This is the third of five questions we’re debating to preview and prepare for the 2016 Pitt football season. Lucky for us, some of our #PittTwitter friends were kind enough to contribute their thoughts for each question.
Today we focus on what Pitt’s biggest strengths and weaknesses are, as a team, headed into the 2016 season. Be sure to listen to our mini episode at the end of the post after you read through what our panel has to say, and check out our previous editions if you haven’t already!
- Question 1: What do you expect to see from James Conner
- Question 2: How do you see the Pitt WR battle playing out? Who will earn starting spots?
- Jim Hammett, CardiacHill.com
- Chris Bruno, CardiacHill.com (@BrunoPittsburgh)
- Justin Witmer (@NFLGimpy)
- Anson Whaley, CardiacHill.com (@AnsonWhaley)
- Corey Cohen (@CoreyECohen)
What do you see as Pitt’s biggest strength as a team, and its biggest weakness?
The biggest strength Pitt has is the offensive line. Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson are seniors with NFL aspirations and will anchor the left side of the line. I expect something similar to what TJ Clemmings and Matt Rotheram did on the right side in 2014; I expect them to dominate. The right side of the line will figure itself out in camp and whether O’Neill or Jones-Smith starts at RT isn’t that important because both are talented and will be an asset. Depth is good too in case of injury.
A great OL will help counter the lack of weapons in the passing game by giving Nate Peterman plenty of time to find the open man. The offense will spread the ball around and if defenses can’t key on a certain man like Boyd last year, it’ll be harder to defend.
The biggest weakness is QB depth. If Nate Peterman goes down, the season could go with him. There isn’t a single QB that can play this year that has completed a pass at the FBS level behind Peterman. That’s horrifying. Peterman doesn’t have to be great this season for Pitt to win eight or nine games, but he does have to be on par with 2015. The coaches last year showed an impressive ability to scheme around flaws, especially along the DL. This team won 8 games last year with zero seniors that were drafted. That’s impressive as hell. Good coaches can scheme around flaws, but the inability to move the ball through the air is one that’s too tall of a task.
The team is obviously very deep at running back and on the offensive line. Collectively, I’d say the running game will be an incredible combination just because there’s so much depth in the backfield and you could have three or even four NFL Draft picks on that line when it’s all said and done. If there’s one thing this team should be able to do, it’s run the ball.
The biggest weakness to me is not having an experienced backup quarterback. If Nathan Peterman goes down for any significant amount of time, this season could go south in a hurry. But if we’re talking about the starters, while I’m hesitant to call it a weakness, the front seven on defense has some serious questions. Ejuan Price had a big season last year but really piled up his sack totals from one big game against Louisville. Before that game, he was having a decent, but not great, season. We’re also expecting a ton out of Dewayne Hendrix but he’s yet to play a snap for Pitt, hasn’t played since 2014, and even then was used sparingly. I think we can argue that there are questions in the middle of the line and at linebacker as well. My guess is that the front seven will be okay, but there are question marks.
I think the biggest strength has to be the secondary, although I very nearly picked what should be a stacked RB unit. The unit that made thousands of Pitt fans pull their hair out just over a year ago (turn around, Lafayette!) is now stacked. Jordan Whitehead is an obvious ACC Defensive Player of the Year candidate and will lead the group. But you’ll also get some big performances out of players like Avonte Maddox, Reggie Mitchell, and Terrish Webb. Plus don’t forget about star recruit Damar Hamlin, who will hope to follow Whitehead as ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The weakest unit I think is the WR group (although if Peterman goes down at QB, I think Pitt is doomed). Dontez Ford is a good wide receiver who will contribute well, but there’s not much beyond that. It reminds me of when the Philadelphia Eagles let DeSean Jackson go and Jeremy Maclin, an ideal #2 WR moved into the #1 slot. It kind of throws off everything. I think Quadree Henderson will contribute with some big plays, but Jester Weah’s hands don’t inspire much confidence and Chris Wuestner won’t add much off the bench. Challingsworth with help some, but it’s not enough to make up for a WR unit that just lost one of its best players in history and has an eye towards the future.
I would say Pitt’s biggest strength overall is the running offense. I couldn’t pick just one position group, because these go hand in hand. I have no doubts at all Pitt will have among the better rushing offenses in the country. When you have a back like James Conner anchoring your running back group, you are off to a pretty good start. Not to mention, his backup will be the ACC Rookie of the Year last season, Qadree Ollison. That’s two running backs that have had 1,000 yard seasons in their college careers.
Even beyond those two, Pitt has high expectations for sophomore, Darrin Hall. He was once a four-star recruit, and is right on Ollison’s heels for the top backup. Rachid Ibrahim is a redshirt junior with some ability, and should be in the mix as will true freshman Chawntez Moss, who has earned high praise by the coaching staff.
The second half of Pitt’s rushing attack is a talented, and veteran offensive line. Pitt will trot out a pair of seniors on the left side that are garnering preseason praise on various watch lists and All-American teams. Both Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty were highly rated recruits, and have lived up to the hype throughout their careers. It sounds as though both players should hear their name called at the NFL draft next Spring.
Other members of the offensive line include Rimington Watch List (Top Center) nominee, Alex Officer. Alex Bookser, local sophomore who was also a major recruit. Then there is Brian O’Neill and Jaryd Jones-Smith that will be battling for playing time, and both guys seem like they could have NFL futures. The line is talented and deep, just like the running backs. I expect a strong rushing game in 2016.
Now for a weakness, I would lean towards linebacker. You have three seniors in Galambos, Caprara, and Bradley that have plenty of experience and starts to their name, but watching last year something felt missing. Pat Narduzzi’s defense really depends on athletic and play-making linebackers, and it seemed Pitt was a step behind on some of the better teams they faced.
Seeing as how the staff has been recruiting linebacker since arriving, it’s really telling on how they feel the linebacker position is stocked. Narduzzi and company have even converted safeties and a wide receiver in Elijah Zeise just to help stock the position. Those type of moves concern me, and obviously it concerns them enough as well to make those moves. There are some freshmen and redshirt freshmen with some ability that should have the position in a better situation in future seasons.
Weakness – Depth at certain positions (QB and DL), but what I’m really worried about is up the gut on defense. Tyrique Jarrett really needs to take a step forward and it wouldn’t hurt to get a nice surprise from another interior lineman. I think Pitt’s secondary is going to be, at least, fun to watch. They will get beat with young players playing, but the reviews on the young secondary have REALLY been good. It’s up the middle that has me very worried on this team. It could get REALLY bad if there is an injury or two there.
Strength – Offense. I know Boyd is gone, but if Nate Peterman has a solid year…oh boy. The offensive line has a chance to be special and adding James Conner and Rashid Ibrahim to the mix isn’t exactly going to hurt them. We are looking at a team that put Qadree Ollison at third string on the depth chart right now!!!! Also, look for the safeties to have a big year. Anytime you have a player like Reggie Mitchell, rotating around, and possibly not starting….that’s a good thing! Mitchell, Jordan Whitehead, and Terrish Webb could be looking at some big plays this season.