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Tuesday August 16 2022
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Pitt Six Pack: Spring Practice

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The Pat Narduzzi Era enters its second season at Pitt when the Panthers hit the field for spring drills this week. Here are half a dozen issues worth watching over the next four weeks.

1. The Boyd Void – The departure of Tyler Boyd leaves a gaping void at receiver. Senior Dontez Ford returns after starting 10 games and leading the team in yards per catch (19.4), but there are plenty of questions behind him. Junior Zach Challingsworth and sophomores Elijah Zeise, Quadree Henderson, Tre Tipton and Jaquaun Davidson (19 combined catches in 2015) have a leg up entering spring practice, but sophomore and Gentry Ivery get their first shots at active duty. A pair of upperclassmen could be wild cards. Junior Jester Weah—brimming with talent, size and speed but held back by inconsistency—and senior Chris Wuestner—injured all of last season—may get their last real chances to contribute. Junior college transfer Rafael Araujo-Lopes, who redshirted last year, has the potential to be a difference maker.

2. Transfers Get Second Chances – Illinois defensive end Dewayne Hendrix was one of the most coveted prospects in 2013 before signing with Tennessee. He played in seven games as a true freshman for the Volunteers before sitting out last season after his transfer to Pitt. Hendrix will compete for a starting job at defensive end.

UCLA transfer Chris Clark was considered one of the nation’s top tight end recruits a year ago. Clark made commitments to both Michigan and North Carolina before eventually signing with the Bruins. He lasted just one game in Westwood, however, and decided to transfer to Syracuse. Then the Orange pulled their scholarship offer and now Clark is enrolled at Pitt. The NCAA is expected to rule on his eligibility soon.

3. Oh Canada – Highly-respected veteran offensive coordinator Jim Chaney lasted just one year at Pitt and has been replaced by recently-fired NC State OC Matt Canada. The Wolfpack had plenty of success scoring points and moving the football under Canada, but when quarterback Jacoby Brissett failed to take major steps forward in his senior season, Canada identified as the fall guy and was cut loose. Canada will inherit a veteran offensive line and a deep group of running backs. What he does with the passing game, however, will go a long way toward measuring his success in his first season at Pitt.

4. Drawing a Line – Despite losing center and captain Artie Rowell, the Panthers front five will be big, strong and experienced.

Junior Alex Officer—the team’s starting center in 2014—will move back to the middle of the line after spending last season at guard. Senior Dorian Johnson, on the brink of a potential NFL career, will return at left guard, and three-year starting tackle Adam Bisnowaty is also a lock to be among the starting five. Bisnowaty could return at left tackle, or he could move inside and join Johnson at guard – a position he played during portions of the 2014 season.

The other two spots will be filled by some combination of Alex Bookser, Brian O’Neill or Jaryd Jones-Smith. O’Neill or Bookser will get their chances to lay claim to a spot at tackle since Jones-Smith is expected to be slowed by the torn ACL that cost him the 2015 season. Bookser is also a candidate to start at right guard. Sophomore Mike Herndon could also be in the mix at guard.

While the line is not yet settled, options and depth are two things the Panthers have that many teams lack.

5. Standing Pat – The honeymoon is over. Not just for Pat Narduzzi and the fans, who are expecting results, but for the players and their head coach. Narduzzi's no-nonsense approach will likely run some more players off after spring practice, as is almost always the case after a new coach has settled in. By the time the 2016 spring game has been played, Narduzzi's paw prints will be all over these Panthers.

6. Conner Strong – All eyes will be on 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner, who missed the 2015 season with a knee injury before being diagnosed with Hogkins lymphoma in December. The Erie native will continue undergo a brutal series of chemotherapy treatments through May and won’t participate in spring drills. Conner has remained as active as his treatments allow, however, and his presence has motivated his teammates and coaches. He is targeting a return for Pitt’s opener against Villanova in September, but a Conner appearance at any time in 2016 will be a major victory. "He’s going to be 1-0 before we even get to Villanova," Narduzzi said.

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