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Pat Narduzzi has Pitt's demons on the ropes

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The Panthers have a legit path to ACC contention, and there's a whole lot to like about this program. This is Bill C's daily preview series, working its way through every 2016 team. Catch up on the ACC so far!

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. The demons are wobbly

Call it the Curse of Johnny Majors. In the last 18 seasons, since Majors retired and Walt Harris took over, Pitt has had a winning record in one-possession games just five times and has been at least two games under .500 in such games nine times. In this nearly two-decade sample, the Panthers are 35-53 in these contests, a 0.397 win percentage.

The Panthers have managed to attend 13 bowls and share two conference titles in these 18 years. If these demons that have taken over Heinz Field ever relinquish their powers, Pitt could easily become an annual ACC Coastal contender.

-- Pitt football's got demons. Pat Narduzzi might be the guy to exorcise them

As fans, we have plenty of funny tendencies. If you raise the stature of our program just enough to break our heart with high-stakes losses, we will resent you for it.

It's funny (if you're not a Pitt fan, at least) to look back to the end of the last decade.

Under Dave Wannstedt, Pitt pulled off one of its most significant upsets, in 2007 (taking down WVU in Morgantown to prevent the Mountaineers from advancing to the BCS title game), then went 9-4 and 10-3 over the next two seasons. The Panthers went 8-5 in 2010, giving them 27 wins over a three-year period for the first time since 1981-83.

And Wannstedt resigned under pressure, hated by a large portion of Pitt fans.

The major reason was the tease. A 27-12 record is undoubtedly good, and in 2009, Wannstedt engineered Pitt's first top-15 finish in the polls since Dan Marino's last year (1982). But he gave Pitt fans a glimpse at what they could be and couldn't get them there.

In 2008, the Panthers lost 28-21 to Cincinnati and 3-0 to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl. In 2009, they lost 38-31 to NC State and 19-16 to WVU and 45-44 to Cincinnati. In 2010, they lost 27-24 to Utah and 23-17 to Notre Dame and 30-28 to UConn. As good as they were (and they were quite good, ranking in the S&P+ top 20 all three years), close-game deficiencies prevented them from being even better. So he got run out of town.

And in the four years that followed, Pitt went 6-7, 6-7, 7-6, and 6-7. Not only was the promise gone, but the close-game execution wasn't any better.

Early in Narduzzi's first year, Pitt came back from a 10-point deficit to tie Iowa in Iowa City, only to lose via 57-yard field goal at the buzzer. It was a Pitt-style heartbreaker that suggested the Panthers' demons were stronger than Narduzzi's impeccable résumé.

But then a funny thing started happening. Pitt won at Virginia Tech by four, at Georgia Tech by three, and at Syracuse by three. After a momentary setback, they manhandled Duke and Louisville. They went 6-2 in ACC Coastal play, missing out on a division title only when a comeback attempt against UNC came up just short. And even in that game, there was promise and fortitude -- Pitt trailed 23-6 in the third quarter before charging back.

The Panthers weren't very good -- their No. 40 S&P+ ranking was the average of Paul Chryst's last two years (36th in 2013, 44th in 2014). But that almost made 2015's 8-5 finish more encouraging. The Panthers were young but still showed an ability to come back against good teams and maneuver in close games. For Pitt, that was almost a more important hurdle than actually improving.

Now comes the improvement. In theory, at least.

The Panthers return their starting quarterback, their top two rushers, four of their top six receiving targets, four offensive line starters, their top four defensive linemen, four of five linebackers, four of five defensive backs, and one of the best punts-and-kickoffs combinations in the country. For all we know, the turnaround in close-game fortune was a product of total randomness and will turn right back around. But the combination of fortitude and production seems awfully dangerous.

