Pittsburgh Panthers — 2019 Syracuse Football preview

As we countdown to kickoff in August, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will continue its ACC schedule when it hosts Pitt on Oct. 18.

NEW OFFENSE

Pittsburgh’s offense is in for a revamp this offseason.

For starters, head coach Pat Narduzzi, unsatisfied with his anemic offense last season, fired offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and replaced him with UMass head coach Mark Whipple.

It was hard to blame Narduzzi, with the Panthers losing their final three games of the 2018 season while scoring a combined 26 points. For the season, Pitt finished 94th in the FBS at 25.6 points per game.

Pitt’s loss against Stanford in the Sun Bowl was particularly frustrating, with the Panthers amassing just 344 yards and going scoreless in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Kenny Pickett was one of the reasons for the offensive futility, as he completed only 11 of his 29 passes for 136 yards.

It’s Narduzzi’s hope that Whipple can improve on Pickett’s sophomore season, especially in his accuracy. Pickett finished with a 58.1 completion percentage last season, though he did throw 12 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

“Mark Whipple is truly one of the best teachers of offensive football in the country — college and pro,” Narduzzi said in a statement. “His track record working with quarterbacks is simply outstanding and I know that positional group will really grow under his influence.”

It’s actually Whipple’s second stint in the city of Pittsburgh. From 2004-06, he was the quarterbacks coach for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, starting from when Ben Roethlisberger was a rookie. Roethlisberger went on to become the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

After a stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, Whipple was the offensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes and the quarterbacks coach for the Cleveland Browns before taking the head coaching position at UMass from 2014-18.

“I have known and respected Pat Narduzzi for a very long time, so it is an incredibly exciting opportunity to join his coaching staff at Pitt,” Whipple said in a statement. “He is building something very special at a place that has such a rich and inspiring football tradition. I am really looking forward to meeting our players and hitting the ground running in preparation for spring ball.”

WHO TO WATCH FOR

Speaking of spring ball, Whipple’s fingerprints were all over the new offensive scheme during Pitt’s annual spring game.

The split squads combined to throw 58 times, with Pickett showing improved accuracy, completing 10 of his 14 passes. Early enrollee Davis Beville was also sharp, completing 13 of 17 passes for 157 yards and a score.

» Related: Previewing Syracuse’s matchup against NC State

The two spread the wealth, with eight different receivers having at least 15 receiving yards.

That should be a familiar theme going forward, with the Panthers needing to replace 1,000 yard rushers Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. In their absence, the running attack was non-existent, combining for 11 yards. The numbers were even uglier with sacks included (-32 yards).

Junior AJ Davis figures to be one of the players to fill in for Ollison and Hall, though he has been used sparingly in his first two seasons at Pitt. While he appeared in nine games in 2018, he only rushed 32 times for 134 yards.

Redshirt sophomore Todd Sibley Jr. will also be given a shot, though he’s only logged one collegiate carry and has been mostly appeared as a special teamer. Other running backs that will get a look include incoming four-star recruit Mychale Salahuddin and sophomore V’Lique Carter, a converted defensive back.

The wide receivers likely to benefit from Whipple’s new aerial attack are Maurice Ffrench (35 receptions, 515 yards, six TDs in 2018) and Taysir Mack (25/557/1). Both shined in the spring game, with Mack leading all receivers with 57 yards and Ffrench hauling in seven catches.

On the defensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh will be replacing three of its top four linebackers from 2018. To give you a perspective on how much experience the Panthers lost in Oluwaseun Idowu, Quintin Wirginis and Elijah Zeise, the trio dated back to the Paul Chryst era.

Cam Bright, Phil Campbell and Elias Reynolds are among the group of players being considered to replace them. Reynolds is the most experienced of the group, with the junior already having seven starts under his belt.

Campbell has appeared in the most games, 20, but mainly on special teams and at safety. Still, Campbell has drawn rave reviews during spring practice, with Narduzzi praising his “cat” like speed.

The secondary has far more experience, with safety Damar Hamlin and cornerback Dane Jackson leading the unit. Both were All-ACC Honorable Mentions last year, with Hamlin leading the team with 90 tackles to go with two interceptions. Jackson led Pitt in pass breakups (14) and forced fumbles (4).

The defensive line should be a strength as well, with junior Rashad Weaver coming off a season where he led Pitt in sacks (6.5) and tackles for a loss (14).

PREDICTION

While Pat Narduzzi, now in his fifth year, has brought stability to a program that once had four coaches in the span of two years, the Pittsburgh fan base is still waiting for a breakthrough season.

He started with two eight-win seasons, but has only had five and seven wins in the last two years. While the Panthers did win the Coastal Division in 2018, the program has not finished a season ranked inside the top 25 since 2009, and has not had a bowl victory since 2013.

As for the game itself, Syracuse has struggled against Pitt, including a 44-37 loss at Heinz Field last year. But this game is in the Carrier Dome, and with an offensive in transition, I see the Orange pulling out a 28-24 win.

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2468 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also worked for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @ChengWes.