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Pitt could get 3 defensive starters back in lineup vs. North Carolina

Jerry DiPaola
| Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, 1:06 p.m.
Pitt's Avonte Maddox picks off a  Oklahoma State pass in the third quarter Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Avonte Maddox picks off a Oklahoma State pass in the third quarter Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Defensive back Avonte Maddox (left) could return to action Thursday when Pitt hosts North Carolina.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Defensive back Avonte Maddox (left) could return to action Thursday when Pitt hosts North Carolina.

On the eve of Pitt's first prime-time game of the season, time seems to be repairing — if not resolving — two of the problems that have plagued the team this season.

Injuries are healing, and after nine games and 14 weeks of practices, meetings and video study, Pitt is not nearly as inexperienced as it was during its 1-3 start to the season.

Since then, Pitt is 3-2, and the Panthers will take a two-game winning streak — their first since late last season — into Heinz Field on Thursday night to meet North Carolina (1-8, 0-6). The game will be televised by ESPN.

The good news for coach Pat Narduzzi is he will have three defensive starters in uniform who weren't available in a 31-14 victory against Virginia on Oct. 28. And that was Pitt's best defensive effort against a Power 5 opponent.

Cornerback Avonte Maddox, defensive end Dewayne Hendrix and defensive tackle Keyshon Camp are expected to dress, if not play.

Maddox, a senior co-captain, injured his arm in the victory at Duke and was on the sideline — wearing a sling — the following week. Maddox appears ready to return to the field, but Narduzzi might decide to give him another week to recover, if the position is being handled ably by the younger replacements.

Phillipie Motley, a junior who missed most of training camp with an injury, started against Virginia and recorded two tackles and one of Pitt's three pass breakups. Also, freshman cornerbacks Jason Pinnock and Damarri Mathis have received occasional playing time in recent weeks.

“I think the progression has been in the quality of depth that we've got,” Narduzzi said. “I think they understand what they're supposed to do.

“With a young football team it takes reps. It takes game reps. You can't just practice all day and become great players.

“It's like being great in history class all day and paying attention, but you never have a test. The test is where you find out if you're better or not.” Not all the injury news is good, however. Tight end Matt Flanagan, the team's fourth-leading pass catcher, is out with an undisclosed injury. Flanagan has 17 receptions for 160 yards while starting every game since transferring from Rutgers. He will be replaced by sophomore Chris Clark, who has 11 catches for 60 yards and a touchdown.

Also listed as probable on the injury list is reserve linebacker Anthony McKee Jr.

Along with Flanagan, cornerback Malik Henderson, linebacker Quintin Wirginis and fullback George Aston, who have missed all or most of the season, remain out.

Plus, former starting quarterback Max Browne (shoulder) is lost for the season after playing in only six games. Sophomore wide receiver Tre Tipton, who was expected to contribute to the passing game, injured his knee outside of football in July and is lost for the season.

North Carolina has its own problems in the training room. After practice Tuesday night, Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora listed 20 players on his injury list.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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