The 2016 Pitt season wrapped up the other day with a loss to Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl. Still, it’s never too early to start looking ahead to the 2017 season. Pitt will have a nice blend of returnees and young players to balance the roster. Pat Narduzzi’s squad will have a different look though, as so many of the key players this year will be graduating.
I won’t be including any of the 2017 recruiting class for this article, I’ll wait until they are signed and enrolled at Pitt. So much craziness will happen between now and signing day, it’s just easier to wait and see what unfolds.
Projected Starter - Max Browne
Top Contenders - Tom MacVittie, Ben DiNucci
Pitt will lose two-year starter Nathan Peterman to graduation. Peterman turned out to be a solid player for the Panthers and was a key figure in one of Pitt’s best offenses in recent memory. I suspect Pitt will now turn to another transfer quarterback to anchor the offense.
Max Browne transferred to Pitt earlier this month from USC. He was a one time five-star recruit, and the number one overall QB in the country coming out of high school. He initially won the starting job for USC this year, but was replaced after three games. The pedigree is certainly there, as he has the prototypical size for a quarterback standing at 6’5” and weighing in at 225. He will have to earn the job, but he is the proverbial favorite for sure.
If Browne were to lose the job, some suspect redshirt freshmen Tom MacVittie could win it. Many Pitt fans have envisioned Macvittie as the quarterback of the future, and perhaps it could come as soon as next season. Ben DiNucci will also be back to provide depth.
Projected Starter - Darrin Hall
Top Contenders - Qadree Ollison, Chawntez Moss
With James Conner entering the draft, it leaves quite a void at the running back position. Conner finished his career as Pitt’s second all-time leading rusher and had a remarkable career for a variety of reasons. Not only was he a great player, he was Pitt’s face of the program and a team leader. Losing him hurts on multiple levels.
I think Pitt has three viable options to be the featured back next season, and I’m predicting junior-to-be Darrin Hall to win the job, but it could really go to Ollison and Moss just the same - it’s that close. Hall has rushed for 417 yards in his first two seasons. His usage went down this past season, but with Conner healthy it changed everyone’s role. Hall stands at 5’11” 225 and has some speed and power. He can catch the ball as well.
Qadree Ollison ended up as the starter in 2015 after the Conner injury, and responded with a 1,000 yard season. He has 1,248 career rushing yards to go along with 13 touchdowns. He has also caught 16 passes for 115 receiving yards during his career. Ollison is a bigger back in stature, but does not have the same bruising running style as Conner. Still, he’s a between the tackles type of back and is the most proven of all the guys in this competition.
Chawntez Moss may have the brightest future among the three backs, and he could very well win the starting job. Moss had a big day against Marshall this year with 12 carries for 97 yards. He finished his true freshman season with 227 yards and a touchdown. He came on strong as the second back early in the season, but an injury kept him off the field for much of the second half. All three guys should play their fair share next season, but the competition to be the main back will be one to watch.
Projected Starter - George Aston
George Aston’s return is a welcomed one, as he is easily one of the best fullbacks in college football. It will be interesting to see how the new offensive coordinator gets him involved, but given his 2016 campaign he will have to have a big role next season. Aston rushed for 5 touchdowns and caught 5 touchdown passes this season. In two years, Aston has 30 career receptions. He is a very valuable and versatile weapon. There is not another scholarship fullback on the roster, so for Aston to go down it would either mean a walk-on would get playing time, or the offense would have to change.
Projected Starters - Jester Weah, Quadree Henderson
Top Contenders - Aaron Mathews, Maurice Ffrench, Tre Tipton, Rafael Araujo-Lopes
Pitt used seven different wide receivers this past season, and six of them are returning for next year. This position looked like a weakness heading into 2016, but could be considered a strength in 2017.
Jester Weah emerged as a huge down field threat in 2016, and finally displayed the potential we all heard about for years. Weah led Pitt with 36 receptions, 870 yards, and 10 touchdowns. His best stat is probably his 24.2 yards per catch average. Weah is a big weapon and should improve upon his numbers in 2017. Quadree Henderson is Pitt’s second returning wide receiver, but as we saw he’s more of a weapon than a true receiver. He was third on the team with 26 receptions, but only had 286 receiving yards. His worth really came as a runner, as he was second on the team with 631 rushing yards. I suspect Pitt will try to work him into the passing game more next season. Either way, he will be a big factor on offense.
