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Behind Enemy Lines: 2015 Pitt football preview

Pitt was an improving squad under Paul Chryst. How far can Pat Narduzzi take the Panthers?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Last year's victory over Pitt was one of the Hoos' most complete wins of the year, and arguably the high-water mark of the 2014 season: Virginia stood 4-2 with the win, and 2-0 in the ACC. The offseason saw Paul Chryst depart for Wisconsin and former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi take the helm for the Panthers. What does 2015 have in store for Pitt?

Anson Whaley of Cardiac Hill was kind enough to answer our questions. Be sure to check them out for all your Pitt Panthers coverage.

STL: Give me the rundown on how excited Pitt fans are about new head coach Pat Narduzzi. Feel free to use this scale: french-fries-on-my-sandwich excited at the low end, beating-#2-West-Virginia excited at the other.

CH: Yeah, let's go with the West Virginia thing (partially because I hate the idea of french fries on sandwiches). In all seriousness, fans are pretty excited. Many people didn't want to see Paul Chryst go since, despite the lack of on-field success, he was stocking the cupboard and recruiting well at positions he viewed as very important, such as offensive line and running back. But at the end of the cycle, the Narduzzi hire looks like an upgrade because Chryst really didn't accomplish much on the field.

He's not only known as a great recruiter, but he has a staff full of dynamic recruiters. Many of those coaches, too, had significant experience at the position for which they were hired and that wasn't always the case under Chryst.

Narduzzi is also saying/doing all the right things. He's been at a slew of offseason events meeting fans throughout the entire state, and has drawn a ton of praise for how he's handled himself. Fans are very impressed with the way he attacks recruiting on Twitter. He's also been engaged in trying to jumpstart an annual rivalry game with Penn State, which most are in favor of.

We'll see how much on-field success that translates into and it's worth noting that many fans were excited about the last two hires - neither of which worked out in terms of wins and losses. But so far, he is pushing all the right buttons so the excitement level is pretty high.

STL: Who are the most important players to watch who return from last season?

CH: The two big ones are running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Both had huge seasons last year and barring any sort of weird circumstance, are probably headed to the NFL after this year.

Conner had 1,765 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns last year while Boyd had 78 catches for 1,261 yards. There are major questions about the defense, but those two guys, along with quarterback Chad Voytik, who now has a year of playing experience under his belt, provide plenty of optimism on offense for this year.

It's important that the team gets both of those guys going since they open things up for the other. When the running game is successful, it allows Pitt to take some shots downfield to Boyd. If Boyd gets involved in the offense early, defenses can't stack defenders up in the box and have to play to defend the pass a little better. Boyd got off to a slow start last year in developing some chemistry with Voytik, but if they both are involved in the offense early, the offense should score a lot of points.

Boyd will miss the first game of the season after DUI charges, but should return for the second contest. Both are big play guys and the offense should be an exciting one once he gets back on the field.

STL: Which newcomers are you most excited about?

CH: The one at the top of the list is recruit Jordan Whitehead. Whitehead was rated as Rivals' top recruit in all of Pennsylvania and Pitt beat out practically everyone to get him as he had offers from tons of schools, including Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and plenty more.

He was rated as the sixth best cornerback in his class (again, per Rivals), and was fully expected to play there. It was announced recently, though, that he's actually likely to play safety instead. Regardless of where he ends up, he instantly will boost a secondary that struggled quite a bit last year.

Beyond him, it's going to be interesting to see how many others find their way onto the field. Pitt had only one other four-star recruit, running back Darrin Hall. With so much depth there, it's possible he doesn't even get on the field this year. A couple of transfers, defensive lineman Mark Scarpinato and JUCO wide receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes could both factor in, but in terms of true freshman recruits, there are a lot of unknowns as we head into camp.

STL: What are the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of the 2015 Panthers?

CH: The biggest strength is the offense collectively. It's difficult to single out one position, because Pitt has some talent at all of them. Other than Boyd and Conner at wide receiver and running back, Pitt is also sound at quarterback where junior Chad Voytik has a year of playing experience. He got markedly better in the second half of last season and is a legit dual-threat quarterback with some impressive running ability. And while they haven't been used all that much, the team is solid at tight end, led by two pretty decent receivers and blockers in J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff.

The offensive line suffered some losses (two starters to graduation and one, Jaryd Jones-Smith, will be out for this season due to injury) from last year's team. But the Panthers have a deep offensive line, largely because of what Chryst was able to build here. Pitt has recruited 12 linemen in the past four years and four have been four- or five-star recruits. The team also gets a boost from the return of starting center Artie Rowell, who went down early last season with an injury. Overall, that unit should be fine as well.

The entire defense was lackluster last season, but the secondary should improve with the addition of Whitehead and with several younger players adding more experience. Pitt lost two of their three starting linebackers to graduation, but also have some skilled younger players that should make that transition easier. For me, the biggest question mark is on the defensive line. Last year, Pitt ranked near the bottom of the FBS in sacks and failed to mount much real pressure against opposing quarterbacks. That does have the look of an experienced unit (three of the four projected starters are seniors), but that group has a lot to prove.

STL: What does this team need to do to count this season as a success?

CH: With a strong possibility of losing Boyd and Conner after this season, there's sort of a sense of now or never. Pitt does have several quality running backs in the fold, but those two players don't come along at the same time every year. There's too much talent on offense to not break the string of four consecutive 6-6 seasons the team endured under Chryst and Todd Graham.

For me, this has to at least be an 8-win team. Narduzzi will get a pass if they don't get there, but there's too much talent on offense to not reach that goal. Getting to eight wins (including a bowl) would be a great start to the Narduzzi era and what I'd call a successful year for the first-year head coach.