The Pittsburgh Panthers Kick off their 2017 campaign hosting the Penguins of Youngstown State. The same team that made it to the Championship last season. Bo Pelini took his team to the promised land last year, nearly topping off his incredible season with a Division 1 title. The Panthers have 11 returning starters and are poised to take that next step. Just what the step is, will be determined by Coach Narduzzi, his staff, and these Players.
The Panthers named Quarterback Max Browne as their opening game starter and as one of the team’s captains. Max is not only starting for a new team, but also running a new offense. He has weapons for sure as Jester Weah and All American Quadree Henderson. They have other returning contributors in Aaron Mathews and Tre Tipton. The Panthers also will have new tight ends that are making great strides in camp thus far. The running back situation is nearly as strong as the wide receiving position as the return of Qadree Ollison and a strong stable of returning backs should minimize the drop. That drop off led by the loss of James Conner.
The defense was where the Panthers struggled last season. To drill down more, the secondary was the real issue. The defensive backfield was torched regularly last season giving up massive amounts of points and yards passing. Led by Avonte Maddox, the Panthers secondary is going to need to take a huge step forward this season. With the loss of Jordan Whitehead for the first three games, players like Damar Hamlin will need to take a big step forward. Whitehead along with Senior Linebacker Quinton Wirginis were both suspended for several games. Starting Defensive End Rori Blair was dismissed from the team altogether and will not return at all. The incoming players will need to make significant progress also but that will not include The Panthers prize recruit Paris Ford. He is finally at school but will likely be red shirted because of his late arrival to training camp. He was held up because of academic issues.
Pitt has another stellar offensive line returning. Led by Brian O’Neil, and a host of returning starters, the Panthers should once again have offensive line that is a strength for this team. Alex Bookser will be the one returning starter that will not be playing in the game against the Penguins because of his 1 game suspension.
The Panthers Special Teams will be led by Punter Ryan Winslow and two new contributors at place kicker position including Alex Kessman, junior Ian Troost and Freshman Jake Scarton. Winslow has reportedly improved in both distance and accuracy in the off season so expect good things there.
The tight end position started the spring as a position of weakness for the Panthers but has turned into a position of strength. One Of the reasons is incoming Freshman Charles Reeves Jr from Steubenville Ohio. He possesses several traits many of the new Panthers recruits are coming in with… Size, speed and talent. Those traits are all things that is needed for a team to compete at a high level.
The Panthers as a whole have made significant strides in recent years with regards to recruiting. That is one of the reasons I firmly believe that Pat Narduzzi’s defense’s will be getting better. I think in years past he has stuck with a system that works with the right caliber of player. Kind of a square peg in a round hole thing in the previous two seasons. I think the talent increase in recent years should close that gap and improve play on defense, though especially in the secondary.
The Panthers first opponent will be a Penguins team returning 16 players, one of the best coaches in the land with Bo Pelini at the helm and a quarterback that threw for over 270 yards against Pitt 2 years ago. Pitt would win that game 45-37 as they could not control the YSU offense after that first quarter. This is an opportunity for the Panthers defense to get some revenge. I believe because of the lack of James Conner and a new Starting QB, the offense will take a little time to get rolling. And without Whitehead on defense, the game on Saturday will end up being closer than it should. Although YSU made it to the Division 1 Championship game last year, the difference in talent is sizable so the Panthers should be able to pull away late.
Week 1 starts tomorrow with the Pat Narduzzi Press Conference. Follow close all week as we will be tweeting and posting any and all news as we progress.