Conner's emotional return gives Pitt boost entering 2016

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Entering his second season at Pitt, Pat Narduzzi isn't sure exactly who quarterback Nate Peterman is going to throw the ball to, or how often.

Who knows? Maybe never. That's not a dig on the options wide receiver since Tyler Boyd headed to the NFL but a testament to the depth at running back, one boosted by the return of 2014 ACC Player of the Year James Conner, who is back after a bout with cancer.

Doctors cleared Conner in June after six months of treatment, providing the Panthers with an emotional boost as well as what could be an embarrassment of riches in the backfield. Qadree Ollison earned ACC Offensive Freshman of the Year last fall while filling in for Conner. Darrin Hall is back, too. So is safety Jordan Whitehead, who averaged 10.2 yards a carry during occasional forays into the offensive huddle.

''There's going to be times where you see two or three tailbacks out there, maybe four, who knows?'' Narduzzi said.

That'd be fine with Conner, who worked out alongside his teammates despite draining chemotherapy sessions. Given the success the youngster behind him had last year, Conner doesn't want to stand out so much as fit in.

''With all of us out there on the field, it's going to do some damage,'' he said.

The Panthers began the Narduzzi era with a promising 8-5 mark last fall. Enthusiasm surrounding the program is rising. There will be plenty of chances to make noise in Year Two thanks to a schedule that includes the renewal of an old rivalry when Penn State visits in September and a visit to Clemson in early November.

This is exactly what Narduzzi had in mind when he took over for Paul Chryst more than 18 months ago. A head coach for the first time in his career, he's settled into the job. So, it seems, have the Panthers.

''I'm a little grayer, I've got a little less hair,'' Narduzzi said. ''Our kids know what they're doing. There's more recall in what we're doing. They could go out there and really run the practice themselves. They know the offense, they know the defense, and they know the tempo we want.''

Basically: fast.

Some things to look for as Pitt tries to continue its trend northward in the crowded ACC Coastal Division.


How about Penn State, Penn State and Penn State? The Panthers and the Nittany Lions renew their in-state rivalry after a 15-year hiatus when Penn State visits Heinz Field on Sept. 10. Though both sides will try to downplay the importance, a win would give Pitt a serious boost both in the win column and recruiting.


The Panthers open the season on Sept. 3 at home against Villanova. The perennial FCS power is hardly a pushover. The Wildcats are a tough out. Each of their last three openers against FBS opponents has been decided by 10 points or less.


Pitt's ability to reach improve on 2015 will depend on how quickly the offense gets going under new coordinator Matt Canada and if the defense can continue to make strides after an impressive start under Narduzzi's watch last fall. The Panthers' biggest issue in recent years has been consistency. Too often they will back up impressive wins with puzzling losses. Given the questions surrounding the passing game, let's call it more of the same with a 7-5 finish likely as Pitt continues to endure the growing pains that Narduzzi believes will disappear as time goes by.