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The intelligence report: Pitt Panthers edition

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Louisville v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

Let us better get to know the Pittsburgh Panthers from Anson Whaley of Cardiac Hill. There’s gotta be some reasons for optimism for NC State around here somewhere, surely.

Pitt’s Key Departures:

  • Maurice Ffrench, WR
  • Dane Jackson, CB
  • Kylan Johnson, LB
  • Jaylen Twyman, DT

Pitt’s Key Returnees:

  • Kenny Pickett, QB
  • Taysir Mack, WR
  • Paris Ford, S
  • Patrick Jones, DE

Pitt’s Key Additions:

  • Jordan Addison, WR (true freshman)
  • Dayon Hayes, DE (true freshman)
  • D.J. Turner, WR (transfer from Maryland)
  • Lucas Krull, TE (transfer from Florida)

Give us an overview of the 2020 Panthers.

Expectations for a potentially big year took a couple of hits in the offseason. First, the Panthers lost junior All-American defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman, who opted to sit out the season as he prepares for the NFL Draft. Then, scheduling reshuffling greatly increased the difficulty of opponents with Pitt now slated to face Clemson and Louisville, while losing some lesser foes. The Panthers are also playing Notre Dame in a game, which now counts as an ACC contest as opposed to a non-conference game.

The team returns many of the key pieces from last year on both sides of the ball, including senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who will be in his third year running the offense. Along with senior defensive end Patrick Jones, preseason All-American junior safety Paris Ford and senior safety Damar Hamlin will lead a secondary that has taken some hits with the losses of last year’s starting cornerbacks Dane Jackson (NFL Draft) and Damarri Mathis (out for the year due to injury). Offensively, Pitt needs to find a playmaker to replace the production lost by graduating wide receiver Maurice Ffrench, who set a school single-season record for receptions with 96 last year.

Hopes for a 10-win season seem all but dashed with a more difficult schedule and the unexpected losses of some key players. But there’s still room for a bit of optimism with a defense that is expected to make waves coupled with solid special teams and an offense bringing back most of its key pieces.

Who are some key players to know on offense?

Leading the offense is third-year starting quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett did crawl over the 3,000-yard passing mark last year and while the offense struggled to score points at times, head coach Pat Narduzzi has called him as good a quarterback as he’s ever coached while projecting him as an NFL player.

Senior Taysir Mack expects to be the top target at wide receiver after somewhat of a breakout campaign last year (63 catches, 736 yards) but there’s also been a lot of talk about incoming freshman Jordan Addison having a great camp. Addison, a Top 150 recruit, was recently named to 247s preseason All-American team for true freshmen.

Questions remain at running back for a group that did not have a guy step up and really gain a stranglehold on the job. Senior A.J. Davis might be the de facto leader right now but his numbers from 2019 (530 rushing yards and 269 receiving yards) will need to be better to help take pressure off of the passing game. The good news for both the ground and aerial attack is that there’s some stability on the offensive line, which is anchored by preseason All-ACC center Jimmy Morrissey.

Who are some key players to know on defense and special teams?

With the unexpected departure of Twyman, Pitt will turn towards 2019 All-ACC safety Paris Ford and preseason 2020 All-ACC defensive end Patrick Jones to lead the way. The unit returns other key pieces, including senior safety Damar Hamlin and senior linebacker Phil Campbell, who has been praised during camp.

Pitt is being forced to scramble a bit as starting senior cornerback Damarri Mathis suffered a season ending injury. Coupled with the loss of the team’s other starting cornerback from 2019, Dane Jackson, Pitt’s experienced safeties could have their hands full.

What is Pitt’s biggest strength?

Pat Narduzzi came to Pitt with the reputation of building strong defenses and this year’s team should not disappoint in that area. The losses of Twyman and Mathis are significant, but the Panthers return enough pieces that their losses should not be death blows. Specifically, the safety tandem of Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin should be among the nation’s finest.

What is Pitt’s biggest weakness?

All eyes will be on the Panthers’ running game, which struggled to gain much traction last season. That forced Pitt to throw too often and the team needs a more balanced attacked on offense if they’re expected to do enough damage to the scoreboard.

Who is your team MVP?

Jaylen Twyman was the easy pick here before he opted out. Paris Ford, maybe? Maybe Patrick Jones. Those are probably the two biggest playmakers on defense and Pitt doesn’t yet have an explosive talent on offense that’s a proven commodity. Addison, Mack, and even Pickett could change that, but the biggest difference-makers are on defense right now with Ford and Jones leading the way.