And I didn't even mention James Conner in that paragraph. Or the return of the Pitt Script. The Panthers have a lot going for them at the moment.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 46 | Final S&P+ Rk: 40
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep Youngstown State N/A 45-37 W 56% 72% -11.6
12-Sep at Akron 84 24-7 W 85% 90% -1.4 +4.0
19-Sep at Iowa 38 24-27 L 48% 16% -3.2 +2.5
3-Oct at Virginia Tech 59 17-13 W 91% 98% +9.0 +9.0
10-Oct Virginia 78 26-19 W 87% 99% -4.0 -3.0
17-Oct at Georgia Tech 64 31-28 W 67% 73% +6.0 +6.5
24-Oct at Syracuse 85 23-20 W 51% 44% -1.7 -4.0
29-Oct North Carolina 24 19-26 L 37% 4% -8.8 -4.0
7-Nov Notre Dame 7 30-42 L 47% 13% -2.4 -3.5
14-Nov at Duke 74 31-13 W 84% 89% +25.1 +21.5
21-Nov Louisville 39 45-34 W 84% 87% +10.4 +9.0
27-Nov Miami-FL 62 24-29 L 54% 36% -11.2 -11.0
28-Dec vs. Navy 21 28-44 L 50% 12% -9.3 -12.5

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 33.9 38 25.6 50
Points Per Game 28.2 68 26.1 57

2. The next step: defending good teams

Pitt grading out as about a top-40 team (and no better) makes sense when you look at the Panthers' results. The Panthers were mostly unsuccessful against better teams and mostly successful against worse ones, and the difference was almost entirely on the defensive side of the ball.

  • Pitt vs. F/+ top 40:
    Record: 1-4 | Average percentile performance: 53% (~top 60) | Yards per play: Opp 6.3, Pitt 5.9 (-0.4)
  • Pitt vs. everyone else:
    Record: 7-1 | Average percentile performance: 72% (~top 35) | Yards per play: Pitt 5.7, Opp 5.2 (+0.5)

Pitt had the luxury of not facing a ton of good offenses in 2015, and the ones the Panthers faced did pretty well. UNC, Notre Dame, and Navy combined for 37 points per game and 6.8 yards per play. Georgia Tech managed 28 and 8.8 in October, before injuries had completely crippled the Yellow Jackets' attack, and Louisville managed 34 points and 5.7 late in the year. Everyone else: 20.6 points per game, 4.9 yards per play.

The offense, meanwhile was strangely consistent. Between the fifth and 12th games of the season, the Panthers averaged between 5.3 and 6.3 yards per play each week. The offense grew into itself (which makes sense considering this was a run-first attack that featured two freshman running backs), and the defense controlled mediocre to bad attacks.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.19 101 IsoPPP+ 106.7 46
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.4% 33 Succ. Rt. + 106.3 48
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 26.8 10 Def. FP+ 23.7 1
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.2 95 Redzone S&P+ 104.5 54
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 20.2 ACTUAL 16 -4.2
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 82 39 48 46
RUSHING 44 23 40 19
PASSING 99 60 54 63
Standard Downs 37 49 37
Passing Downs 62 40 73
Q1 Rk 47 1st Down Rk 41
Q2 Rk 67 2nd Down Rk 29
Q3 Rk 31 3rd Down Rk 71
Q4 Rk 38

3. A Matt Canada offense

Pitt returns a ton of production on both sides, but barely one year on the job, Narduzzi had to replace one coordinator. Jim Chaney left to become the coordinator at Georgia, and Narduzzi replaced him with NC State's Matt Canada.

Canada has also been an O.C. at Butler, NIU (twice), alma mater Indiana, and Wisconsin and spent quite a bit of time under State's Dave Doeren. His brand of a spread-with-power attack has produced three Off. S&P+ top-30 rankings in the last five years (21st at NIU in 2011, 25th at Wisconsin in 2012, 30th at NC State in 2015). And while two of those included a quarterback providing a run threat, his 2012 Wisconsin attack did not.

Senior Nate Peterman gave Chaney about five non-sack rushes for 30-35 yards per game, so he might be able to punish opponents for getting distracted by the running back. But considering the returning talent, expect said running back of choice to be used quite frequently.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Nate Peterman 6'2, 225 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8884 193 314 2287 20 8 61.5% 25 7.4% 6.3
Chad Voytik 16 24 112 1 1 66.7% 4 14.3% 2.6
Manny Stocker 6'2, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8257
Ben DiNucci 6'2, 210 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8148
Thomas McVittie 6'5, 225 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8764

