Five reasons to smile about Pitt in 2020


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Safety Paris Ford is a preseason candidate for several All-America teams. - USA TODAY

The past week has not been a good one for college football -- or the NCAA in general -- as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic triggered a series of events that will make the 2020 season, if there is one, unlike any other.

It just didn't start that way.

Monday was off to a casual, maybe even slow start. About the only ripple on the college sports scene came when leaders from the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12) told ESPN they were not ready to make any significant changes to the fall sports calendar.

By Wednesday, news was happening at a rapid pace was took on a more dire tone.

Ohio State and North Carolina put a halt to voluntary activities, but it pales in comparison to Stanford cutting 11 varsity sports and the Ivy League announcing it canceled fall sports and would not begin the winter sports season until at least Jan. 1. The Ivy League was the first major conference to make a decision regarding fall sports based on the coronavirus pandemic on the same day Division III Carnegie Mellon opted to cancel the fall sports season.

The hits just kept coming Thursday.

First, the ACC announced it would push back the start of fall sports to Sept. 1. It sounds impactful, but considering the conference football schedule wasn't set to kickoff until Sept. 2, the move only proved significant to soccer, cross country, volleyball and field hockey ... for now. Later that day, the Big Ten made a decision that dramatically altered the course of the football season when it announced its teams would play a conference-only schedule.

The Pac-12 followed suit Friday, while the ACC, Big 12 and SEC said it would wait until late July to make any further decisions regarding the fall sports season.

Not that the NCAA is offering oversight or guidance to its members.

So, depending on perspective, the decisions from the Power 5 conferences can be viewed as good news. Despite the cancelations, program cuts and budgetary concerns, college football in 2020 remains a possibility.

For Pitt, that's a good thing.

Even the normally and understandably pessimistic fan base feels optimistic about the Panthers' chances this fall. Then again, the most fickle of Pitt fans believe the season won't be played because so many promising pieces are in place.

But, for the sake of this exercise, let's look at the bright side and focus on five reasons why Pitt should feel optimistic about this season.


Pitt boasts returning starters at most positions.

Quarterback Kenny Pickett is entering Season 3 as a starter, and some believe he's ready to elevate his game after passing for more than 3,000 yards in 2019. Pickett will be surrounded by returning starters in running back A.J. Davis, wide receiver Taysir Mack and four offensive linemen in Jimmy Morrissey, Bryce Hargrove, Carter Warren and Jake Kradel.

Even backups such as receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis and running backs Todd Sibley and Vincent Davis were spot contributors who could see expanded roles this fall.

The defense brings back eight starters, including possible high-round NFL Draft picks in defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman, defensive end Patrick Jones II and safety Paris Ford. Those three were catalysts for one of college football's better defenses last season, but defensive end Deslin Alexandre, linebackers Cam Bright and Phil Campbell III, safety Damar Hamlin -- who was granted a fifth year of eligibility -- and cornerbacks Jason Pinnock and Damarri Mathis also were vital to the unit's success, and all are back.

Even Pitt's special teams is experienced, returning punter Kirk Christodoulou, kicker Alex Kessman and long snapper Cal Adomitis.


Speaking of that defense, it gets a big boost -- as if it needed one -- with the return of defensive end Rashad Weaver and defensive tackle Keyshon Camp.

Weaver missed all of last season with a knee injury, and Camp suffered a season-ending knee injury during the opener against Virginia. Weaver was a disruptive force in 2018, and Camp figured to be a stout run-stuffer while playing beside Twyman.

How can Pitt improve defensively? Adding Weaver and Camp to an already potent mix is a good start.


Given everything that's happened since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in March, February sure seems like a long time ago. Does anyone remember when Mark Dantonio resigned as head coach at Michigan State and many assumed Pat Narduzzi would return to the place where he had great success as a defensive coordinator?

Given the timing, it might be easy to forget, but the rumors were swirling at the time.

Narduzzi even addressed them, saying: "I'm here at Pitt. I want to be here at Pitt. That's where I'm going to be."

So he enters his sixth season at Pitt with his most experienced team and a stabile coaching staff. The program desperately needed a stabile presence at the top, and Narduzzi is providing it for a program that went through a handful of coaches after Dave Wannstedt resigned under pressure following a disappointing 7-5 season in 2010. That, coincidentally, was Wannstedt's sixth season at Pitt.

From Matt Canada to Jim Chaney to Shawn Watson, Pitt has run through offensive coordinators in recent years, too. This season will be the second for Mark Whipple, which should benefit Pickett.


It couldn't last season.

Pitt put together one of its better defensive seasons in recent history, but the offense failed to finish drives. The Panthers scored 275 points, the second-lowest total in the ACC Coastal (Georgia Tech managed only 200) and third-worst in the ACC.

Somehow, Pitt finished 8-5 despite being outscored. That's hard to do, but it's attributable to the defense.

We know the defensive stats from 2019. We know the the returning starters and the guys coming back from injury. We know the group could be the best in the Coastal. It's time for the offense to catch up.

And a lot of signs point toward it being able to do so. From Pickett's experience and drive to speed at the receiver position, an experienced offensive line and more time learning Whipple's system, thinking the offense can be worse is an exercise in pessimism not suitable for this piece.


For all the talk about Pitt's defense, national publications aren't impressed.

CBS Sports and ESPN predicts Pitt to finish 7-5, 4-4 in the Coastal. Athlon gave the Panthers a national ranking of 39. Most see Pitt finishing behind North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech.

Considering players were placed in a two-week quarantine beginning June 8 and have been kept in smaller groups for workouts and other activities since, they likely have had plenty of time to read those predictions.

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