Heading into the Pitt Panthers spring game this Saturday at Heinz Field, there are more questions than answers. An offense hit by the departures of wide receiver Tyler Boyd and tight end JP Holtz, among others, needs new downfield playmakers. There’s uncertainty at the tailback position, but the nature of that discrepancy is more generous, as the Panthers boast a full stable of capable backs. The spring game will not bring final resolution to these offensive issues, but it should start to add some clarity.
Luckily for the Panthers, the man directing their offense remains constant. Starting quarterback Nate Peterman returns at the helm, firmly entrenched as the team’s signal caller. After wrestling the starting job away from Chad Voytik early last season, Peterman had 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 eight 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 fully grasp new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s playbook.
Boyd was a special talent, and his absence will certainly be felt. An instant contributor he notched 1,000 yard seasons as both a true freshman and a sophomore. He just barely fell below that threshold last year. Boyd snared 91 passes, while the next closest receiver, Dontez Ford, only had 26. Talk about a one-man show; those 91 catches accounted for 43 percent of the Panthers reception total. Boyd was so dynamic he was even utilized in the running game. 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 be easily replaced.
Dontez Ford will most likely have the first crack at filling the enormous void as Pitt’s No. 1 receiver. Ford was utilized mostly as a down field threat last season, but he 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 he was used more as a hybrid pass catching tight end last season. The unproven and untested 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 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 1,121 yards on his way to being named ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year.
However, currently atop the depth chart sits last season’s third-leading rusher, Darrin Hall. Hall came to Pitt as a 4-star recruit, and it appears his talent may be shining through. Pass-catching back Rachid Ibrahim is in the mix again, too, coming back from an injured Achilles. And, as if those names are not 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,” head coach Pat Narduzzi. “Rachid is a good player. Darrin Hall is a good player.”
The unexpected draft order will certainly add motivation for the passed-over Hall and Ibrahim. It is also incentive for Moss to perform well and validate being the first in 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” Narduzzi added.
Saturday’s spring game is just the opening act for these Panthers. Individual performances, whether they are brilliant or disappointing, will not determine any player’s fate. Nothing is set in stone. With spots up and playing time up for grabs, 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.
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