As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team opponent preview each week over the summer. This week, we’re previewing Syracuse’s matchup with NC State on Nov. 27 with three major storylines.
Can the Panthers Offense Lead the Charge?
The Pitt Athletic department has been investing in the football program for the last six years by giving head coach Pat Narduzzi the funds he needs to hire quality coaches in order to build a winner. Is this the year it finally pays off? We shall see.
The Panthers lost wide receivers coach Chris Beatty to the Los Angeles Rams but replaced him with a promising coach in Brennan Marion. Narduzzi has his most accomplished staff in his tenure, but everything is riding on the offense.
The decision to retain offensive coordinator Mark Whipple will ultimately determine how the Narduzzi era is remembered. Pitt has struggled under Whipple to produce a competent offense despite having elite defenses.
Now Pitt has a fifth year starter at QB coming back in Kenny Pickett with an offensive line the performed well in the final four games of the season. Narduzzi and Whipple have everything they need to put together balance, efficient attack.
It will be the most important aspect of the 2021 campaign.
Replacing Six NFL Draftees
Pitt had six starters drafted this past April, five of which were on the defensive side of the ball.
Fortunately, Narduzzi and company have recruited well on defense, which will allow the backups from last year to step in to starting roles primed to perform.
Expect John Morgan and Deslin Alexander to replace Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver. Brandon Hill stepped in for Paris Ford after the Notre Dame and impressed.
The linebackers will challenge the ACC for the best unit in the conference for most of the year with a 2-deep that can rival every team not named Clemson. The secondary will be replacing three starters and may be the Achilles’ heel of this defense.
That’s a mighty big problem for any ACC team but especially for one that plays man coverage for most of the game. Expect the coaches to focus on this unit a lot throughout fall camp.
The offensive side of the ball only lost one starter, though he was the anchor of the O-line – Jimmy Morrisey. Owen Drexel will look to fill those big shoes with his line mates that dominated Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech to end the season.
The Panthers put together their best offensive games of the season in those 2 games, amassing more than 500 yards in each. Pitt adds transfer Marcus Minor, a two-year starter for Maryland, to the line for added depth.
Pickett will be looking to put up big numbers a year after taking his name out of the NFL draft in order to improve his stock. He will be looking to throw the ball to Jordan Addison and Lucas Krull.
The biggest X-Factor for the Pitt offense will be the performance of Israel Abanikanda, a running back who had a huge performance in the Spring Game. The sophomore from Brooklyn will be looking to challenge Vincent David for the starting role.
» Related: Breaking down Syracuse’s matchup with NC State
Looking For Consistency
The Pitt teams under Narduzzi have never quite put it together for a full season.
Early in the Narduzzi era, the offense outpaced the defense. The last f0ur years have been led by the defense. The ability to be strong in all three units at the same time has not been there for Pitt under Narduzzi.
This campaign looks to be strong offensively with a promising defense.
The Panthers have a real opportunity to solidify their position at the top of the Coastal. It won’t be easy with North Carolina and Miami primed to win the division, but it’s not out of the question.
In order to challenge those two, Pitt will need to do something they haven’t done in the prior six years – show up ready to play 60 minutes of football in all three phases for at least 12 games.
Narduzzi will be judged on his ability to have his team ready to play and the effectiveness of the offense. If he can get those two items working in tandem, it will be a special year in Pittsburgh. If not, the fan base is getting restless.
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