Pitt Football Needs Offensive Improvement From Several Areas to Compete

Owen Drexel talks with teammate during Pitt practice. (Submitted by Pitt Athletics)

Based on the Pitt Panther 2021 football schedule, Pat Narduzzi needs to deliver that coveted 10-win season.  He has a 5-year, 23-year old quarterback in Kenny Pickett who could take snaps in the NFL if he had chosen that route.  Having this type of player is extremely rare and takes unforeseen circumstances, like a global pandemic, to make it happen.  However, it is not all coaching and the quarterback is only as good as those around him.  

Let's take a look at what the Panthers have offensively this season.

Quarterback

Kenny Pickett has improved year after year.  His passer rating has consistently been in the 120’s with last year’s mark of 129.6 being his career high.  He especially advanced last season in rushing touchdowns.  His career-high of eight helped the Panthers punch in several goal line stances they could not convert in previous years.

Another thing that Pickett has always excelled at is protecting the football.  Picket threw just nine interceptions in each of the last two seasons, on over 800 attempts.  That is extremely impressive.  Also, several INT's were in and out of Panther receiver hands and into defensive ones.  Those are counted against Pickett on the stat sheet, but should be like unearned runs for a pitcher in baseball.  When Pitt establishes a run game with Pickett protecting the ball, they are very hard to stop.

Running Backs

Speaking of the run game, Vincent Davis and AJ Davis Jr are both returning.  The Davises were the team’s two top rushers in 2020.  Vincent also played a role in the receiving game, catching 24 passes, which ranked him fourth on the team in receptions.  Additionally, talented sophomore, Israel Abanikanda is looking like he could receive much more playing time this season.  All three backs rushed for over three yards per carry last season, with Vincent and A.J. both at 4.4 and Abanikanda at 3.4.

Abanikanda graduated early from Abraham Lincoln High School in 2019.  He was named the state of New York's Gatorade Play of the Year.  At that time 247Sports had him as the best recruit coming out of New York and the No. 15 running back in the nation.  He was also a Gold Medalist at the New York City Mayor’s Cup Race in the 100-meter dash. 

Even though AJ Davis Jr received 61 attempts last season, Abanikanda is right on his tail.  I’m actually surprised neither A.J. or Abanikanda did not transfer out of the crowded backfield.  As of late, some even have Abanikanda over Vincent Davis as the No. 1 RB on the depth chart.  However, having too many talented running backs is a good problem to have for Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers.   

With super seniors Pickett and Vincent Davis alongside Junior AJ Davis, the Panthers have plenty of experience in the backfield.  Mistakes should be rare, and a mistake-free offense is a productive offense.

Wide Receivers

Pitt also has retained three of their top four receivers from last year.  Losing DJ Turner to the NFL will hurt, and ultimately this corp needs to develop as a group overall.  If there are two things to remember about the 2020 season it is Covid-19 and the Panthers apparent inability to hold on to the ball.  Drop after drop frustrated fans from the first snap of the season, to the end of the bowl game.

However, having Jordan Addison, Taysir Mack, and Shocky Jacques-Louis (the most fun name to say in all of college football) all one year older is more positive than negative.  I would rather have an experienced corp who previously had the case of the drops than an inexperienced one.  Also, I am not sure how Covid affected practice for these guys last season, but it could have.  Let’s hope a more regular practice schedule helps keep the ball in their hands.  However, it is definitely the biggest concern with this group. 

Tight Ends

Additionally, while the other Pittsburgh team playing at Heinz this year significantly improved at the tight end position, Pitt’s is a huge weakness.  Currently, the active tight ends on the roster combined for just four receptions last season. 

The listed No. 1, Lucas Krull, is a grad transfer from Florida and has just 10 career receptions across three seasons.  Red-shirt sophomore Kyi Wright had three receptions in 2020, for 34 yards receiving.  The only Panther tight end with a touchdown last year, Daniel Moraga, is no longer with the team.  

This group’s lack of experience, and receptions, is my biggest concern for the offense.  Pickett was able to convert some goal line stands with his legs, but he cannot every time down the field.  There is nothing more frustrating than moving the ball down the field just to settle for a field goal because the tight ends cannot make a presence in the end zone.

Offensive Line

The final concern for this Panther offense is the offensive line.  A quarterback is only as good as his receivers and his offensive line.  This, too, can be said for the running backs.  If Pitt cannot establish the threat of passing, defenses will stack the box against a weak offensive line and the running backs will stand no chance.

The offensive line was already relatively weak last season.  That was with Jimmy Morrissey at Center.  While I’m really happy for Jimmy Morrissey’s success so far as a Las Vegas Raider, that does not help Pitt.  The Panthers also lost two-year starter Bryce Hargrove at left guard.  Hargrove was just recently released by the Atlanta Falcons.

The one guy the Panthers are looking to step up is senior Owen Drexel.  He will be replacing the canyon-sized hole at center left by Morrissey.  Pitt also received Maryland transfer Marcus Minor who made 17 starts at the Big 10 school.  Furthermore, for better or worse, the rest of the starting line from 2020 returns.  Carter Warren will be protecting Pickett’s blindside at left tackle, while Jake Kradel and Gabe Houy protect his front.

Typically in college, returning experienced players are a good thing.  But with how poorly that unit performed last year, more fresh blood may have been better.  Sophomore Matt Gonclaves is trying to take the job from either Warren or Houy and I’m rooting for him. 

If Pitt had a new QB stepping in behind this O-line it’d be disastrous.  Fortunately, Pickett is used to running for his life while still putting the ball on receivers’ hands.  They just actually have to catch it this season.

 Conclusion

There are many areas the offense should improve.  A 5-year quarterback is only as good as his receivers around them, but it is an experienced group.  Also, the Panthers can deploy a rushing threat that should keep the box relatively stacked and open up some holes in the defense for the receivers to find. 

The offensive line just has to perform marginally better than last year and the receivers need to cut the drops.  If they do, Pitt’s offense should not be a detriment to this team.  However, those are two huge if’s.  And if the tight ends cannot get open in the end zone, and the offensive line cannot create more holes for the running backs, I'm concerned about Pitt's ability to score.  

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