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Pitt

Pitt football Blue-Gold game likely to answer some questions, create others

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, April 13, 2018, 6:54 p.m.
Kenny Pickett is the unquestioned starter at quarterback for Pitt.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Kenny Pickett is the unquestioned starter at quarterback for Pitt.
Pitt linebacker Quintin Wirginis goes through drills during spring practice Tuesday, April 3, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt linebacker Quintin Wirginis goes through drills during spring practice Tuesday, April 3, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Pitt linebacker Elijah Zeise goes through drills during spring practice Tuesday, April 3, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt linebacker Elijah Zeise goes through drills during spring practice Tuesday, April 3, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

If you're expecting Pitt's Blue-Gold game to be an accurate barometer of what you can expect in the fall, you might be looking under the wrong rock. You might remember last year's game:

• Chawntez Moss, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry, but was suspended during the season, played only six games and was dismissed.

• Or, those two sacks by defensive end Rori Blair.

• Or, quarterback Thomas MacVittie's touchdown run.

Blair was dismissed before the season. MacVittie got buried on the depth chart. Both are gone.

It wasn't all a mirage. Defensive end Rashad Weaver and quarterback Kenny Pickett played well, and they will be two of the most important players on either side of the ball this season.

The point: Pitt fans will see plays Saturday at Heinz Field that will excite and frustrate them. Even the bad ones might not matter, however. It's best to enjoy the day, hope it doesn't rain and pray no one gets hurt. Coach Pat Narduzzi will do all three, especially the last one.

Here is a breakdown of each position:

Quarterback

Pickett is the quarterback, stamped and authorized by Narduzzi: “It's his offense and his team.”

But Narduzzi is smart enough to keep the competition alive, so he said of Ricky Town: “Guys will rally around him, too.”

Keep an eye on the way Pickett reacts to the pass rush. Does he take off too soon or not soon enough? He already is showing leadership qualities (we're told), but the problem might be finding someone to play catch with during games.

Running back

Darrin Hall is the “bellcow” (the word Narduzzi uses to describe someone atop the depth chart). Don't expect coaches to overwork Hall.

Recently came across this stat: Hall was timed at 23 mph by Pitt's GPS tracking device during his 92-yard touchdown run last year against Duke. He could have a big season. Keeping him healthy is a priority.

The battle to watch — now that senior Qadree Ollison is out with a leg injury — is between sophomore A.J. Davis and redshirt freshman Todd Sibley Jr. It's impossible to pin down running backs coach Andre Powell on whom he favors, but Saturday's results will set the tone for summer training camp.

Wide receiver

Five players have some sort of injury: Ra-Ra Lopes, Aaron Mathews, Tre Tipton, Dontavius Butler-Jenkins and Shocky Jacques-Louis. Narduzzi said none is serious, but who runs routes Saturday?

Redshirt freshmen Darian Street and Michael Smith and sophomore Ruben Flowers III will get a chance to live up to their high school headlines.

If there was no such thing as the NCAA, which says Indiana transfer Taysir Mack must sit out the season, he might turn into Pitt's best pass catcher. He can play Saturday, and coaches made it sound like we should watch him.

Tight end

Junior Chris Clark's disappearance from the program makes this position fertile ground for another graduate transfer. Meanwhile, sophomore Tyler Sear's competition with redshirt freshmen Charles Reeves Jr. and Grant Carrigan continues.

Offensive line

Center Jimmy Morrissey is the anchor, and seniors Connor Dintino and Mike Herndon are putting down roots at guard. They are inexperienced, which could be problematic, but no one is panicking in public.

Alex Bookser is moving from guard to tackle and might bookend with graduate transfer Stefano Millin when he arrives from Kent State this summer.

Defensive line

Weaver and Dewayne Hendrix might be Pitt's best ends, but coaches keep talking about the rising play of sophomore Patrick Jones II and senior James Folston. It might be instructive to watch how well they get off their blocks and rush the passer.

Tackle Amir Watts, a junior with one career sack, was talking about his sack dance the other day. Any coach will tell you: Confidence is a good thing. Senior tackle Shane Roy doesn't say much, but he was a 12-game starter last year.

Linebacker

Narduzzi has hinted at middle man Quintin Wirginis' NFL potential. It sure sounds like the job is his. Saleem Brightwell started 12 games at mike last year and was second in tackles (73), but he may compete with Elijah Zeise for the start at money (outside).

Oluwaseun Idowu won't play Saturday because of an injury, but he's the starter at star (opposite money). His absence will give junior Anthony McKee Jr. an opportunity to turn heads.

Secondary

For years, we've heard about redshirt freshman Paris Ford's athleticism. It's time to see him on a real stage. He's moving from safety to cornerback, so how will he handle his new position and the competition from sophomores Jason Pinnock and Damarri Mathis and senior Phillipie Motley? And Dane Jackson is a returning starter. Looks like there's depth.

Junior free safety Damar Hamlin, who's smart, confident and athletic, has looked good (we're told), but a big hole at strong safety was left by Jordan Whitehead's move to the NFL. That leaves senior Dennis Briggs to ward off challenges from sophomore Phil Campbell and junior Jazzee Stocker.

Special teams

Punter Kirk Christodoulou and kicker Alex Kessman will perform for both teams. It's the first time since 2013, Pitt's first year in the ACC, the punter isn't named Ryan Winslow.

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

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