The Panther-Lair.com 3-2-1 Column: N.C. State week

Chris Peak, Publisher
Panther-lair

MORE HEADLINES - Narduzzi on the QBs, Whitehead and more | Inside the numbers: Another impressive showing by Araujo-Lopes| Film review: The struggles at Syracuse | Video: DiNucci and Pickett on the QB situation | How the end of a quarter led to Kessman's career kick | Two-deep update: DiNucci moves to the top | 10 thoughts from the weekend: The QB, the defense and more

It's Friday, and that means it's time for the Panther-Lair.com 3-2-1 Column, where we break down three things we know, two questions we have and one prediction heading into this week's game against N.C. State at Heinz Field.

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USA Today Sports

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Rafael Araujo-Lopes is no joke
I’ll be honest: when I sat down before the season, my focus in the receiving corps was more or less in this order:

Jester Weah Quadree Henderson Tre Tipton (until he got hurt) Maurice Ffrench Aaron Mathews Ruben Flowers Michael Smith Dontavius Butler-Jenkins Rafael Araujo-Lopes

I don’t remember if it was specifically that extreme, but I think most of us would have to admit that Araujo-Lopes wasn’t very high on anyone’s list when it came to expectations for the receivers. He caught three passes for 36 yards last season and ran the ball six times for 32 yards. He was 10th on the team in receptions, and five of the nine guys ahead of him were returning to the team this season.

And even if you had told me that two of those five - Tipton and George Aston - would be sidelined with injuries, you still would have had a hard time convincing me that Araujo-Lopes would be top-three in receptions and receiving yards by midseason.

And if you had tried to tell me that he’d be the team’s leading receiver, I would have probably laughed. Not in a mean-spirited way, but in a “Come on, look at the other guys on the team” way.

It’s pretty obvious how wrong I was about that and about Araujo-Lopes. In the last four games, he has become the primary option in the passing game. He still trails Weah in passing targets, but he’s been the most reliable and most productive pass-catcher on the team. He leads Pitt with 26 receptions for 335 yards, and he has been on a tear lately.

In the last four games, Georgia Tech, Rice and Syracuse, Araujo-Lopes has caught 21 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown; those receptions and receiving yards eclipse the season-long stats for any other Pitt player. That’s better than any four-game stretch Weah had last season, and those numbers rival some four-game stretches that Tyler Boyd had in 2015.

Araujo-Lopes’ production isn’t likely to fall off with the quarterback change; in fact, it might continue to climb. He is, by far, Ben DiNucci’s favorite target, having been the intended receiver on 23.1% of the redshirt sophomore quarterback’s passes. So with DiNucci set to take over for Max Browne, who is out indefinitely due to injury, Araujo-Lopes could see even more passes come his way.

Given the results - 15 first downs and 1 touchdown on 26 receptions - that’s probably a good idea.

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USA Today Sports

Jordan Whitehead’s offensive snaps could depend on Damar Hamlin
There will only be one offensive personnel question this weekend that looms larger than the one about Jordan Whitehead and how many snaps he’ll play on offense. But the root of the Whitehead question might not be about what he can do for the offense; it’s what the other safeties on the team can do for the defense.

Look, there’s no question that Whitehead can help the offense. He proved last week what many had already suspected: he’s the best player on the team with the ball in his hands. In 2017, nobody else has shown the potential to be as explosive as Whitehead is or to make as many plays as Whitehead can.

Every time he touched the ball at Syracuse, good things happened, which has been the case throughout his career. Now, with Whitehead averaging double-digit yards per carry and Pitt’s run game producing next to nothing, there has to be a strong leaning toward using him more on that side of the ball.

But it’s not that simple. Whitehead is really good on defense, too, and he’s the best player on that side of the ball. If Pitt had an effective running game, the itch to use him on offense would fade; now the coaches have to decide how the equation works out on defense.

Because if Damar Hamlin or Dennis Briggs (probably Hamlin) can man the boundary safety spot and Bricen Garner or Jazzee Stocker (probably Garner) can do a respectable job at field safety, then the decision to use Whitehead more on offense becomes a lot easier.

