By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
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After a solid season under second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi, Pitt was able to scratch their way to an 8-4 (5-3) record and finish the season ranked #22 according to the AP Top 25. While the season was far from perfect and there was plenty of room for improvement (three of Pitt’s four losses were by a total of 11 points), the season saw a number of players shine, leading to ACC accolades. In total, nine players came away with All-Conference nods.
Headlining the Panthers’ All-ACC list was running back James Conner, who received his second 1st-Team All-ACC nod. Conner’s road to this point has been far from easy, having to go through recovery for a torn MCL and treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma over the course of the past year. However, Conner never appeared to lose a step, rushing for 1,060 yards and setting the ACC record this season for career touchdowns (56) and rushing touchdowns (52). His 20 total touchdowns in ACC play this season are also second only to Heisman Trophy front-runner Lamar Jackson of Louisville (21). Whether Conner stays for another year at Pitt has yet to be determined, but to say he has made his mark at Pitt over the past four seasons would be an understatement.
One defense, defensive lineman Ejuan Price had yet another standout season that separated him as one of the most dominant lineman in the country. In a season that saw him finish second nationally in tackles for loss (1.8 per game, 21.0 total) and fifth in sacks (one per game, 12 total), Price brought home his second-consecutive 1st-Team All-ACC honor. Price’s abilities on defense haven’t gone unnoticed, as he was recently ranked as the #33 player in all of college football according to ESPN. While Price has immense talent and has drawn comparisons to Ravens’ All-Pro outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, he has garnered mixed reviews from NFL scouts, largely his lack of size. Price will likely be one of the under-the-radar prospects of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Second-year safety Jordan Whitehead had his season cut short by injury but still managed to make a huge impact. Whitehead was one of Pitt’s most active defenders despite missing three games this season. He tallied 65 tackles, a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown against Virginia and a nine-yard fumble return against Penn State. After being named the ACC Rookie of the Year, Defensive Rookie of the year, and 3rd-Team All-ACC last season, Whitehead brought in 2nd-Team All-ACC honors to continue to shine as a top safety in the ACC.
Pitt was also well represented on special team’s, with kicker Chris Blewitt and returner Quadree Henderson bringing home honors. Blewitt received Honorable Mention All-ACC honors after he became Pitt’s all-time leader in kick scoring (357) and field goals (54) this season. He is also Pitt’s second-leading overall scorer this season with 90 points (9/15 field goals and 63/66 PATs). Henderson was one of the most electrifying return men in the country this season. Henderson has four returns for touchdowns this season, with three of them coming on kickoffs, which is the top in the nation. He also ranks second in the country in combined kick return yards (1,121), fifth in kickoff return average (31.1) and 11th in all-purpose yards per game (159.75). Many of these all-purpose yards came as a receiver as well, where he was also able to bring home Honorable Mention All-ACC honors. Henderson has been such an exciting player to watch for Pitt this year and has truly been a difference maker.
After having a solid 2015 season, underrated nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett exploded onto the scene this year, totaling 31 tackles and a sack as the anchor of the Panthers’ defensive line. Jarrett spent the offseason working on the details of his pass-rush technique and improving his conditioning, helping to make him an extremely well-rounded interior defensive lineman. At 6’3″, 335 lbs., Jarrett plays with deceptive athleticism and tremendous strength at the point of attack, causing him to stay on the field during all situations. If people did not know who Tyrique Jarrett was before the season, they know who he is now. Jarrett rose to the occasion time and time again this season, namely against Georgia Tech, when his huge stop on 4th-down set up the game-winning field goal for the Panthers and created one of the most memorable moments of the 2016 season. Even though he has missed some time due to injury, Jarrett was able to bring home Honorable Mention All-ACC this season. Jarrett has seen his draft stock substantially increase this year as well, leading to his name beginning to pop up in NFL scouting circles. With his blend of size, strength, and athleticism, Jarrett will be a player to keep an eye on in the coming months.
To no one’s surprise, the Panthers’ offensive line received a lot of recognition this season and that resulted with three All-ACC nod’s. The lineman trio of guard Dorian Johnson (1st-Team), tackle Adam Bisnowaty (2nd-Team), and tackle Brian O’Neill (3rd-Team) helped Pitt’s offense produce at an historic rate this season. The Panthers’ offensive line helped pave the way for the highest season point total in school history (508), which is an average of 42.3 points per game. Depending on how the Panther’s bowl game goes, the Panthers could shatter the all-time school record of 40.7 points per game, which was set in 1904. Pitt’s offensive line also help the Panthers average 447.5 yards of total offense per game, which would be the second highest average in school history depending on what happens in the bowl game. Pitt has surrendered just nine sacks this year, an average of 0.75 per game, which leads the ACC and is the third best average in the country. Johnson and Bisnowaty will both likely be early- to mid-round draft picks in 2017 due to their performances over the past two seasons. Needless to say, it was a fantastic year for Pitt linemen on both sides of the ball.
One surprising snub from the All-ACC teams was receiver Jester Weah. Weah had 795 yards on the year with nine touchdowns. While he only had 34 receptions, he averaged 23.4 yards per catch, which was the highest rate in the ACC. Weah was also eighth in yardage and tied for third in touchdown receptions in the ACC. There were some moments of inconsistency for Weah, but his success on the field should have been recognized. But you can’t win them all.
With another season almost completely in the books, Pitt has a lot to be proud of this season. The likely won’t settle, however, until they come away with a victory in their bowl game.