As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. SU will finish its 2020 regular season schedule on November 28 against Pitt.
CONSISTENTLY GOOD, RARELY GREAT
There’s a split among the Pittsburgh fan base with its head coach, Pat Narduzzi.
On the one hand, Narduzzi brought stability to a program that had four head coaches in the span of five years, and has guided them to four winning seasons in his now five-plus years on campus. The Panthers have been steady under his watch, with a 36-29 over record and 24-16 in ACC play, finishing second or better in the Coastal in three separate seasons.
On the other side, Nardizzu has not had a breakthrough year. He’s won the Coastal once, finishing 6-2 in 2018, but the team went 7-7 overall and lost in the Sun Bowl. The Panthers have also maxed out at eight wins under Narduzzi, which is nice, but Pittsburgh has greater ambitions, like the when they went 10-3 in 2009 under Dave Wannstedt.
There was some speculation that Narduzzi might leave for the opening at Michigan State, where he was a former defensive coordinator, when Mark Dantonio retired. But the Spartans hired away Mel Tucker from Colorado, and Narduzzi doubled-down, saying he wanted to win a championship at Pitt.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett looks to build on a 2019 where he completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 3,098 yards, but threw only 13 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He seemed to realize his potential against Eastern Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl, throwing for 361 yards and three touchdowns, with zero interceptions in a 34-30 win.
Pickett will be without his favorite target in 2020, with Maurice Ffrench (96 receptions, 850 yards) now with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. But Taysir Mack (736 yards, three touchdowns) could easily fill into the No. 1 role, and talented sophomores Shocky Jacques-Louis and Jared Wayne are looking to take on bigger roles.
The real question will be from Pitt’s running backs unit. AJ Davis underwhelmed as the team’s top rusher in 2019, amassing only 530 yards and four touchdowns. Vincent Davis led the team in rushing touchdowns, and he’s also back, but the team is hoping that freshman running back Israel Abanikanda, a New York City native and top 500 recruit, can also make inroads.
All-ACC linemen Jimmy Morrissey (center) and Bryce Hargrove (guard) will be key returners on a veteran offensive line that will need to improve on its run blocking. The question will be who starts at right tackle. Hampton grad transfer K.J. Wilson could be the solution there.
AND AN EXPERIENCED DEFENSE
Pitt’s defense should once again be a strength, with eight starters returning.
All-ACC defensive linemen Patrick Jones II and Jaylen Twyman were part of a defense that nearly averaged four sacks per game. And the line will only be helped by Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp, who missed parts of 2019 because of injury. Weaver’s understudy, Deslin Alexandre (5.5 sacks), got plenty of experience as a result.
Phil Campbell III is the most interesting story at linebacker. The senior started his career as a safety before switching to linebacker in his junior season. He finished with 56 tackles and 5.5 sacks, starting nine of 13 game at the star linebacker position. Chase Pine should be the team’s starting middle linebacker after appearing in 11 games, including one start at that position in 2019. He finished with 19 tackles and four TFLs.
In the secondary, Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin form one of the best safety duos in the country, nearly amassing 200 tackles between the two of them last year.
If Narduzzi had a chance for a 10 win season, this would be it.
The non-conference schedule (Miami of Ohio, Marshall, Richmond) starts off easy, and it’s catching Atlantic crossover Florida State in the midst of a coaching change. It also hosts Syracuse, Duke and Virginia Tech, as well as Notre Dame to round out its non-conference schedule.
Narduzzi also has key seniors at quarterback, wide receivers, both sides of the line and in the secondary, and likely his most talented defense during his tenure. A Coastal championship and a major bowl game are not unreasonable expectations for this team.