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Around the Coastal: The Pittsburgh Panthers

We continue our look at the Coastal Division with expertise from Panther-Lair publisher Chris Peak on Pittsburgh.

Three prominent storylines

Narduzzi’s best defense yet

2019 was Year Five for Pat Narduzzi at Pitt, and the Panthers finally looked like the defense Narduzzi was hired for after he made his name as defensive coordinator at Michigan State. Now Pitt returns seven starters on defense, including first-team All-ACC performers Jaylen Twyman and Paris Ford, and adds in two would-be starters who missed the 2019 season due to injury. The Panthers had one of the best defenses in the ACC last season, and this year should see the unit be even better.

Improvement needed on the other side

For as dominant as Pitt’s defense was in 2019, its offense was a certified disappointment. Mark Whipple was hired as offensive coordinator prior to the season after Shawn Watson’s offense cost Pitt multiple wins in 2018, but the results weren’t much different; once again, the Panthers were let down by their offense in at least two games - Miami and Boston College - and the team ranked next-to-last in the ACC and No. 114 nationally in scoring. Pitt returns a lot of starters from last year’s offense, but that unit has to get better overall if the team is going to experience a higher level of success.

Pickett’s last stand

It seems like yesterday that Kenny Pickett burst onto the scene with an upset win over then-No. 2 Miami in the 2017 regular-season finale. But that was his first career start, and now Pickett is on the precipice of his senior season; in the interim, he hasn’t exactly delivered on the promise of that Miami win. Pickett has gone 14-13 in his 27 starts since the 2017 finale, and he enters 2020 with quite a bit of weight on his shoulders. He wasn’t the only problem - or maybe even the biggest one - in Pitt’s offense last season, but he’s the quarterback, and as a senior with three years of starting experience, he’s going to be expected to carry the load for the offense in 2020.

Three biggest departures

Kylan Johnson

Johnson came to Pitt last offseason as a graduate transfer from Florida, and he excelled at the boundary linebacker position in the Panthers’ defense. Pitt has not gotten much in the way of play-making ability from the outside linebacker positions in recent years, but Johnson changed that, recording 54 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles last season. The Panthers have built some depth at linebacker, but Johnson could be tough to replace.

Dane Jackson

A three-year starter at cornerback, Jackson was the kind of success story coaches love to sell in recruiting: he was a raw athlete in high school, but through hard work and coaching, he developed into an NFL Draft pick. Jackson was on the all-conference second team last season, and while Pitt rotated corners fairly often in 2019, which provides some experienced depth, he was the best cover corner on the team.

Maurice Ffrench

Mark Whipple is known for feeding the ball to certain players, and last season, Ffrench was that guy. He set the Pitt record for receptions in a single season when he caught 96 passes - and he did it while missing two games. Ffrench wasn’t particularly productive with all of those catches, putting up just 850 yards, but he was the top target in the passing game and now the staff will have to find a new No. 1 receiver. There are some solid candidates, but none of them is proven.

Three key returners

Paris Ford

One of the most exciting players Pitt has had in a long time - and probably one of the most exciting defensive players in the ACC last season - Ford had a sensational breakout campaign in 2019, leading Pitt in tackles with 97 and interceptions with three as a first-year starter at boundary safety. His performance turned into first-team All-ACC honors and third-team All-America honors from Phil Steele, and he is certain to show up on multiple preseason lists. A redshirt sophomore last season, Ford considered an early departure to the NFL but opted to return to Pitt for a fourth year.

Jaylen Twyman

The Panthers’ other All-ACC first-team selection, Twyman’s first season as a starter was the best by a Pitt defensive tackle since Aaron Donald dominated in 2013, as he produced team highs with 10.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. In addition to the all-conference honors, Twyman earned second-team All-America nods from six national publications and was the Outland Trophy National Defensive Player of the Month in September. Like Ford, Twyman considered the NFL in the offseason but chose to come back for his redshirt junior year.

Patrick Jones

The third Pitt player to consider the NFL but return, Jones is as significant as any returning Panther because he was arguably the team’s best overall player on defense. He didn’t lead Pitt in tackles like Ford or sacks like Twyman, but his all-around production of 8.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and 18 “official” quarterback hurries was unmatched. Jones was a disruptive force off the edge, and he should be one of the best pass-rushers in the conference as a redshirt senior in 2020.

Three biggest additions

Lucas Krull

Pitt added a graduate transfer tight end to the roster prior to each of the last three seasons, but the results varied between mediocre and nonexistent. This year, the coaching staff recruited Krull, a grad transfer from Florida, and if the first (and only) week of spring camp was any indication, he’s got a chance to be the most productive addition yet. He’s got great size, runs well and seems to be a solid receiver. Getting something out of the tight end position would be a significant upgrade to Pitt’s offense, and Krull should provide that element.

Jordan Addison and Israel Abanikanda

We’re listing two players here because both Addison and Abanikanda can contribute to Pitt’s offense as freshmen. Both were three-star prospects, but both have the speed and explosiveness that can get them on the field early. Addison is a receiver who could potentially work in the slot or line up outside; either way, he’s got the speed to make catch-and-run plays and get downfield. And Abanikanda adds speed to the backfield, where Pitt is looking for a solid every-down play-maker.

Damar Hamlin

This is cheating a little bit since Hamlin was on Pitt’s roster last season (and the three years before that), but his presence on the 2020 roster is important and kind of counts as an addition. Hamlin joined Pitt in 2016 and played each of the next four seasons, but his playing time as a freshman was limited by injury, and Pitt lobbied the NCAA for a fifth year of eligibility. The NCAA decided to rule in Hamlin’s favor, and the field safety position went from being a question mark to a sure thing, as Hamlin is a knowledgeable veteran who understands the defense and is a sure tackler.

Expectations for 2020

The stakes are high for Pitt in 2020, and while it’s not a make-or-break season for Pat Narduzzi, it’s close. The Panthers have almost all of a very good defense returning and a lot of pieces back on offense to work with Mark Whipple in his second season. The schedule is not overly difficult, and if ever there were a season set up for success, it’s 2020 for Pitt. If the Panthers fall short of achieving at a high level - which means nine or 10 wins and competition for the Coastal title, if not outright winning it - then serious questions about Narduzzi’s long-term future with the program are sure to follow.