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What We Learned About Pitt Football

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The Panthers recently concluded their second spring under head coach Pat Narduzzi. Pitt entered the spring with several question marks. Which were answered and which will linger into the summer? Read on.

Q: Has someone stepped up to replace departed wide receiver Tyler Boyd?
A: Boyd, Pitt’s all-time leading receiver, was responsible for 42.3 of Pitt’s receptions over the past two seasons and 44.7 percent of the Panthers passing yards in that same span.

“A lot of balls went to him, which they should have. That’s the way it works when you have a great player,” said new offensive coordinator Matt Canada of Boyd’s impact on the offense. “That doesn’t mean everybody else isn’t capable… There are balls that need to go somewhere.”

None of the Panthers’ top three returning receivers were on the field this spring, however. Dontez Ford and Zach Challingsworth missed most or all of the practices with injuries while Elijah Zeise was moved to the linebacker.

Ford will start once he’s healthy, but coaches are still searching for another player to step up. Jester Weah, Quadree Henderson, Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Tre Tipton have battled their ways to the top of the depth chart with Ford and Challingsworth sidelines.

Weah has been in this position before.  At 6-3, 205-pounds, with good speed and legitimate ACC-level talent, he also has the highest ceiling of the group. A lack of consistency—particularly in the form of dropped passes—has plagued him throughout his career, however. He seems to be progressing, and he’ll have a chance to make an impact in Saturday's spring game – although time could be running out for the redshirt junior.

“He understands how important this spring is and how important next fall is,” wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman said of Weah. “He’s made great strides from the fall to the spring through winter conditioning… The only things we need to clean up are some routes and techniques.”

Q. Who will step in for Lafayette Pitts at cornerback?
A: Graduated cornerback Lafayette Pitts was not an all-ACC performer, and the Woodland Hills graduate is a fringe NFL prospect at best. He did, however, start 51 games over the past four seasons and was a respected leader by his teammates and coaches alike.

“Fifty starts are always going to be hard to replace,” cornerbacks coach Renaldo Hill said. “But I think that the guys that we have out there competing understand that there is an opportunity.”

Returning starter Avonte Maddox has taken on more of a leadership role and will likely start at one corner spot. The other position is still up for grabs.

Redshirt senior Ryan Lewis and sophomore Phillipie Motley shared reps this spring in front of redshirt freshmen Malik Henderson and Dane Jackson. Defensive coordinator Josh Conklin indicated late in the spring that the more experienced Lewis held a slight edge over the younger Motley.

Hill didn’t hesitate to mention that he would be willing to play a true freshman at cornerback if none of the returning players were up to the task.

Highly-touted recruit Damar Hamlin of Pittsburgh Central Catholic leads a trio of incoming cornerbacks that also includes Florida's Henry Miller and Brashear’s Therran Coleman.

“We’ve got some incoming guys that are going to be coming in the fall,” Hill said. “We’re going to take a good look at them so we tell our guys that spring is important.”

Q. Has the unsettled situation at linebacker been resolved?
A: Nicholas Grigsby is the only starting linebacker Pitt lost, but injuries to three players expected to make an impact—senior Bam Bradley, junior Quintin Wirginis and redshirt freshman Anthony McKee—have left the Panthers dangerously thin at the position. To make up for the lack of bodies, Narduzzi moved sophomores safeties Jalen Williams and Oluwaseun Idowu, as well as sophomore wide receiver Elijah Zeiss, to linebacker.

Veterans Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara are solid if unremarkable, but their consistency will most likely earn them plenty of playing time at the “mike” and “money” linebacker positions. The third linebacker spot, a hybrid position known as the “star” is still in flux.

Bradley will return to the money, while Wirginis will play mike. That leaves the newcomers – Zeiss, Williams and Idowu – to battle it out until McKee joins the fray this summer.

“I think that they are all capable,” Conklin said. “As you look at them, they are all transfers – either transplants from safety or wideout, and I think they are all capable athletically, each one. They all have their demons to work through.”

McKee, a highly-touted recruit from Ohio whom Narduzzi landed late in the recruiting process last year, may have the highest ceiling of any linebacker on the roster. Zeise led the team in tackles with eight in the spring game. But whether or not either is actually an answer remains to be seen.

Q. Will Canada be successful in Pittsburgh?
A: As former NC State offensive coordinator Matt Canada takes on that same role at Pitt, there is a lot to like about the way his 2016 offense appears to be taking shape. Even though several offensive linemen have missed spring drills due to various injuries, the play of Alex Bookser and John Guy should give Pitt plenty of depth once Alex Officer and Jaryd Jones-Smith return to health. Brian O’Neill and NFL prospects Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty give the Panthers an impressive group of seven capable linemen.

The team has a veritable embarrassment of riches at running back. The ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, Qadree Ollison, returns, as does sophomore Darrin hall and junior Rachid Ibrahim, who missed 2015 with an Achilles injury. Of course, the potential inspirational return of James Connor from his battle with cancer is a story that will make waves across the entire college football world. In addition, returning starter Nate Peterman is back at quarterback.

All of these positives, however, will be challenged by the fact that the entire offense is transitioning to Canada’s new system. While he has had varying degrees of success, breaking in a new coordinator is always a challenge.

“Things are different because there’s new terminology,” Narduzzi explained. “We didn’t hire a guy that came in with the exact same terminology. I think it would be a mistake to hire a guy and say, ‘Come in and use the exact same thing we used a year ago.’”

Canada is the third offensive coordinator in as many years at Pitt. He is also the third coordinator in three years for Peterman.

“Football is football, like I always say,” Peterman said of the new offense. “But we just have to get fluent in his language of football and his language of offense.”

Additionally, the group of young receivers battling to replace Tyler Boyd must do so while learning a new scheme. This group has appeared challenged at times this spring and their progress over the summer will be vital to the offensive chances this fall.

Q. What newcomer has the potential to make the biggest impact this fall?
A. There are plenty of freshmen who could get on the field early – defensive linemen Patrick Jones, Keyshon Camp, Zach Gilbert, Amir Watts and Rasheed Wheeler, cornerbacks Theran Coleman and Damar Hamlin, receivers Maurice Ffrench and Ruben Flowers, or athlete George Hill – but until those get to campus this summer, no one knows how or where they’ll fit in. For now, the newcomer who has made the biggest impact at spring camp has been defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, a 6-4, 270-pound transfer from Tennessee.

Hendrix went to Tennessee in 2014 as a prize recruit from Illinois. It didn’t work out with the Volunteers and he transferred to Pitt last year, sitting out the 2015 season. So far, the change of scenery has been a positive for Hendrix and the Panthers.

“He’s got all the skill sets to be an important player for us, schematically as well,” said defensive coordinator Josh Conklin.

“He has a lot of raw talent and shows a lot of good things,” said linebacker Mike Caprara. “It’s encouraging to watch, as more of an X’s and O’s guy. If you can get him in the playbook a bit more, to understand it where it becomes a habit, then he can be a beast.”

If Hendrix plays at the level the Pitt coaches believe he can reach, he can impact the entire defense. It’s easy to envision the tandem of Ejuan Price and Hendrix at defensive end as one of the more disruptive duos in the ACC.

The emergence of Hendrix at end has allowed coaches to move Shakir Soto from end to tackle, a switch that gives Pitt more athleticism inside as well as outside. While they still need to find quality depth, the pairings of Hendrix and Price on the edge, with Soto and Tyrique Jarrett inside, has the potential to give Pitt a formidable front line.

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