Look, none of those players is Jordan Whitehead. That’s the truth and it’s one the coaches are aware of. But if they can get close to his level - close enough to make the difference negligible, or at the very least an acceptable drop-off - then it should be palatable enough for Pat Narduzzi to give the green light on more offensive snaps for Whitehead.

The offense needs him. Desperately. With Max Browne out for the season, the passing game takes a hit and the potential for big plays decreases. Whitehead can bring that potential back up, and with more snaps on offense, the coaches can develop more plays for him: plays where he takes a toss or even runs a passing route.

The offense needs more of Whitehead; the question is, can the defense live with less of him?

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USA Today Sports

Pitt won’t be surprised by an opposing tight end this week
After the Syracuse game, the Pitt coaches and players conceded that they didn’t exactly enter the Carrier Dome thinking they had to keep an eye on Ravian Pierce.

The junior-college transfer tight end had all of 10 catches for 39 yards in the Orange’s first five games of the season, and with the big-name receiving targets in the Syracuse offense, the focus was elsewhere.

The Panthers paid for that oversight in a big way, as Pierce caught nine passes for 99 yards, twice converting third downs on drives that resulted in Syracuse touchdowns. Pitt didn’t have a schematic plan for Pierce - and since he only caught one pass before halftime, there wasn’t a lot of time to adjust to him - and the defense wasn’t physically ready for him, as it often took multiple tacklers to bring the 6’3” 237-pound tight end down.

Pitt was surprised by Syracuse’s tight end; that mistake won’t happen again - at least, not this weekend. Everybody knows about Jaylen Samuels.

The senior do-everything player is a stud for the Wolfpack, a player who Matt Canada used all over the place in 2015 when, as a sophomore, he led the team in receiving and was third in rushing. He was a first-team All-ACC honoree and caught more passes than any tight end in the country.

Last year Samuels maintained his spot as N.C. State’s leading rusher and third-leading receiver, even with Canada gone to run Pitt’s offense, and he’s right in those spots once again this season. Through six games, Samuels is averaging 5.2 yards per carry on 25 attempts and has already caught 50 passes and scored total of eight touchdowns. He’s the tight end, fullback, H-back, adjuster and just about anything else the Wolfpack ask him to do, and while running back Nyheim Hines and receivers Kelvin Harmon and Stephen Louis are dangerous playmakers, Samuels stands out.

Against Pitt, the matchup with Samuels will be even more interesting. The Panthers’ linebackers and safeties have improved this season, but a player like Samuels will put them to the test. They know he’s coming; whether they can stop him is a different story altogether.

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Matt Hawley

TWO QUESTIONS

What’s the best-case scenario at quarterback?
Chances are, there’s going to be as much intrigue prior to every Pitt offensive drive on Saturday as there is interest in the outcome of those drives. Because every time the Panthers are about to take the field, all eyes will be on the quarterback and his jersey number:

3 or 8?

On Thursday, Pat Narduzzi said “There’s a plan” for Kenny Pickett, but he wouldn’t elaborate on what exactly that meant. It seems like he was insinuating that the coaches were planning to rotate Pickett in with Ben DiNucci; that’s what they did two years ago with Chad Voytik and Nate Peterman, with each quarterback playing two possessions until the coaches opted to stick with one for the rest of the game.

Could that happen again on Saturday? Well, dude, we just don’t know.

Everyone has his or her opinion about what Pitt should do at quarterback on Saturday. Personally, I think a planned rotation is a good idea, short of DiNucci lighting the world on fire on his first two drives. But certainly for the long term and possibly for the short term, getting game snaps for Pickett is a good thing.

Regardless of what happens in 2017, Pickett is going to be in the quarterback competition next spring, and every rep he gets in a game is going to make him that much more prepared to compete. The coaches aren’t going to wave a white flag on the 2017 season and start making personnel decisions based on solely on what’s best for next year, but there’s definitely a benefit to playing Pickett.

And really, even if his snaps come in so-called “garbage time,” it’s still live-action football. It would be far more interesting to see Pickett on the field when the game matters, but one way or the other, it’s a positive as long as he plays.