Perhaps one player that could really take a big step next season is Aaron Mathews. The Clairton product was one of the few true freshmen to see playing time this season, and he didn’t make a huge splash. His best plays came on special teams. Given his size and athletic ability, he will be expected to do more next season. His best game did come in the Pinstripe Bowl, and that could be something to build upon. Also look for Tre Tipton to have a role. He has battled injuries in his young career, but did have some productive games mid-season before he got hurt. One other name to remember is Ruben Flowers, who took a redshirt this season. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school.
To go along with Henderson, Pitt has similar players in Maurice Ffrench and Rafael Araujo-Lopes. Both players fit more into a slot-receiver role. In fact, Ffrench didn’t catch one pass this season, but had 122 rushing yards. Araujo-Lopes had three catches, but six rushing attempts. We’ll see how they fit into the mix under the new offensive coordinator. There is talks Ffrench could move to defense, so that could be something to watch.
Projected Starter - Chris Clark
Pitt is losing Scott Orndoff and Jaymar Parrish to graduation. Orndoff had a very good career, and a strong senior season. His standout performance was his 9 catch 128 yard two touchdown performance in Pitt’s upset win over Clemson. Parrish was more of an H-Back, blocking tight end, and his impact will be missed there. Chris Clark is technically the only returning scholarship tight end for next season. If you follow recruiting, you’ll know Pitt has three tight ends committed currently, and that’s not on accident - they need the numbers.
Chris Clark is a UCLA transfer, and he comes with a strange backstory. He committed to a number of schools and kept flipping until he finally landed on UCLA. He opted to transfer after one game for the Bruins and initially settled on Syracuse. That fell through, and now Pitt has Clark. Now don’t sleep on Clark, he was the #1 tight end in the nation coming out of high school. He had offers from everywhere. He has a clear path to the starting job next season.
Projected Starter - Brian O’Neill
Projected Starter - Alex Officer
Projected Starter - Connor Dintino
Projected Starter - Alex Bookser
Projected Starter - Jaryd Jones-Smith
Top Contenders - Brandon Ford, Alex Paulina, Justin Morgan, Mike Grimm, Tony Pilato, Bryce Hargrove
Pitt loses two mainstays on their offensive line in Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson. Bisnowaty started 43 career games and Johnson started 42. Both were heralded recruits, solid college players, and guys with NFL futures. They will be sorely missed. Even so, Pitt should have a very good line once again. They have some young up and coming guys, blended with some veterans, and they have also hit the recruiting trail hard.
I’m projecting that Brian O’Neill will make the move to Left Tackle. He has started 25 of the 26 games he has played in at Right Tackle, and heading into his junior season he will be regarded as one of the better linemen in the country. He also won the Piesman this year, so there’s that. I also project starting center Alex Officer moving to guard. He started the entire 2015 season at guard, so it shouldn’t be a tough transition. Officer has 36 career starts under his belt.
The other returning starter will be Right Guard, Alex Bookser. He started every game this past season. Bookser was a big time recruit out of high school, and he looks to be falling in line with the tradition of good linemen to play for Pitt from the Pittsburgh area.
Jaryd Jones-Smith is a massive presence and should assume a role as a starter once again. Jones-Smith has some starting experience dating back to the 2014 season. He missed all of 2015 with a devastating injury, but played some this season. There was talks of him getting drafted a few years ago, perhaps those talks can resume again with him getting a starting job again.
I predict Connor Dintino to earn the starting center job in 2017. He was a defensive tackle initially, but transitioned to offense this past season. He impressed in the off-season, and should be one of the favorites to land a starting role in 2017.
Beyond that, a lot of new faces will fill out the two-deep depth chart. Mike Grimm is a local product that was a one time four-star recruit, he will be one to monitor. Justin Morgan, Brandon Ford, and Bryce Hargrove all took redshirts this season. Tony Pilato and Alex Paulina will be sophomores.