April 19, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola
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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi officially put a cap on spring drills Tuesday when players gathered on the South Side for lunch:
Steak and lobster for the winners (the Blue defeated the Gold, 19-17).
Franks and beans for the losers.
Meanwhile, I appeared on TribLive Radio with Tim Benz and Josh Taylor and offered this possibility for the Pitt season: The Panthers could have a better team, but with an inferior regular-season record to last season’s 8-4.
Road games against Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Miami and Clemson give Pitt, perhaps, the most difficult schedule in the ACC.
If Pitt loses all four, it must do no worse than 8-0 in its other games to reach 8-4. That’s still a good season because it would include victories against Villanova, Penn State, Marshall, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke and Syracuse.
But if Pitt manages to win two of its four most difficult games and takes care of business against the others, you’re talking about the first double-digit victory total in the regular season in more than three decades (1981).
Let me know what you think. Tweet your predicted victory total to @JDiPaola_Trib.
The day of the spring game, I presented questions that need answered at every position. Here are the questions and how they were answered:
Finding a backup is important, but the more pressing need is to ensure senior starter Nathan Peterman takes the next step in his development: Throw deeper, maintain accuracy, spread passes to people not named Tyler Boyd, including those who play running back and tight end.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Peterman completed 11 of 22 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns. He played much better in the second half.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: If Peterman develops some rhythm with Dontez Ford, Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson, the passing game will perform better than most people expect.
Quick-learning freshman Chawntez Moss has turned into a nice story, but what about the veterans?
Narduzzi initially will lean on Qadree Ollison, Darrin Hall and Rachid Ibrahim. If James Conner returns and runs with the same power and passion he displayed two years ago, the four others become backups. In any case, the running game has a chance to be Pitt’s biggest asset.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Moss carried only seven times for 28 yards and Hall and Ollison combined for 29 attempts. Overall, the running game was a disappointment (83 yards from four running backs).
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Don’t forget about James Conner, whose recovery from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is going well.
Pitt’s offense could become imbalanced if the Panthers feel the loss of Boyd too acutely. Injuries this spring to Dontez Ford and Zach Challingsworth didn’t help, but they are expected to recover.
If Ford plays Saturday — he still is an uncertainty — he can make an impact. He’s smart and athletic, a combination coaches love.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Ford had a good day, especially considering he missed most of the 14 previous practices with a leg injury — four catches, 55 yards.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: I get the feeling Ford will have a big season, enough that opposing defenses will need to know where he is at all times, thus, opening up lanes for the running game.
Short on numbers, this position will go as far as senior Scott Orndoff can carry it and offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s play-calling allows.
Orndoff knows how to find the goal line. More than one-third of his receptions have been touchdowns.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Orndoff had a touchdown and a 20-yard reception among his three catches.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Orndoff will compile more receptions, yards and touchdowns than former tight end J.P. Holtz did in any season (somewhere north of 23 receptions, 209 yards and four touchdowns).
Assistant coach John Peterson has as many as seven players he can call on without losing sleep, and the left side with seniors Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson might be the best in the ACC.
Center? Alex Bookser manned it in the spring, but Alex Officer could grab it back when his injury heals. Both can play right guard, too, and John Guy will be there Saturday. Narduzzi believes sophomore right tackle Brian O’Neill can play at the next level.
Where does Jaryd Jones-Smith fit? No. 1 backup at tackle and guard, perhaps, but with experience as a starter.
SATURDAY’S RESULTS: Too many sacks (four) and TFLs (11).
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Officer’s recovery will do wonders for this unit’s stability. When Narduzzi settles on five starting offensive linemen, Pitt’s ground game will be just fine. From left, it will look something like this: Tackle Adam Bisnowaty, guard Dorian Johnson, center Alex Bookser or Alex Officer, guard Officer or Bookser and tackle Brian O’Neill
Keep an eye on Bisnowaty at left tackle when he lines up opposite end Dewayne Hendrix. It might be the highlight of the day: Pitt’s best offensive lineman against a potentially destructive pass rusher.
In the fall, it will be interesting to see how opponents block Pitt’s line because Ejuan Price has 16 1⁄2 career sacks at the opposite end. Plus, tackles Tyrique Jarrett at 335 pounds and former end Shakir Soto offer a blend of beef and a burst.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Bisnowaty and Hendrix had good moments, Hendrix ending up with a sack and two quarterback hurries.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: This could turn out to be a disruptive front four, with more quickness than Pitt opponents have seen in a long time.
Narduzzi can’t list this position as a strength because three players he was counting on — Bam Bradley, Quintin Wirginis and Anthony McKee — didn’t practice due to shoulder injuries.
Mike Caprara and Matt Galambos are solid fixtures, but there’s a spot open at outside linebacker. Any of five players can fill it, which is good for depth, but can any of them become playmakers? Coaches hope they won’t be afraid of the answer.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Elijah Zeise had a game-high eight tackles and Caprara added seven.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Bradley may be the most athletic linebacker on the team, so look for him to earn a starting job.
There is still a lot to do at cornerback, where Ryan Lewis and Phillipie Motley are competing and freshmen Therran Coleman, Damar Hamlin and Henry Miller won’t be ignored.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: Lewis was one of eight players with a pass breakup.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: One of the freshmen will play well enough to win the open cornerback job.
Avonte Maddox, Quadree Henderson and Jordan Whitehead offer big-play potential as returners. Narduzzi has a sense of security with kicker Chris Blewitt and punter Ryan Winslow back for their fourth and third seasons, respectively.
SATURDAY’S RESULT: There were no returns allowed in the game, Blewitt made his only attempt (40 yards) and Winslow averaged 39.4 per punt.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Henderson has a knack for finding holes in the coverage.