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
James Conner
(2014)
RB 6'2, 240 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8370 298 1765 26 5.9 4.9 46.0% 4 3
Qadree Ollison RB 6'2, 230 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8498 212 1121 11 5.3 7.0 32.5% 2 2
Darrin Hall RB 5'11, 215 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8974 64 257 2 4.0 2.7 37.5% 0 0
Nate Peterman QB 6'2, 225 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8884 60 387 1 6.5 5.1 51.7% 8 1
Chris James RB 56 253 0 4.5 4.4 35.7% 2 1
Tyler Boyd WR 41 349 0 8.5 6.6 61.0% 5 0
Rachid Ibrahim
(2014)
RB 6'1, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8001 33 263 0 8.0 5.9 60.6% 0 0
Chad Voytik QB 16 76 1 4.8 7.7 25.0% 2 1
Jordan Whitehead SS 5'11, 185 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9494 12 122 2 10.2 5.2 83.3% 0 0
George Aston FB 6'0, 240 So. NR NR
Colton Lively FB 6'0, 240 Jr. NR NR
George Hill RB 5'11, 200 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9289
Chawntez Moss RB 5'11, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8462







4. Hey, James :)

Is it possible to have too many running backs? As freshmen, Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall each showed potential -- Ollison was awfully explosive for a 230-pounder, and Hall was the more efficient of the two -- while taking on a much larger role than expected.

They had to do so because Conner was only available for one game. He rushed eight times for 77 yards and two scores in two quarters against Youngstown State, then suffered an MCL injury that ended his season.

Then, in December, he announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

Conner finished it. On May 23, he announced he was cancer-free.

In a demoralizing offseason, Conner's recovery has been an incredible bright spot.

And if he can stay healthy, Canada's system could feature him well. The trick will be making sure Ollison and Hall are also developing. And maybe four-star freshman George Hill. And Chawntez Moss, who was in for spring. This is a crowded backfield, and while Canada has proven in the past that he wants balance between run and pass, he would be well-served to skew toward the former.

And that sentiment only grows stronger when you note what Pitt is returning up front. Even while blocking for two freshmen, Pitt managed to rank 24th in Adj. Line Yards, 20th in stuff rate, and 22nd in power success rate. The Panthers return an all-conference left side up front -- tackle Adam Bisnowaty, guard Dorian Johnson and bring back their right-side starters as well.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Tyler Boyd WR 126 91 926 72.2% 38.9% 7.3 58.7% 52.4% 1.30
Dontez Ford WR 6'2, 215 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8007 49 27 518 55.1% 15.1% 10.6 59.2% 51.0% 1.86
J.P. Holtz TE 38 24 350 63.2% 11.7% 9.2 52.6% 57.9% 1.56
Qadree Ollison RB 6'2, 230 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8498 22 14 77 63.6% 6.8% 3.5 59.1% 22.7% 1.35
Scott Orndoff TE 6'5, 265 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8584 21 13 244 61.9% 6.5% 11.6 71.4% 57.1% 2.01
Zach Challingsworth WR 6'2, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8185 18 12 171 66.7% 5.6% 9.5 27.8% 55.6% 1.64
Chris James RB 5'11, 210
10 7 48 70.0% 3.1% 4.8 60.0% 40.0% 1.03
George Aston FB 6'0, 240 So. NR NR 9 8 40 88.9% 2.8% 4.4 77.8% 55.6% 0.80
Darrin Hall RB 5'11, 215 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8974 9 5 30 55.6% 2.8% 3.3 55.6% 22.2% 1.40
Elijah Zeise WR
8 5 54 62.5% 2.5% 6.8 75.0% 62.5% 1.01
Jester Weah WR 6'3, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8191 5 0 0 0.0% 1.5% 0.0 40.0% 0.0% 0.00
Jaymar Parrish TE 6'2, 270 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8245 2 1 3 50.0% 0.6% 1.5 100.0% 0.0% 0.00
Quadree Henderson WR 5'8, 170 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8590 2 2 1 100.0% 0.6% 0.5 50.0% 0.0% 0.00
Zach Poker TE 6'4, 235 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8041
Tre Tipton WR 6'0, 170 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8156
Rafael Araujo-Lopes WR 5'9, 190 So. 2 stars (5.3) NR
Ruben Flowers WR 6'3, 190 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8761
Aaron Mathews WR 6'4, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8776

5. Efficiency options: check

Chaney was getting big plays out of Ollison but wasn't generating a ton of efficiency with the run game, so he asked the passing game to help in that regard. Tyler Boyd basically turned into a tight end, catching 72 percent of his passes with a 52 percent success rate but averaging only 10.2 yards per catch (he averaged 16.2 as a sophomore in 2014). Meanwhile, with Boyd targeted almost three times more than any other Panther, guys like Dontez Ford and tight end Scott Orndoff became prime deep threats.

