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Q&A: Get To Know the Pittsburgh Panthers



Ready or not, it’s Power 5 time and while the ghosts of Dan Marino and Larry Fitzgerald won’t be running around, a Michigan State-style defense and bruising running back James Conner are coming to the Boone. We get caught up with Pitt Panther writer Anson Whaley who brought some great insight on the road team.

This interview was actually conducted before the Penn State game so there are a few updates to the piece.

1. On the heels of a 2nd place finish in the ACC Coastal, ticket sales at their highest since 2003, and the miraculous return of 2014 ACC Player of the Year and sophomore running back James Conner from Hodgkins Lymphona, what are expectations for the season?

I think the hope is that they compete for the ACC Coastal Division and weasel their way into the title game. There aren’t any real expectations that they’ll be able to knock off the Atlantic winner (likely either Clemson or Florida State) if they do, but they are mostly only competing with the likes of North Carolina, Miami, and maybe Virginia Tech for the Coastal Division. I don’t know that they can win the division, but that’s pretty much the goal. An eight-win season with a pretty difficult schedule would be nice.

2. With guys like All-America candidates tackle Adam Bisnowaty and guard Dorian Johnson upfront, James Conner and 2015 2nd team All-ACC RB Quadree Ollison in the backfield, is the offense primarily shaped around the ground attack?

I’d say so. With the loss of wide receiver Tyler Boyd, the passing game is really a big question mark. Those two runners, coupled with sophomore four-star recruit Darrin Hall combine for a very strong backfield. The passing game can be decent, but make no mistake it’s the running game that will probably determine the team’s fortunes this year from an offensive standpoint. Quarterback Nathan Peterman has been steady but until a receiver steps up to consistently make plays, I think they will look to run the ball and control the clock whenever possible.

3. Head Coach Pat Narduzzi was known for his monster defenses at Michigan State and defensive ends Ejuan Price (All ACC) and Tennessee transfer Dewayne Hendrix stick out, as well as proven safety Jordan Whitehead. What are the strengths and weaknesses you see on that side of the ball?

I think you pretty much hit on them. Defensive end and safety are the real strengths there. Now, there are some questions at end since Hendrix was injured in the Villanova game and head coach Pat Narduzzi is mum on his status. (Update: Hendrix is now out for the season) If he is out, they still have Price but that unit takes a hit.

Safety is very solid with Whitehead, who is a legitimate star, and with the combination of Terrish Webb and Reggie Mitchell at the other spot. Webb is the starter right now but both have started in their careers and are pretty good. There are more questions at cornerback, linebacker, and defensive tackle, but the defense played extremely well against Villanova in their opener. (Update: The run defense did a solid job against Penn State as well)

4. Players like Conner and ACC sack leader Price are names that are recognized, but who are other players Cowboy fans should be on the lookout for in week 3?

Whitehead may be the team’s best defensive player so he should be one guy to watch. He also played some offense since he’s so good with the ball in his hands so that makes him even more special. I’d also say to keep an eye on wide receiver Quadree Henderson. He is a starter for the first time and a playmaker to be sure. He also plays on special teams and has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the team’s last two games (dating back to last year’s bowl game). Henderson is still learning on the job as a true sophomore but has some big play ability.

Update on Henderson: Make that three long returns, Henderson nearly ran one back in the 4th to change the momentum in Week 2 vs. Penn State.

6. While I’m sure losing the natural rivalries has been a negative (i.e. Backyard Brawl against WVU), how has the football life in the ACC been for the Panthers?

In football, much work remains. Pitt has taken some positive first steps with the hiring of Narduzzi, some improved recruiting efforts, and eight wins for the first time in five years. But realistically, they have a long way to go to seriously register on the national radar. The good news for the program, as I mentioned, is that they are in a good spot to reach a conference title game in the division as it stands now.

Things fluctuate over time but they have a much better chance than a team like Syracuse, which landed in the Atlantic with Florida State and Clemson. Ultimately you have to beat one of those teams to win the conference, but Pitt is in a decent situation to at least reach a title game if they continue to recruit well.

7. Bonus question here: a lot of OSU fans are also OKC Thunder fans and can’t say enough about how much we’ve enjoyed former Panther Steven Adams. Any stories about what he was like in college?

You know, it’s funny seeing Adams where he is now compared to what he was like here. He was only here for one year before leaving for the NBA and here, it seemed like he was more just trying to fit in. He would say something funny every now and then but he’s really come out of his shell in the NBA now that he knows he belongs. I think at Pitt it was more about improving his game and trying to see where he stood.

He was very raw here so it was disappointing to see him leave after only a year when we knew what he could be in a couple of seasons at Pitt. But I’m really happy for him since he’s a genuinely nice guy. He left to earn money and take care of his family and given how high he went, it was clearly the right move. It’s just sort of weird seeing him turn into the pop culture icon he sort of is.

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