Pat Narduzzi built his coaching resume by building no-frills defenses that made up in swaggers and fundamentals what it lacked in bells and whistles.

After three years at Pittsburgh, Narduzzi might be able to say the same thing about the Panthers.

"If we had to put a backup in, you were holding on to your tail, with both hands going, 'OK, what's going to happen here. Okay, I hope they don't run that play or I hope they don't do this,'" Narduzzi said. "This year, we're not doing that. You put a backup in, you've got a chance."

Still, there is plenty of front-line talent to go around. The front seven — which showed significant progress late in 2017 as the Panthers finished with a near-upset of Virginia Tech and a stunning blowout of then second-ranked Miami — will get a boost from the return of linebacker Quintin Wirginis, who sat out all of last season thanks to a three-game suspension followed by a "non-football" injury.

"He was the missing piece," defensive lineman Dewayne Hendrix said.

It's a notion that Wirginis downplayed, but there's also a sense that he is trying to make up for lost time. He's part of a class of 19 seniors that believe they can be the launch point for a program that insists it can compete for a Coastal Division title for the first time since the Panthers joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013.

"Our goal is to be the No. 1 defense in the country," Wirginis said of a group that finished 69th in 2017, up from 101st in 2016.

A daunting task considering a schedule that includes non-conference games against Penn State, Notre Dame and Central Florida. Still, when asked if he has a defense capable of getting the Panthers to the ACC title game even with a new coordinator in Randy Bates, Narduzzi didn't hesitate.

"Yes, I think it is as a whole," he said. "We have more pieces to the puzzle. We have 22 or 26 guys that maybe can help us win a championship."

Other things to look for as Pitt preps for its sixth — and it hopes most successful — season in one of the nation's toughest conferences.

BACKFIELD BATTLE: Narduzzi has spent his entire tenure trying to create an offense built on a solid ground game. That didn't really happen in 2017, as neither Darrin Hall or Qadree Ollison could get a firm grasp on the starting running back spot. Maybe it was the pressure of trying to replace James Conner. Or maybe it was a near constant churn along the offensive line due to injuries. Whatever it is, both Hall and Ollison understand it can't happen again in 2018.

"It was a bad year for us," said Ollison, who found himself serving as a blocking back late in the season for the first time in his football life. "We were trying to find our identity as an offense. I think we've found it now."

PICKETT'S TARGETS: It will be difficult for sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett to one-up his first collegiate start when he piled up 252 yards of total offense and had a hand in all three touchdowns in the beat down of the Hurricanes. Pickett is OK with the heady expectations. He's been putting them on himself since he was 7.

The bigger question is who will serve as Pickett's best downfield threat with Jester Weah gone. Freshman Shocky Jacques-Louis opened eyes during camp, with highlight-reel grabs becoming a staple during training camp. The Panthers will need to develop the passing game quickly to keeps defenses from stacking up against the run.

BUSY START: The Panthers have adopted the phrase "lock the gates" as their 2018 motto, basically their own version of "take no prisoners." While the non-conference schedule is tough, they will have every chance to get near the top of the Coastal. They have Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech at home and their Atlantic Division opponents are Syracuse and Wake Forest. If Pickett proves to be steady and the defense takes a significant step forward, the Panthers could head to Miami on Nov. 24 with more than simply an opportunity to play spoiler on the line.

PREDICTION: Pickett's good. The defense is too. Yet the program's longtime bugaboo — a penchant for losing winnable games — bites them at least once: 7-5.

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