Boyd is now a Cincinnati Bengal, which means the training wheels are off for the receiving corps. Granted, Conner's return should mean improved efficiency, but Ford, Orndoff, Zach Challingsworth, and other potential contributors like Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson (yes, Pitt has a Qadree and a Quadree) will now have to prove they can get open while drawing more attention from opposing defensive backs.

Typically a stat line like Ford's -- 10.6 yards per target as a No. 2 option -- translates well to the No. 1 role. But since Boyd was basically the No. 1 AND No. 2 target, this is a pretty unique situation. But if the run game is producing more five-yard gains (as opposed to mostly one-yarders and 15-yarders), that could open up downfield opportunities.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 110.2 3.3 2.75 39.9% 75.5% 16.4% 75.0 6.9% 8.9%
Rank 24 13 104 53 22 20 105 100 90
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Adam Bisnowaty LT 6'6, 300 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8954 12 31 2015 2nd All-ACC
Dorian Johnson LG 6'5, 300 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9772 13 28 2015 2nd All-ACC
Artie Rowell C 12 27
Alex Officer RG 6'4, 335 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8404 13 23
Brian O'Neill RT 6'6, 290 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8144 12 12
Alex Bookser RT 6'6, 310 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9223 2 2
Gabe Roberts C
1 2
Jaryd Jones-Smith RT 6'7, 335 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8277 0 2
Aaron Reese LT 6'5, 315 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8239 0 0
John Guy LG 6'7, 310 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) NR 0 0
Mike Herndon RG 6'4, 305 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.7907 0 0
Carson Baker RT 6'5, 325 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7854 0 0
Mike Grimm OL 6'6, 325 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8721 0 0
Connor Dintino OL 6'3, 310 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8356 0 0
Alex Paulina OL 6'3, 300 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8600

Tony Pilato OL 6'5, 315 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8457


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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.40 112 IsoPPP+ 103.7 53
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 37.6% 25 Succ. Rt. + 116.0 18
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.5 53 Off. FP+ 33.0 13
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 5.1 119 Redzone S&P+ 108.6 31
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 19.3 ACTUAL 16.0 -3.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 37 38 18 53
RUSHING 40 53 28 74
PASSING 54 21 21 27
Standard Downs 16 5 30
Passing Downs 82 81 86
Q1 Rk 70 1st Down Rk 39
Q2 Rk 45 2nd Down Rk 21
Q3 Rk 35 3rd Down Rk 98
Q4 Rk 20

6. Half-Narduzzi'd

This almost looked like a Narduzzi defense. As Mark Dantonio's coordinator at Michigan State, Narduzzi all but patented a high-risk, high-leverage defense that attacked offenses and forced them to try plays they can't normally make. This style results in three-and-outs, turnovers, and the occasional gash. If you get enough of the first two, you can live with the gashes.

Pitt looked the part on standard downs. The Panthers were fifth in Standard Downs Success Rate+ and honed in more and more as a game progressed -- their ranking in each quarter was better than the one before it.

But while they were strangely effective at rushing the passer on standard downs, they continuously let opponents off the ropes. The passing-downs pass rush was mostly nonexistent, and opponents were allowed to complete a less-than-Narduzziish 53 percent of their passes on third-and-4 or more. And while opponent adjustments were kind to Pitt's numbers, the Panthers still allowed 5.1 points per scoring opportunity, one of the highest raw averages in the country.