So what’s the best-case scenario for this week? That’s a matter of personal opinion. Like I said, I would like to see a planned rotation until one quarterback seizes the job, but maybe for the flow of the offense, it would be better to let the game dictate the rotation (i.e., give DiNucci an extended chance to get into a rhythm).

Ultimately, I guess the best-case scenario is that a quarterback - any quarterback - is effective and makes impact plays for the offense. It’s up to the coaches to find the best way to make that happen, and that’s where the intrigue comes in.

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Matt Hawley

Does Pitt have any personnel surprises in store for this weekend?
One week after using 55 players - 22 on offense, 25 on defense and 8 on special teams - it seems unlikely that the Pitt coaches could have any personnel surprises up their sleeves, but there are still probably some possibilities that haven’t been explored yet.

Like running back. Could the coaches finally give freshman AJ Davis an extended run of snaps to see what he really can do with a chance to get into a rhythm?

Or the offensive line. At this point, it would be a surprise if they didn’t rotate players (the coaches used six line combinations and changed personnel nine times at Syracuse).

Or the defensive line. Rashad Weaver out-snapped Allen Edwards at Syracuse and got the start over him at Georgia Tech (the coaches said Edwards wasn’t a good fit against the triple-option); could the redshirt freshman unseat the redshirt senior as a starter?

Or the linebackers. The coaches used five linebackers at Syracuse but in general they have been rotating more over the last two weeks. Could that rotation increase in frequency?

Or the secondary. Therran Coleman played his way into the nickel role in Pitt’s “new” defensive sub-package. Will the coaches use that package again? And could Coleman find his way into the base defense?

Plus, you know, the questions at quarterback that we addressed above.

At 2-4 overall and 0-2 in the ACC, nothing should be off the table for the Pitt coaches. They should be willing to try just about anything, particularly on offense. If that means a freshman quarterback handing the ball to a freshman running back, so be it. If that means further limiting Jordan Whitehead’s snaps on defense, so be it. If that means burning Paris Ford’s redshirt to get some explosiveness on the field…well, that should at least be considered.

Something has to give with this offense, and while coaches are often prone to believing that continuing to work on details and fundamentals and execution will eventually lead to a breakthrough where everything comes together and it all clicks, sometimes it takes a creative mind to crack open a situation like Pitt’s offense.

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Matt Hawley

ONE PREDICTION

Ben DiNucci will gain more rushing yards than any other Pitt player
This is dependent on a few things. For starters, it will depend on how much offense Jordan Whitehead plays. As you might have guessed, I think Whitehead’s pretty good (and you probably do, too, if you have watched Pitt football over the last two and a half seasons). If he plays a dozen or so snaps on offense, then he’ll probably be the leading rusher.

And this is also dependent on how the coaches use Kenny Pickett. If he gets a lot of reps, that will obviously cut into DiNucci’s rushing totals.

But if Whitehead mostly stays on defense and the coaches don’t deploy Pickett too much, DiNucci should get a healthy amount of rushing yards. Of course, a lot of those will likely be gained while he’s running for his life, chased by a defense that is No. 20 nationally with an average of 2.83 sacks per game.

If that pass rush gets through Pitt’s pass protection - which seems like a safe bet - the pocket is going to collapse and DiNucci will have to get out and run. He doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he can run, and a broken play with a heavy pass rush will probably mean he can get some space to run if he can elude at least one defender.

Of course, DiNucci will likely also get sacked a few times, so the key word in this prediction is “gain.” His net rushing will probably not lead the team, but he should end up gaining more yards than anyone else - at least among offensive players (again, that whole Whitehead thing). In the Syracuse game, he gained 21 yards - more than Darrin Hall and with a higher yards-per-attempt average than Qadree Ollison - but finished with a net of 13 yards due to an eight-yard sack.

If he plays the whole game, he’s got a decent chance of out-rushing any of the running backs or receivers, which, assuming he doesn’t channel Chad Voytik circa the 2014 Virginia Tech game, probably isn’t a good thing. But that seems to be a likely course for Saturday’s game.

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