For the University of Pittsburgh Panther football team it took 40 years to figure out a way to become one of college football’s preeminent teams. Now they almost cracked the final top ten, won 11 games and an ACC Championship the challenge for coach Pat Narduzzi and his squad was to figure out a way to secure a spot in the top 25 on an annual basis. Have they figured out a way to do that??? Perhaps they just might have.
The first and most important thing Pitt had to do was replace their Heisman runner-up quarterback Kenny Pickett. After two solid seasons Pickett surprisingly decided to take advantage of a new NCAA rule that gave every athlete a shot at one more season due to COVID. Could the tutelage of Mark Whipple improve Pickett’s draft prospects? The answer was a resounding yes.
Perhaps a late round prospect following the 2020 season Kenny turned in the greatest season a Panther quarterback ever produced with 4,319 yards and a 42-7 touchdown-interception ratio. He became a first-round pick of the team that shares the UPMC practice facility on the southside with Pitt, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Off Kenny went, along with Whipple who signed the highest ever assistant coach contract with Nebraska at $875,000 in the off-season. Frank Cignetti, whom was the offensive coordinator at Pitt in 2009-2010, is back and ready to make the offense more well-rounded. At quarterback Nick Patti, who played well in the Peach Bowl before breaking his collarbone, and Kedon Slovis were vying to replace Pickett. After a tremendous freshman campaign at USC Slovis struggled the previous two seasons before transferring to Pitt. According to Sports Illustrated Slovis attended the Manning Passing Academy and was phenomenal. He secured the starting job with the Panthers and there is hope he can return to his freshman production.
In the off-season Pitt lost Biletnikoff Award Winner Jordan Addison in what was reported to be a substantial NIL deal with USC. While weakened without Addison, the cupboard is not bare. They added freshman All-American Konata Mumpield from Akron to go with a solid core that includes Bub Means and Jared Wayne. Atr Tight End Gavin Bartholomew will replace Lucus Krull who was effective at times but dropped more than his share of catchable passes.
Pitt sports a deep if not spectacular stable of running backs led by Isreal Abanikanda, who had a team high 651 yards and 5.3 per carry average last season. Also returning are Vincent Davis (593, 4.2), Rodney Hammond (504, 4.9) and Notre Dame transfer C’Bo Flemister. This group Narduzzi loves and will be called upon more by Cignetti to contribute than by his predecessor.
During the off-season those offensive linemen that were ready to leave campus decided to comeback for one last campaign so then squad will have a deep crew led by seniors Owen Drexel, Gabe Houy, Carter Warren (a third-team Steele pre-season All-American at tackle), Marcus Minor and junior Jake Kradel. This solid crew is ranked 17th in the nation by Phil Steele’s 2022 preview.
If Pitt is to remain an ACC title contender, it will be led by a defensive line that continually leads the defense to the top of the national sack leader boards. This year it will once again be one of the best in the country as Steele ranks them as the second-best unit in the land behind Clemson. The crew of David Green, Devin Danielson, DeAndre Jules, Calijah Kancey and Devin Bentley will cause opponents fits as usual, with Cancey being named on several pre-season All-American lists).
The Panthers weakest area on defense will be at linebacker, although Steele thinks they will be more of an average crew in the country and ranks them at 49th with Bangally Kamara, SirVocea Dennis and Shayne Simon leading the way. In the defensive backfield AJ Woods, Brandon Hill, Erick Hatlett II and Marquis Williams will also be solid if not spectacular as Steele ranks the unit 24th in the country.
One surprise in the off-season is that Narduzzi tabbed red-shirt sophomore Ben Sauls to take over for incumbent Sam Scarton. Freshman Sam Vander Haar, from Melbourne, is slated to punt.
Now the burning question is can Pitt maintain its newfound success? The answer could come after the first two games against West Virginia and Tennessee at home. If they start out 2-0 there is a chance they could be sitting undefeated when they travel to Miami on November 26th to take on their only ranked opponent at this point and time of the season. Pitt is talented enough to win the Backyard Brawl and defeat the Volunteers but under Narduzzi they do have the penchant to lose the game that everyone has them winning. Last year the head coach found a way to rally his troops after an embarrassing loss against Western Michigan and his players, for the most part, seem to love to play for him. I don’t see them going undefeated into Miami but I think a 9-2 mark at that point could be realistic, especially if Slovis is ready for a spectacular season.