Jarrod Prugar: James Conner was a First Team All-American in 2014. However, since then, Conner has dealt with a torn MCL, which cost him all but a few snaps of 2015 as well as being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma this past off-season. Opposing Conner will be Saquon Barkley who burst on to the scene last season rushing for over 1,000 yards as a freshman. Barkley has the benefit of being able to play last season, as well as being healthy. What is yet to be seen is how Conner will look in a big contest.
ADVANTAGE: Penn State. Seeing James Conner compete at an elite level will be a treat in itself, but Barkley and the depth behind him put the Nittany Lions in the advantage column.
Daniel Greenwald: I do have to admit, PSU running back Saquon Barkley had a pretty nice freshman season. He ran for 1,076 yards, fourth in the Big Ten in fact, and seven scores. Not too shabby, except perhaps when stacked up against another freshman running back’s performance. Panther freshman tailback Qadree Ollison ascended from unknown to ACC Offensive Freshman of the Year, rushing for 1,121 yards and 11 scores. Ollison had a decidedly better season himself than the Nittany Lion’s only running back of note Saquon Barkley did last season. That’s before you even enter 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year and more importantly, cancer survivor, James Conner, into the discussion. Now healthy and cancer free, Conner will retake residence in the Panthers backfield. Tack on the return of third-down back Rachid Ibrahim, sophomore Darrin Hall and intriguing freshman Chawntez Moss, that gives Pitt an awfully impressive stable of quality backs. Add in dual-threat playmaker Jordan Whitehead, who sees time in the backfield for special splash plays in addition to his duties as the team’s starting safety, and the Panthers have an embarrassment of riches at the position.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
DG: Pitt’s passing attack leaned heavily on the departed Tyler Boyd last season. He hauled in 91 passes and even ran the ball 40 times. Boyd was a central focus of the Panthers offense and for a good reason, because he’s a stud who just went in the second round of the NFL draft, and finished his career one of the most decorated receivers in Pitt history. While Pitt employed a run oriented, pro-style offense and funneled most of their air attack through Boyd, there simply weren’t many other catches to go around. Though a large void will afford more players opportunity, the Panthers receivers are largely an unproven commodity as primary targets. Penn State brings back their top three receivers from last year in junior Chris Godwin, who went for over 1,100 yards last season; DaSean Hamilton; and deep threat Saeed Blacknall, who averaged a gaudy 31-yards per reception but managed only eight catches. Pitt’s receiver group isn’t without potential. Dontez Ford should slot nicely into a larger role, and Quadree Henderson has speed to burn. Don’t be surprised if these two and some other youngsters step up for the Panthers this season. Tight end Scott Orndoff is a large body with soft hands that will excel patrolling the middle of the field. However for now, I’d give a slight edge the Nittany Lions group of wideouts.
JP: Penn State brings back two 1,000-yard receivers in Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton, with Godwin eclipsing the mark in 2015 and Hamilton in 2014. Pitt lost standout receiver Tyler Boyd to the NFL this past April and taking over for his production will be Jester Weah, Dontez Ford and Quadree Henderson. At tight end, Mike Gesicki looks to build on a decent 2015 by being featured prominently in coach Joe Moorhead’s new offense for the Nittany Lions. For the Panthers, Scott Orndoff leads the way at tight end.
ADVANTAGE: Penn State. Depth at wide out should be a forte for the Nittany Lions this fall while Pitt looks to replace the production of Boyd among its receivers.