Pitt Spring Practice Primer

Pitt begins spring practice Tuesday, and the Panthers will begin their search to find replacements for some key contributors.

Pat Narduzzi has brought stability to the Pitt football program, and the Panthers will enjoy one of many luxuries that brings in this spring practice period. The team can simply focus on improvement and nothing more. 

Pitt will practice 14 times in a schedule that begins Tuesday and runs through the middle of April. Spring practice culminates with the Blue-Gold Spring Game at Heinz Field on April 16.

The players know the coaches, and vice-versa, and all parties involved know the playbook. Matt Canada replaced Jim Chaney as Pitt's offensive coordinator, but that's the only change for a team that's faced a whole lot of it in recent seasons.

Pitt returns six All-ACC performers to the roster this season, and eight starters on each side of the ball.

But some huge contributors departed in the group of six starters who departed the program. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd's early declaration for the NFL Draft leaves a massive void at wide receiver as the Clairton product leaves Pitt as the most productive receiver in program history.

Additionally, the Panthers are now without center Artie Rowell and tight end J.P. Holtz who were reliable mainstays at their respective positions the last few seasons. 

Dontez Ford lined up across from Boyd at receiver last season and the 6-foot-2 senior from McKees Rocks will take over as the Panthers No. 1 receiver. Ford caught 26 passes for 505 yards and two touchdowns last season. 

Behind Ford, though, the depth chart is mostly murky. Zach Challingsworth and Elijah Zeise saw time last season and could challenge for the No. 2 spot. Jester Weah oozes with at 6-foot-4 and the possession of elite speed, but he's been hampered by inconsistency in his career. Chris Wuestner, a walk-on who played his way into a scholarship two years ago, missed all of last season due to an injury and could factor into the depth chart as well. 

Sophomores Quadree Henderson and Tre Tipton are young receivers with playmaking ability, which Henderson displayed on his 100-yard kick return touchdown in the Military Bowl. Rafael Araujo-Lopes, a highly-productive JUCO transfer who redshirted in 2015, Jaquaun Davidson, Kellen McAlone, Gentry Ivery and Mark Bernsdorff are among other receivers who will take reps at receiver in spring camp. 

Alex Officer, a starter at guard last season, will miss spring practice due to his injury sustained in December's Military Bowl. He is expected to take over the starting center position when he regains full health, as he did when Rowell suffered a season-ending knee injury early in 2014. In the meantime, former defensive tackle Connor Dintino--who also saw time at fullback in goal-line packages last season--is now listed as a center on Pitt's spring roster. 

Jaryd Jones-Smith's return from a knee injury that kept him out for all of last season will give Pitt additional depth on the line after he was a projected starter prior to the 2015 season. Sophomore Alex Bookser could be the leading candidate to fill the gap Officer vacates at guard. 

Scott Orndoff will assume the lead tight end role with Holtz's departure. Orndoff is an experienced player with 32 games under his belt over the last three seasons, and he caught 13 passes for 244 yards and five touchdowns last season. Behind Orndoff, Jaymar Parrish will likely see more time as a tight end in his capacity as an H-back. 

Devon Edwards will be in the mix for the third tight end spot, as will Zach Poker who converted from defensive end. Nate Bossory, a quarterback transfer from Air Force, also converted to tight end and could vie for time this spring. Also, transfer Chris Clark who was a 5-star recruit in the Class of 2015, may be an option depending on what the NCAA rules regarding his eligibility. 

On defense, the Panthers lose four-year starter Lafayette Pitts at corner, linebacker Nicholas Grigsby and tackle Khaynin his in Mosley-Smith. Darryl Render, who was a key member of Pitt's interior line rotation, is also gone to graduation. 

Third-team All-ACC performer Avonte Maddox returns at cornerback but Pitts' replacement may not be in camp, depending on what Class of 2016 signee Damar Hamlin brings in fall training camp. Until then, Phillipie Motley will get an early crack at competing for time alongside redshirt freshmen Malik Henderson and Dane Jackson.

While the Panthers lose Grigsby at the "Star" outside linebacker position, they essentially have two at the "Money" position in Bam Bradley and Mike Caprara. Caprara said last year he is comfortable at every linebacker spot and could move over to the Star while Bradley remains at Money, but that remains to be seen. The talented and speedy redshirt freshman Saleem Brightwell could have a chance to play his way into reps at the Star as well. 

Pitt's interior line is probably the defensive staff's biggest concern heading into the spring with the departures of Render and Mosley-Smith. The disruptive Tyrique Jarrett will anchor the front, but the Panthers need to find a running mate for the massive nose tackle.

Jeremiah Taleni will have a chance after he saw time in 14 games over the last two seasons. The main competition will likely come between Talent and Shakir Soto who, now listed at 270 pounds, moves to tackle after playing 39 games in three season at end.

While on the subject of defensive line, the Panthers will now have an eligible Dewayne Hendrix who will likely take over at the starting end spot opposite of Ejuan Price who was granted an additional year of eligibility. Hendrix has dominated practices during the last year while he sat out due to his transfer from Tennessee. Allen Edwards, a JUCO recruit, has also turned heads and his ability as a pass-rusher could get him on the field. Both should get chances to run with the first-team defense this spring.

Pitt has little to transition on special teams with Chris Blewitt and Ryan Winslow returning to their respective kicking and punting duties. Long-snapper David Murphy departs, but his responsibilities were limited to snapping on punts while Pat Quirin worked with the kicking unit. Most likely, he'll assume full snapping duties on special teams starting this spring. 

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