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Gorman: Can star safety Jordan Whitehead save Pitt's season?

Kevin Gorman
| Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, 7:54 p.m.
Pitt defensive back Jordan Whitehead returns to practice Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt defensive back Jordan Whitehead returns to practice Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Jordan Whitehead isn't being made available to talk publicly until after his season debut for Pitt, but that hasn't stopped the Panthers from talking about Jordan Whitehead.

No one seems more enthused about the return of the two-time All-ACC junior safety than defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, whose much-maligned unit desperately needs a boost.

“I'm going to be excited to get him back out there, get him rolling and let him do what he does — which is play football,” Conklin said Wednesday.

Pitt is holding out hope Whitehead can stop its defense from doing what it does — which is allow record-breaking passing performances.

After back-to-back losses to top-10 teams Penn State and Oklahoma State, you have to wonder if Whitehead is the one player who can save Pitt's season.

If not a savior, the Panthers at least need Whitehead to be the stopgap for a secondary under siege.

Pitt ranks 126th of 129 FBS schools in passing yards allowed (349 per game), is last in yards-per-completion (17.75) and next-to-last in yards per attempt (10.79) through its first three games.

The good news is the Panthers (1-2, 0-0) open ACC play Saturday at Georgia Tech (1-1, 0-0), whose triple-option offense leads the nation at 372.5 rushing yards per game.

That Pitt is counting so heavily on a player who was suspended for the first three games for violating team rules is evidence of both Whitehead's tremendous talent and the defensive deficiencies.

“Obviously, getting Jordan back will be a huge lift for everybody, and it'll take some pressure off some guys back there and get a guy that's really played in games,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said.

“But ... he hasn't played for three weeks, so it goes back to Groundhog Day.”

The alarm has sounded for the Panthers, who begin conference play with a clean slate and can still accomplish their preseason goal, which is to win the ACC championship.

But another defeat could put Pitt's season on the brink of irrelevancy.

So the Panthers are counting on Whitehead, who hasn't played in their past six games after breaking his right forearm Nov. 12 at Clemson.

“It's ACC time now. It's time for us to put our foot down and show what we can do,” Pitt sophomore receiver Aaron Mathews said. “The games behind us that we have lost, we're just going to leave them behind us. We're about to start rolling.

“Jordan being on the field is just exciting. You're going to know he's out there when he's out there.”

Whitehead's elite speed makes him a dangerous playmaker on both sides of the ball. The Central Valley graduate has averaged 10.5 yards per carry and led the team in tackles with 109 stops as a freshman and 65 in nine games last season.

“I think he brings an incredible energy,” Conklin said. “He's been there. He's been in some big games. He's done some really good things for us. I think the guys lean on his leadership, which is important.”

That leadership was evident to Conklin, who pointed out Whitehead has played the triple-option against Georgia Tech twice and Navy once. Conklin said Whitehead has been showing safety Damar Hamlin, a converted cornerback, how to make his reads.

“That's the type of stuff you get from a guy who's been there, a guy that's played,” Conklin said. “That, automatically, as a coach it gives you confidence.”

It should come as no surprise that Whitehead's return already is inspiring his Pitt teammates, on both sides of the ball.

“It's not even what he's going to do on the field,” sophomore running back Chawntez Moss said. “His leadership presence is going to help the team. His locker room presence is going to help the team. Having him back, period, is just great.

“We know Jordan. Jordan is a baller. Knowing that this guy in the locker room with me is going to go out and give everything he's got — and be pretty good at it — just gives everybody else the excitement to want to play harder.”

Pitt has to play better, especially on defense, and the Panthers have to hope Whitehead is the spark that saves their season.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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