So we'll say that the Pitt defense has only been partially weaponized. Still, the Panthers improved from 65th to 50th in Def. S&P+ with a lineup young enough to return most of its pieces in 2016.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 115 2.70 3.07 35.0% 68.2% 19.8% 130.6 10.0% 6.7%
Rank 14 38 51 31 81 67 22 2 79
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Ejuan Price DE 6'0, 250 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.9000 13 39.0 6.3% 19.5 11.5 0 1 1 1
Shakir Soto DT 6'3, 270 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8473 13 19.5 3.1% 3.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Rori Blair DE 6'4, 240 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8200 12 19.0 3.1% 3.5 1.5 0 2 1 0
Tyrique Jarrett NT 6'3, 335 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8617 13 16.5 2.7% 7.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Darryl Render DT 12 16.0 2.6% 1.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Khaynin Mosley-Smith NT 12 11.0 1.8% 2.0 0.5 0 0 1 0
Mark Scarpinato DL 8 4.5 0.7% 0.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Jeremiah Taleni DT 6'2, 295 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8120 8 3.5 0.6% 1.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Zach Poker DE
4 3.0 0.5% 1.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Allen Edwards DE 6'4, 240 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8155
Justin Moody NT 6'3, 280 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8528
Dewayne Hendrix
(Tennessee)
DE 6'4, 270 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9428
Shane Roy DT 6'4, 280 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8407
James Folston DE 6'3, 240 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7956
Keyshon Camp DT 6'4, 275 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9048
Amir Watts DT 6'3, 270 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8840








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Matt Galambos MIKE 6'2, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8315 13 69.5 11.2% 10.0 5.0 2 1 2 0
Nicholas Grigsby STAR 13 55.5 9.0% 9.5 3.5 0 2 2 0
Mike Caprara MONEY 6'0, 230 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000 13 40.0 6.5% 9.5 4.0 1 1 0 0
Bam Bradley MONEY 6'2, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8728 13 28.0 4.5% 5.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Quintin Wirginis MIKE 6'2, 240 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8005 13 15.0 2.4% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Matt Steinbeck STAR 7 4.5 0.7% 1.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Jameel Poteat STAR 12 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Oluwaseun Idowu LB 6'0, 215 So. NR NR 10 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Elijah Zeise STAR 6'2, 215 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8437
Jalen Williams LB 6'2, 210 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8351
Anthony McKee Jr. LB 6'2, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8863
Saleem Brightwell LB 6'0, 195 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8550
Kaezon Pugh LB 6'1, 210 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8761
Chase Pine LB 6'2, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8628








7. If the defensive tackles hold up...

With Ejuan Price granted a sixth year of eligibility, most of Pitt's front seven is set. Price is one of the ACC's best pass rushers, and be it junior Rori Blair, Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix, or someone else, he should have a decent complement across from him. Meanwhile, Matt Galambos is a versatile, active middle linebacker, and both linebackers Mike Caprara and Bam Bradley proved solid in play-making spots last year.

So that's five-sevenths of a good front seven. And if seniors Shakir Soto and Tyrique Jarrett stay healthy at tackle, that's a dynamite unit.

If Soto and/or Jarrett get hurt, however, I have no idea who takes their place. Junior Jeremiah Taleni could be useful, but after that you're looking at unknowns -- junior Justin Moody, sophomore Shane Roy, or freshmen. This could turn out just fine, but depth at tackle is a major question mark.

The good news is that not every team has to prove its depth at a given position. It's a roll of the dice.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jordan Whitehead SS 5'11, 185 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9494 13 91.0 14.7% 6 0.5 1 6 1 1
Avonte Maddox CB 5'9, 170 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8377 13 63.5 10.2% 1 0.5 3 12 0 0
Lafayette Pitts CB 13 31.5 5.1% 2 1 1 6 1 0
Terrish Webb FS 5'11, 190 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8061 11 21.5 3.5% 0 0 2 3 1 1
Reggie Mitchell FS 6'0, 190 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8144 6 13.5 2.2% 0.5 0 0 1 0 0
Pat Amara FS 12 12.5 2.0% 0.5 0 0 1 0 0
Dennis Briggs CB 5'10, 190 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8085 13 6.5 1.0% 1 1 0 0 1 0
Ryan Lewis CB 6'0, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8022 13 6.0 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jevonte Pitts SS
12 6.0 1.0% 0 0 0 0 1 0
Phillipie Motley CB 5'10, 180 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8410 12 3.0 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jay Stocker DB 6'2, 185 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8656
Malik Henderson DB 6'0, 185 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8433
Dane Jackson CB 6'0, 180 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8114
Damar Hamlin DB 6'1, 185 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9306
Therran Coleman DB 6'0, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8625
Henry Miller DB 6'3, 205 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8569








8. Sometimes-fly zone

My Study Hall mate Ian Boyd wrote about Narduzzi's defense and Pitt's personnel recently.

