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According to Pat Narduzzi, Jester Weah and Quadree Henderson are the same players they were a year ago.
Weah is still the same player who led the ACC in yards per reception during his breakout campaign in 2016. Henderson is still the same player who earned consensus All-America honors as an all-purpose weapon.
“Those guys haven’t changed and I think they’re just as good or better than they were a year ago,” Narduzzi said on the ACC football coaches teleconference Wednesday.
The players haven’t changed - but their production has, and in very stark fashion.
For Weah, last year was a breakout: he recorded his first career reception in the season opener and then caught 35 more passes for 870 yards, a whopping 24.2 yards per catch and 10 touchdowns, which ranked third in the ACC and No. 28 nationally.
Through three games this season, Weah has seven catches for 76 yards, a decidedly less impressive 10.9 yards per catch and just one touchdown, which he scored in overtime against Youngstown State.
Henderson had a breakout season last year as well, emerging as one of the best players in the ACC and one of the best all-purpose weapons in the nation. With Pitt emphasizing the jet sweep, Henderson ran the ball 60 times for 631 yards (second-most on the team), averaging 10.5 yards per carry and scoring five touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 26 passes for 286 yards and one more touchdown, and he was positively deadly on special teams, averaging 30.5 yards on kickoff returns, 15.8 yards on punt returns and scoring four times in the return game.
He was No. 11 in the nation in all-purpose yards with 2,083, a total that ranks behind only Tony Dorsett in Pitt history. Henderson was, quite simply, sensational.
This year, not so much.
After three games, Henderson has 73 rushing yards on 12 attempts (a figure that looks less impressive after he had 77 rushing yards against Youngstown State alone), four receptions for 86 yards (a total buoyed by a 74-yard screen pass against Oklahoma State), zero net yards on three punt returns and an average of 18.9 yards on 10 kickoff returns.
A year after averaging one touchdown for every 13.2 times he touched the ball, Henderson has zero touchdowns on 29 touches.
How do two of Pitt’s most dynamic playmakers go from 20 combined touchdowns in 2016 to just one in 2017? Narduzzi doesn’t see any issues with Weah and Henderson themselves.
“I mean, what’s the difference? Jester Weah is still Jester Weah: he’s big, physical and fast. And Quadree’s a guy that’s got great wiggle when he gets the ball in his hands, whether it’s a bubble or a jet sweep.
Narduzzi might have asked it rhetorically, but the question stands: what’s the difference? Obviously there’s been a change at quarterback, and Narduzzi cited that as one challenge the offense is facing.
“Nathan Peterman was an exceptional quarterback, and you miss guys like that,” he said.
But that’s not enough, because the problems extend beyond Weah and Henderson. The offense as a whole is suffering from a lack of explosive plays, with 15 runs of 10 yards or more and 12 passes of 15 yards or more through three games. That’s an average of nine big plays per game; last year, Pitt’s offense averaged 12.1 of those per game.
Those big plays last season were a significant part of the offense. In 2016, Pitt gained 10 yards or more on one out of every six rushing attempts and those runs accounted for 1,917 yards, or 65.5% of the total rushing offense. And Pitt gained 15+ yards on one out of every 4.8 pass attempts and one out of every 2.8 pass completions, amounting to 2,075 passing yards, or 72% of the total passing yardage.
For comparison, this year Pitt is getting 10+ yards on one out of every nine rushing attempts and 15+ yards on one out of every 8.33 pass attempts and one out of every 5.1 completions.
Last year, Pitt’s offense scored 28 touchdowns on those big plays (11 on runs of 10+ yards and 17 on passes of 15+ yards). This year, the Panthers have zero such touchdowns, and only two of their seven offensive scores have come on a play that gained more than 10 yards.
Quite simply, Pitt’s offense is lacking punch this season. Losing James Conner hurts - he had 32 runs of 10+ yards and six receptions of 15+ - but Peterman is also a blow, and his departure is part of the reason Weah has one reception of 15+ yards this season after catching 21 last year.
In replacing Peterman, redshirt senior Max Browne and redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci have combined to connect on just 12 passing plays of 15 yards or more out of their 100 pass attempts this season, and the lack of an explosive passing game is making life all the more difficult for the rushing attack.
“Obviously people are sitting down on our run game a little bit because until they see us effectively throw deep and actually catch the ball, they’re going to play the run,” Narduzzi said. “So that’s what we expect to get out of Georgia Tech and we need to light it up on the back end there. That’s what needs to happen.”