Heading into the Pitt Panthers spring game this Saturday at Heinz Field there are quantifiably more questions than answers. An offense hit by the departures of Tyler Boyd and JP Holtz among others needs new downfield play makers. Uncertainty at the tailback position is also prevalent. The nature of that discrepancy is more generous, as the Panthers boast a full stable of capable backs. The spring game will not bring offer final resolution of these offensive issues, but it should start to add some clarity.
Luckily for the Panthers, the man directing their offense remains constant. Incumbent starting quarterback Nate Peterman returns at the helm firmly entrenched as the teams signal caller. After wrestling away the starting job from Chad Voytik early last season Peterman posted a fine campaign. He threw for threw for 2,287 yards while completing 61 percent of his passes. He posted a respectable 20 touchdown passes to only 8 interceptions. Taking care of the ball will once again be paramount. His playing experience last year and sealed status as the day one starter should enable him to get the reps necessary to grasp new Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada’s play book.
Wide Receiver Tyler Boyd is a special talent. An instant contributor he notched 1,000 yard seasons as both a true freshman and sophomore. He barely fell below that threshold last year, but ended up carrying an even heavier burden. Boyd snared 91 passes while the next closest was receiver Dontez Ford with only 26. Talk about a one man show, those 91 catches accounted for 43 percent of the Panthers reception total. Boyd was so dynamic they even utilized him in the running game for more touches. He toted the rock 40 times for 355 yards, compiling a robust 8.7 yard per carry average. The best receiver in Pitt history not named Larry Fitzgerald won’t easily be replaced.
Dontez Ford will most likely have the first crack at filling the enormous Boyd void as Pitt’s number one receiver. Ford was utilized mostly as a down field threat last season, and is expected to do more heavy lifting in the intermediate areas this season. Behind him, Quadree Henderson has demonstrated speed and playmaking ability in the return game, most evident when he took the Military Bowl’s opening kickoff to the house. Along with those two, the currently injured Zach Challingsworth is listed at receiver, but was used more as a hybrid pass catching tight end last season. Unproven commodities Rafael Araujo-Lopes, Tre Tipton, and Jester Weah are all battling for opportunity and a chance to cement their status in the offense.
Possibly the most intriguing position battle to watch for the Panthers is at running back. Simply saying they have a glut of talented runners would be a vast understatement. James Conner the 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year is currently battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, but hopes to return at some point. Qadree Ollison was a pleasant surprise last season, rushing for 1,121yards on his way to being name ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Though currently atop the depth chart sits last season’s third leading rusher Darrin Hall. Coming to Pitt ranked a 4-star recruit it appears his pedigree may finally be shining through. Pass catching back Rachid Ibrahim is in the mix again too, coming back from an injured Achilles. As if those names aren’t enough, a shocker took place during the spring game draft selection when the team’s seniors were divvying up sides. The first running back taken was Chawntez Moss, an early enrolling freshman.
“I’m kind of surprised (Moss was taken first) when you have rookie of the year back there,” said Coach Narduzzi. “Rachid is a good player. Darrin Hall is a good player.”
The unexpected draft order will certainly add motivation for the skipped over Hall and Ibrahim. It is also incentive for Moss to perform well and validate being the first of the position group selected.
“If I’m the second or third or fourth tailback taken, I would imagine they are going to come out and run pretty hard… I would imagine Chawntez has a lot of pressure on him for Saturday” added Narduzzi.
Saturday’s spring game is but the opening act for the coming rendition of these Panthers. Individual performances, whether brilliant or disappointing will not determine any player’s fate. Nothing is set in stone. With spots up for grabs, and increased playing time to be had an interesting dynamic should be on display. Keep a close eye on Pitt’s offense. The contributions from skill group players should lend some insight as to how the Panthers envision their new puzzle pieces fitting together this season.