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College Football: Pitt Preview

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The return of James Conner after his battle with cancer has the 2016 Pitt Panthers fired up and primed to make a run in the ACC Coastal Division.

The 2016 Panthers must move forward without their all-time leading receiver. All-ACC talent Tyler Boyd is now catching passes in Cincinnati for the NFL’s Bengals, leaving Pitt with a huge void at wide receiver. But other than the loss of Boyd, the Panthers return a plethora of talent. With the return of running back James Conner after a successful battle with cancer, a punishing offensive line and a veteran defense, Pitt looks to compete for the Coastal Division title this fall.

“When you look at a year ago, we had 11 seniors; this year we have 20,” said head coach Pat Narduzzi. “I think we've got a great senior class. When you talk about a great football team, I think you have to have a great senior class. You have to have a class that has leadership skills, that's going to take the bull by the horn, or the Panther by the ears, try to get things done. To me, you're only as good as your seniors play.”

One of those seniors Narduzzi is looking to for leadership is quarterback Nathan Peterman. After taking over the starting position in Week 3 last year, Peterman finished second in the ACC in completion percentage (61.5), while throwing for 2,287 yards and 20 touchdowns.

But Peterman and the Panthers will have their work cut out in the passing game with the loss of Boy, who finished the season with 91 receptions—65 more than the second-leading receiver—926 yards and six receiving touchdowns.  

New offensive coordinator Matt Canada said senior Dontez Ford will be the leader of a young group of receivers trying to fill the void. Ford had 26 catches for 505 yards (a team-leading 19.7 yards per catch) and two touchdowns in 2015. 

“There are probably five, with [Dontez] Ford as the leader,” said Canada. “Quadree [Henderson] and [Jester] Weah are doing a great job. Rafael [Araujo-Lopes] is playing very well and Tre Tipton has really done a good job. Those five guys have separated themselves.”

Freshman Aaron Mathews, from Boyd’s Clairton High School, came on strong near the end of camp and earned himself a spot in the Panthers’ two-deep at the position.

Despite the battle at receiver, the biggest question for the Panthers concerns Conner. He missed the 2015 season with a sprained MCL, and endured an offseason of chemotherapy treatments as he fought Hodgkin's lymphoma. A year earlier, he was 2014 ACC Player of Year with 1,765 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns.

So what can Pitt expect from the redshirt junior this season?

“I guess that's the $100 million question,” said Narduzzi. “I expect nothing but his best performance. When you look at what James has done, what he's been, what he's been through, the size of that heart inside his chest cavity, you know, I think you're going to get his best effort.”
Pitt Ejuan Price
Conner enters the season at the top of a depth chart that could be among the deepest in the ACC.

In Conner’s absence last year, Qadree Ollison stepped up in a big way. Ollison rushed for 1,121 yards which put him fourth in the ACC, and totaled 11 touchdowns en route to earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors. Sophomore Darrin Hall and junior Rachid Ibrahim also return, and freshman Chawntez Moss made a major impact in camp.

In front of that talented group of backs is a deep and versatile offensive line. The left side of the line is anchored by two NFL prospects in tackle Adam Bisnowaty and guard Dorian Johnson. Alex Officer, who started at center in 2014 and at right guard last year, returns to the middle with sophomore Alex Bookser next to him and Brian O’Neill returning at right tackle. Senior John Guy and junior Jaryd Jones-Smith add veteran depth.

On the other side of the ball, safety Jordan Whitehead leads the secondary. The 2015 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year recorded 109 tackles, the most in program history. Sometimes deployed at linebacker, Whitehead brings a versatility to the Panthers defense that not many teams have.  

Whitehead has big plans on what he wants to improve on for the upcoming season.

“Last year I was ‘iffy’ on a couple of things, but this year I’m hoping for no mistakes on the field,” said Whitehead. “Last year I was a step away from—who knows? —ten interceptions, five interceptions. Just a step away, so that little step makes a difference.

Veterans Terrish Webb, Reggie Mitchell and Avonte Maddox anchor the rest of the secondary, while senior Ryan Lewis will break into the starting lineup for the first time. A veteran group of linebackers, led by senior Matt Galombos, also returns.

Pitt ranked 16th in the nation and third in the ACC in sacks with 37 one season ago. A large part of that total was due to defensive end Ejuan Price and his 11.5 sacks. Price returns and will be paired with a new partner on the other end, Tennessee-transfer Dewayne Hendrix. The coaching staff has high hopes for Hendrix, but there is little depth in the middle, where Shakir Soto has shifted to tackle and will be paired with Tyrique Jarrett.

The ACC always presents Pitt with some tough games, but after opening with Villanova in Week 1, Pitt faces Penn State, Oklahoma State and North Carolina back-to-back-to-back. November features back-to-back contests against Miami and Clemson. Only Penn State is at home among that group.

“We're going to find out really where we are as a football team,” said Narduzzi.  “We have some great games in the ACC. We're going to really find out.”

THE PRESSURE IS ON: NATHAN PETERMAN (QB). With Tyler Boyd gone, Peterman will need to establish the passing game and his receivers. If he doesn’t, the Panthers will struggle with teams stPitt Nate Petermanacking the box.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: DEWAYNE HENDRIX (DE). The Tennessee transfer will play after sitting out last season per NCAA rules. Coaches and players have noted of Hendrix’s strong work ethic in training camp and the itch he has after sitting out last year.

TOP NEWCOMER: DANE JACKSON (CB). Narduzzi said Jackson played well the last week of training camp. Jackson, who was redshirted last year, enters the season behind Maddox but could see more playing time as the season wears on.

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