5 things to watch in Pitt’s spring game
Pitt will celebrate its football program — past and present — Saturday with its spring game at Heinz Field.
It’s an opportunity to get a look at what Pat Narduzzi, his coaches and players have worked on for the past month, and to maybe meet the game’s honorary coaches, former Pitt stars Aaron Donald and LeSean McCoy, and other alums.
This spring, the fan base should be especially eager for this preliminary look at the Panthers, considering the team is coming off an ACC Coastal championship while also rebuilding an offense. Mark Whipple, the new offensive coordinator, is entrusted with makeovers on the line and in the backfield.
Here are five reasons to watch:
1. What can the run game do for an encore?
No one expects Pitt to have two 1,000-yard rushers in back-to-back seasons, but three guys sharing snaps sounds promising, if difficult to pull off when the games count.
A.J. Davis, Todd Sibley and V’Lique Carter have yet to separate themselves, and they will get company in the fall from freshmen Daniel Carter and Vincent Davis and redshirt freshman Mychal Salahuddin, who is rehabbing a leg injury.
Davis and Sibley were highly regarded recruits in 2017. Carter, a former cornerback, offers game-breaking speed.
It’s hard to project five months into the future, but this much appears true: Carter is gaining more traction as a running back than he did last season when 137 of his 202 rushing yards and both touchdowns came in one game.
2. Will there be holes for RBs?
The offensive line will look decidedly different in the fall, too. Center Jimmy Morrissey, the team’s top returner up front, will sit out the game while rehabbing from foot surgery. Grad transfer Nolan Ulizio won’t arrive from Michigan until this summer. Plus, in the spring game, the best linemen are split between the teams to maintain competition.
But keep an eye on tackles Carter Warren and Gabe Houy and guards Bryce Hargrove, Rashad Wheeler and Chase Brown. Hargrove started three games last season but has much to prove. Brown had trouble last season with the transition from junior college, but he has been a first-teamer for the past two weeks.
Everyone knows there are no guarantees.
Brown said, “No one’s getting comfortable. Other than Bryce and Jimmy, everybody else is open season.”
3. Will the defense step up?
Fourth-year junior defensive end Rashad Weaver is one of Pitt’s smartest players.
He recorded 14 tackles for loss last season and had some interesting comments late in camp about his expectations for the defense.
Pitt allowed 37 or more points in six games last season, and Weaver’s goal is to keep each opponent under 30 this year, with “a couple shutouts.”
“That’s when you become a dominant defense,” he said. “You can’t have five good games and have teams score 50 on you. They don’t score at all, we win.”
4. What about deep passing game?
Whipple likes to unleash his quarterbacks and call deep throws, and he has plenty of eager pass catchers trying to win his approval.
Wide receivers Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench can get open deep, and others such as Dontavious Butler-Jenkins, Tre Tipton and Michael Smith are reaching critical points in their collegiate careers where it’s time to make an impact. Sophomore Shocky Jacques-Louis has shown the ability to stretch high school defenses in Florida. Next stop: the ACC.
Weaver said the defense is noticing the difference in the offense.
“They’re not scared to throw the ball anymore,” he said.
5. Please, don’t get hurt
Vanilla will be the flavor of the day, with the idea being to keep everyone healthy.
“Maybe we can call up a high school team and score points on them,” Narduzzi said when asked about making the spring game more entertaining. “I don’t think the score of the game is going to matter.
“I want to come out of it healthy. I’m not worried about how many points you scored. If it’s 58-52, I’ll be happy. If It’s 7-3, I’ll be happy. Doesn’t matter.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .