Replenishing offense key to Pitt’s chances in 2019
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi had a difficult job preparing his team to play No. 2 Clemson on Saturday night in the ACC championship game.
And an even tougher time trying to make the game competitive.
But his greatest trick in his first half-decade of handling the reins of Pitt’s football program would be returning Pitt to the top of the ACC Coastal next season after losing 19 seniors.
Gone will be important players from every position on the field, except quarterback and tight end. It’s nice knowing Kenny Pickett can be behind center for the 2019 and ‘20 seasons, but will he have enough support?
The first place to look will be where Pickett needs help the most: the offensive line. Four starters will be gone, and center Jimmy Morrissey will be recovering from an ankle injury that ended his season Nov. 17. Morrissey could return at some point next spring, but there won’t be much experience around him.
Narduzzi and line coach Dave Borbely must juggle bodies, possibly making tight end Carson Van Lynn a full-time tackle. Morrissey’s injury allowed Bryce Hargrove to start two games at left guard and that experience should help next season.
But young linemen Brandon Ford, Gabe Houy and Jerry Drake Jr. must grow up in a hurry. Ford and Houy are Upper St. Clair graduates.
Just like this year when Narduzzi recruited left tackle Stefano Millin from the graduate transfer pool, expect the coach to keep another close eye on seniors looking for a new home.
While Narduzzi is doing that, maybe he should try to find a pass-catching tight end. Maybe you didn’t realize how important Scott Orndoff was to the passing game until he graduated.
Recruiting athletes directly from high school is the best way to replenish the roster but not the only way.
Arkansas transfer Will Gragg has made almost no impact, and Pitt has only one tight end in its incoming freshman class. Jason Collier of Westville, N.J., will be hard to miss at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds.
Maybe Narduzzi doesn’t want to rely on a freshman. Don’t be surprised if Pitt keeps working on Ventura (Calif.) College tight end Travis Koontz, 6-5, 250. He’s a former Pitt commit and a Youngstown, Ohio, guy (just like someone else close to the Pitt program). Koontz has multiple offers, including from Michigan State and LSU.
There are plenty of options at running back, but someone who barely touched the ball this season must emerge quickly.
All of a sudden, highly touted 2017 recruit A.J. Davis will be a junior, but he had only 41 career carries for a 145 yards before Saturday. There are high hopes for sophomores-to-be Mychal Salahuddin and Todd Sibley, but their best work has been in high school.
And how do you replace vicious blocking back George Aston? There doesn’t appear to be anyone on the roster approaching that kind of special talent.
Wide receiver looks solid as Pitt only loses Rafael Araujo-Lopes, a steady pass catcher, and potential game-breakers Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench return with high expectations and resumes to match. Together, they averaged 18.7 yards per catch and totaled seven touchdowns (before Saturday).
The defense loses seven seniors, but leaders such as Amir Watts, Saleem Brightwell, Damar Hamlin, Jazzee Stocker and Dane Jackson will be entering their final seasons.
Also, look for defensive end Rashad Wheeler, who was inexplicably left off even an ACC honorable mention team, to take another big step in his development. If he gets bigger and stronger in the offseason, which is what happens to the best players, he should get close to double digits in sacks. He led the team this season with 5 ½.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.