Five questions for Pitt football as 2016 spring practice begins
March 15, 2016 12:00 AM
Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman threw for 20 touchdowns last season.
By Sam Werner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt is less than three months removed from its season-ending loss to Navy in the Military Bowl, but it’s already time to turn the page to 2016 and begin looking forward to coach Pat Narduzzi’s second season with the Panthers.
Pitt kicks off spring football at its South Side facility today with the first of 15 practices, culminating in the traditional Blue-Gold spring game, which will return to Heinz Field this year for the first time since 2011.
This spring should feature plenty of familiar faces, as the Panthers return 18 starters from 2015. As Narduzzi continues to mold this team into his own, though, there are still some questions heading into 2016. Here are five that Narduzzi and company hope to better answer over the next month:
1. How will Pitt replace Tyler Boyd?
Boyd elected to leave Pitt in December after his junior season, heading into the NFL draft as the most productive receiver in school history. He holds the Pitt records for career receptions (254) and receiving yards (3,361). Over the past two years, Boyd became the clear focal point of the Panthers offense, leading the team in receptions and getting carries out of the backfield.
That’s a lot of production to replace. Dontez Ford had 26 catches for 505 yards and two touchdowns in 2015, and seems to be the leading candidate to become the Panthers top receiver in 2016. Zach Challingsworth will miss the spring with an injury, leaving an opportunity for players such as Elijah Zeise, Jester Weah, Quadree Henderson and Tre Tipton to prove they deserve a role in Pitt’s passing game.
2. How will Nate Peterman fare as the unquestioned starting quarterback?
Peterman unseated incumbent starter Chad Voytik three games into the 2015 season, and — with Voytik opting to transfer — enters 2016 as the clear leader under center. He completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 2,287 and 20 touchdowns last season, and threw just one interception in ACC play. He’ll look to put a forgettable bowl game (13 of 21, 137 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions) behind him and take advantage of a full offseason of preparation as the starting quarterback.
He’ll have to replace his favorite target in Boyd, but not splitting first-team reps all spring and summer should serve Peterman well.
3. What will Matt Canada’s offense look like?
Another factor in Peterman’s development will be the implementation of coordinator Matt Canada’s offense. Canada replaced Jim Chaney as the offensive coordinator, when Chaney bolted for Georgia after just one season at Pitt. Chaney and Peterman had a strong relationship from their time together at Tennessee, but Canada shouldn’t change too much in the Panthers system.
Pitt is still going to be a run-heavy offense, whether that’s with Qadree Ollison, Darrin Hall or Rachid Ibrahim (freshman Chawntez Moss could find his way into the mix, too). Canada’s N.C. State team last year averaged 4.9 yards per carry with 36 rushing touchdowns on the season, and that’s the type of offense Narduzzi favors.
4. Who will replace graduated starters on defense?
Three starting jobs on defense could be filled by the end of spring — defensive tackle, one of the outside linebacker spots and cornerback. Shakir Soto is moving from defensive end to defensive tackle, and could have the inside track to replace Darryl Render as the starting defensive tackle. The other two spots are less settled.
The Panthers are moving safeties Jalen Williams and Oluwaseun Idowu from safety to linebacker to compete with redshirt freshman Anthony McKee, but that could remain in flux through fall camp.
Redshirt sophomore Phillipie Motley seems to have the edge at the second cornerback spot, opposite Avonte Maddox, but it may only be temporary. Highly touted freshman and former Central Catholic standout Damar Hamlin also likely will challenge for playing time once he arrives this summer.
5. How will the defense improve heading into Narduzzi’s second year?
A year ago, Pitt was learning Narduzzi’s defense for the first time. Now, the Panthers have gone through an entire season in the system and seem more comfortable with their roles and assignments.
If the 2015 spring was about implementing a system and culture, this spring will be about fine-tuning. Most players now know what is expected of them, on and off the field, so these next 15 practices can be about perfecting the details rather than wholesale change.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.
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