— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) April 18, 2015
In many ways Pitt football and the history of the very city it calls home have mirrored one another over the years. At the beginning of the 20th century Pittsburgh was a booming metropolis on the backs of Andrew Carnegie and the burgeoning steel industry. At the same time Pitt was building a football program with growing interest after a 10-0 mark in 1904. They attracted their first booster in the form of Andrew W. Mellon — whose institute of higher learning would later merge with Carnegie’s to form Carnegie Mellon University.
While U.S. Steel was trending toward becoming a target of the trustbusters, Pitt football was winning big as the school claimed the 1915, 1916 and 1918 national titles before later adding 1929, 1931, 1934, 1936, 1937 to the list. Of course the business of awarding national championships back then was murky at best, but the success was genuine.
The success on and off the field would continue all the way up until the early 1980’s when the bottom fell out of the steel and electronics industries that called Pittsburgh home. Just a few years removed from Pitt’s 1976 national title and Tony Dorsett’s Heisman Trophy, the program hit the skids as well after head coaches Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill left for Tennessee and Texas A&M respectively following successful tenures leading Pitt.
Today, Pittsburgh is once again a thriving city having emerged from the often literal darkness of the peak industrial age in America far better than many rust-belt cohorts. It’s too early to tell, but the Panther football program may be ready to follow suit. They share facilities with the Steelers, have a new athletic director in Scott Barnes, and after the recent revolving door at head coach they’ve potentially found stability with first-time head coach Pat Narduzzi.
Narduzzi is one of the best defensive coaches in the country after leading Michigan State’s defense for seven seasons, highlighted by winning the Broyles Award in 2013 given annually to the top assistant coach in college football.
He’ll have his work cut out improving a unit that ranked 58th in scoring defense and 101st in sacks last year.
Much of that improvement will have to come up front with a raw defensive line. Leading sacker and true sophomore Rori Blair is back at defensive end but the success up front may hinge on junior Tyrique Jarrett.
At 6’3″ 335-pounds, Jarrett is a massive force in the middle who improved his conditioning and overall athleticism during winter workouts and spring ball according to Narduzzi. Jarrett’s efforts earned him the Ed Conway Award as the most improved player on defense.
On offense, Pitt returns a successful backfield with quarterback Chad Voytik and tailback James Conner. Voytik threw for 2,233 yards with 16 touchdowns and just seven interceptions last season. He also ran for 466 yards and three touchdowns. Voytik ran for more than 100 yards twice in wins over Florida International and Virginia Tech.
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) April 17, 2015
James Conner ran for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns last season to lead the Panthers on the ground. He’s quickly established himself as a bruising talent and one of the most dominant runners in the nation. Tyler Boyd is another dynamic playmaker back at receiver after consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons with 1,261 yards coming in 2014. The offense is shaping up nicely for first-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
The search for a second receiver to help relieve some of the pressure on Boyd made considerable progress this spring. Junior Dontez Ford stepped up in the spring to win the Ed Conway Award for most improved player on offense. Ford transferred from Syracuse prior to the 2013 season, and while he started only the final three games in 2014, he has the size (6’2″, 205) and skill to be a nice compliment to Boyd on the outside.
The Panthers have a chance to be very good on offense and if the defense can step up, there’s a chance for Pitt to get the Narduzzi era off to a fast start. The schedule sets up well with the toughest stretch of games not coming until November when Pitt tackles Notre Dame, Duke, Louisville and Miami. If they can win early while improving as a team it’s very likely Pitt will return to a bowl game and be a very difficult win for those teams at the end of the year.