due to the timing: His transfer came just before the May 1 deadline for players to enter the portal and ensure their immediate eligibility this fall. Adding to the drama were overt and subtle accusations of tampering, as the transfer came weeks after spring ball ended and months after the coaching changes at USC (which hired Lincoln Riley) and at Pitt (which saw offensive coordinator Mark Whipple leave for Nebraska). For all the NIL and transfer portal thinkpieces Addison’s decision has launched, it’s undeniably a big loss for Pitt, which hasn’t lost may high-profile transfers in Narduzzi’s tenure.

Pitt’s most significant offensive additions are its new quarterback-receiver tandem of Slovis and Mumpfield. The Panthers lost a key linebacker in Cam Bright (who went to Washington) but added a linebacker they’re excited about in Shayne Simon (who came from Notre Dame).


Narduzzi hadn’t won more than eight games in a season at Pitt until his program’s 11-3 breakout last year. (William Howard / USA Today)

Impact of coaching changes

Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple directed Pickett’s record-setting season, then left for Nebraska. To replace him, Narduzzi brought back former Pitt OC/QB coach Frank Cignetti Jr., who had spent the previous two seasons at Boston College and worked under Panthers head coach Dave Wannstedt in 2009-10. Cignetti has considerable NFL experience, working with some of the best quarterbacks in the league. He is expected to lean on the rushing attack more than Whipple did, which makes sense considering the timing. Whipple inherited a roster that was losing its two top running backs and needed to emphasize the passing game; Cignetti walked into a team that is losing the program’s most prolific passer ever and its star receiver while returning four running backs the staff feels good about. Receivers coach Brennan Marion left to become the passing game coordinator at Texas and was replaced by former Rutgers receivers coach Tiquan Underwood.

Schedule 

DateTeamSite

Sept. 1

Home

Sept. 10

Home

Sept. 17

Away

Sept. 24

Rhode Island

Home

Oct. 1

Home

Oct. 8

Home

Oct. 22

Away

Oct. 29

Away

Nov. 5

Home

Nov. 12

Away

Nov. 19

Home

Nov. 26

Away

Final assessment

The program is in a great place, coming off its best season since the Dan Marino era. The Panthers return so much of the roster that won the ACC, but the areas they need to shore up are critical ones. The results of this offseason’s work could show up as nothing more than minor growing pains, or they could be the difference in a solid-but-nothing-special year coming up well short of an ACC title repeat. We’ll have a better sense of that ceiling by mid-September once the revamped offense navigates two key nonconference tests against West Virginia and Tennessee.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series previewing Power 5 and top Group of 5 teams for the 2022 college football season.

(Top photo of SirVocea Dennis: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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