At the onset of the season, it was expected that true freshman Jordan Whitehead would make an impact in Pitt's secondary. With the year behind us, we saw that was exactly the case.
Whitehead not only earned immediate playing time, getting onto the field in the team's opener, but also became a starter and lynchpin on the team's defense. Despite losing the starting job right out of camp, Whitehead became one of the team's starters at safety and, as a result, turned in spectacular season.
On defense, Whitehead made his mark, leading the entire team with 99 tackles. As a safety, he seemed like he was literally in on just about every defensive stop out there. Five times, he tallied at least ten tackles and against Iowa, had 15. Elsewhere, he did relatively little in the box score (one interception, half a sack, and six passes defended), but overall, he was a tackling machine for the Panthers. His 8.2 tackles were eighth in the conference and he was the only freshman in the league's top ten in that category.
It wasn't just defense where he made an impact, though. Whitehead was thrown into the mix on offense later in the year and proved he could be valuable there, too. His production on offense was relatively light (79 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, and two catches), but it's the promise that he can contribute there for years to come that is exciting. Whitehead can help fill the void in the backfield that will be presumably left by future NFL receiver Tyler Boyd and, assuming it doesn't wear him out too much, could become somewhat of a two-way player.
Pitt has to remain cautious about his workload. Earlier this year, Whitehead himself even acknowledged that the short turnaround in between some games makes remembering learning the offensive plays while handling his defensive assignments sometimes challenging. But as long as he is capable, it's exciting to think what he can do on both sides of the ball.
While Whitehead has made a huge impact at safety, the elephant in the room is where does he go from here on the Pitt defense? He's shown he can be a playmaker at safety, but cornerback remains a position of need for the team. While Lafayette Pitts was often criticized, the fact remains that he is a starter the team needs to replace. The other starter, Avonte Maddox, has also struggled a bit this season and the Panthers surely need help there. If Whitehead remains at safety it can't be deemed a terrible decision because he has played so well there. However, a move to cornerback shouldn't be ruled out, either, just because Pitt is shorthanded there.
Deservedly so, Whitehead earned some recognition throughout the year. On Monday, he was named to the ACC's All-Conference Third Team and he was named the ACC's Rookie of the Week three times this year.
Top recruits don't always pan out but in the case of Whitehead, it's reassuring to know that all the hype surrounding his arrival was justified.