As it happens, the Panthers are returning their boundary corner Avonte Maddox, free safety Terrish Webb, and strong safety Jordan Whitehead but are looking for players to step up at field corner and space-backer. [...]

When Maddox and Whitehead join forces on the boundary it creates quite an impressive advantage for the Panthers.

Whitehead was a freshman revelation last year, displaying such impressive athleticism that he was even given 12 carries and two receptions on offense. This secondary was too young and thin to avoid mistakes here and there, but a foursome of returnees -- Whitehead, Maddox, Webb, and safety Reggie Mitchell -- offer hope for immense improvement.

Ian is right -- Whitehead and Maddox made for a strong pair of play-makers, especially considering they were a freshman and sophomore, respectively, last year. They combined for seven tackles for loss, four picks, and 18 breakups last year; I'd be surprised if those numbers didn't all go up.

There's a question of depth here as well -- after those four, the leading returning tackler (corner Dennis Briggs) had 6.5, and any injuries would force Narduzzi to dip into a well of freshmen. Still, the promise is obvious.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Ryan Winslow 6'5, 210 Jr. 63 41.1 7 24 19 68.3%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Chris Blewitt 5'9, 190 Sr. 69 63.1 43 0 62.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Chris Blewitt 5'9, 190 Sr. 42-43 9-11 81.8% 6-12 50.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Quadree Henderson KR 5'8, 170 So. 18 28.0 1
Tyler Boyd KR 11 23.4 0
Avonte Maddox PR 5'9, 170 Jr. 8 6.0 0
Tyler Boyd PR 8 0.9 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 43
Field Goal Efficiency 86
Punt Return Success Rate 106
Kick Return Success Rate 51
Punt Success Rate 23
Kickoff Success Rate 7

9. Force more punts, then return them

Chris Blewitt has one of the biggest legs in college football; he made six of 12 longer field goals and booted nearly two-thirds of his kickoffs for touchbacks. Meanwhile, punter Ryan Winslow doesn't necessarily get elite depth on his kicks, but few of his punts are returnable. Because of them, Pitt should have another solid special teams unit. But to improve beyond solid, the Panthers need to get something more consistent out of the return game. Quadree Henderson did return a kickoff for a touchdown but had a lot of short, ineffective returns, too, and Avonte Maddox got little momentum returning punts. That the whole unit is back is good, but a few more decent returns would make this a top-20 unit.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep Villanova NR 33.4 97%
10-Sep Penn State 28 2.5 56%
17-Sep at Oklahoma State 23 -5.8 37%
24-Sep at North Carolina 27 -4.5 40%
1-Oct Marshall 75 13.3 78%
8-Oct Georgia Tech 54 9.4 71%
15-Oct at Virginia 68 4.9 61%
27-Oct Virginia Tech 32 4.5 60%
5-Nov at Miami 30 -3.2 43%
12-Nov at Clemson 3 -17.4 16%
19-Nov Duke 51 9.2 70%
26-Nov Syracuse 44 8.1 68%
Projected wins: 7.0
Five-Year F/+ Rk 11.3% (43)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 35 / 37
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / -0.9
2015 TO Luck/Game +0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 72% (72%, 72%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 7.3 (0.7)

10. Playing well as a favorite

If you've read most of these ACC previews so far, you've noticed that seemingly everybody is ending up with between about five and seven projected wins. These are based on odds -- so, a 60 percent chance of winning equals 0.6 wins -- and as this suggests, the middle of the ACC is all sorts of crowded.

For Pitt, it is no different. Per S&P+, the Panthers have two likely wins, one likely loss, three games between 37 and 43 percent, and six between 56 and 71 percent. If they play well as a favorite, they could end up going 8-4 or 9-3. If Conner's return and a second year in Narduzzi's system result in a bump beyond Pitt's projected ranking of 29th, then you could be looking at the ACC Coastal favorite.

Those are ifs, though. The offense has to prove that it can move on without its security blanket (Tyler Boyd), and the defense has to make a few more plays on passing downs. But these goals are reasonable and at least semi-realistic.

Narduzzi has Pitt's demons wobbly with what he and his team showed in 2015. Now the Panthers have the experience to do some damage.