NCF Nation: Jason Hendricks

Pittsburgh Panthers season preview

August, 15, 2014
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Pittsburgh Panthers:

Key returners: QB Chad Voytik, RB James Conner, RB Isaac Bennett, WR Tyler Boyd, TE J.P. Holtz, LT Adam Bisnowaty, C Artie Rowell, RG Matt Rotheram, RT T.J. Clemmings, DE David Durham, LB Anthony Gonzalez, LB Todd Thomas, CB Lafayette Pitts, S Ray Vinopal

Key losses: QB Tom Savage, WR Devin Street, DT Aaron Donald, LB Shane Gordon, CB K'Waun Williams, S Jason Hendricks

[+] EnlargeTyler Boyd
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPittsburgh wide receiver Tyler Boyd looks to build on a freshman All-America season.
Most important 2014 games: Sept. 20 versus Iowa, Oct. 16 versus Virginia Tech, Nov. 1 versus Duke, Nov. 15 at North Carolina, Nov. 29 at Miami

Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 63.5 percent.

Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 wins.

Instant impact newcomers: Avonte Maddox and Phillipie Motley are a pair of freshman cornerbacks who will likely be counted on heavily to provide some needed depth at the position, as Titus Howard's season-long suspension leaves Pitt with just two returners with any experience at the position (Pitts and Trenton Coles). Both Maddox (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) and Motley (5-foot-9, 165 pounds) arrived this summer as ESPN three-star prospects, and the learning curve will likely be accelerated as the Panthers search for more bodies in coverage.

High point from 2013: A 28-21 win over Notre Dame on Nov. 9 buried the Fighting Irish's remaining BCS bowl hopes and, at least partially, erased some of the sting from Pitt's consecutive three-point losses to them in 2011 and 2012. It's more useful, however, to look back at the 30-27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win over MAC champion Bowling Green, as youngsters Voytik, Conner and Boyd all stepped up in a big way, something each hopes is a sign of things to come for 2014.

Low point from 2013: A 24-21 loss at Navy on Oct. 26 marked the first of a two-game slide (Pitt lost at Georgia Tech a week later), threatening to keep the Panthers out of postseason play before they pulled off the upset the following month over the Irish. Still, Pitt dropped three contests in a four-game stretch surrounding the loss to the Midshipmen, with its only win during that stretch coming against Old Dominion.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Voytik builds off his late-game experience from the Pizza Bowl and gives Pitt a dynamic threat under center, the experienced-but-shaky offensive line jells, Boyd continues his ascent and the defense makes big strides. Pitt takes advantage of a rather friendly schedule, makes a run at 10 wins and emerges as the champion of a Coastal division that is simply begging someone to step up.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: The offensive line continues to struggle, leaving Voytik vulnerable and the offense out of flux. The front seven fails to make up for the loss of Donald, allowing opponents time to test a green secondary. The Panthers win four games, taking a step back after consecutive bowl seasons in Paul Chryst's first two years. The youth on this team, however, is probably still enough to keep the future promising.

They said it: "I feel fortunate to be at Pittsburgh. You talk about a school with unbelievable football tradition and a city that absolutely -- it's a great sports town but a heck of a football city. High school football is big on Fridays. Obviously the Steelers are big on Sunday. We want to be a team that reflects the city and reflects the university and the tradition of a great university. I want the ex-players to be proud of Pitt and Pitt football, and I know they certainly are proud of it. But that's where we want to go, and that's what I mean, we're not where we want to be. But I sure appreciate and enjoy going through and facing that challenge with this group of guys, and for every challenge there's an opportunity." -- Chryst, on how he defines Pitt football

Big East all-bowl team

January, 10, 2013
It's time to unveil the Big East all-bowl team, honoring those players who had the best performances in the postseason.


QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville. What more can I say about Bridgewater, who began his 2013 Heisman campaign with a big game against Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl? Bridgewater went 20-of-32 for two touchdowns in the decisive 33-23 win.

RB: Prince-Tyson Gulley, Syracuse. Gulley was a running machine, busting free for a career-high 213 yards and three total touchdowns in a 38-14 win over West Virginia in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

RB: George Winn, Cincinnati. Winn capped a great senior season, running for 130 yards and a touchdown in a 48-34 win over Duke in the Belk Bowl.

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse. There is a reason Pugh has declared early for the NFL draft. He showed why he is one of the best tackles in the country in the win over West Virginia, helping pave the way for 369 yards rushing and protecting Ryan Nassib well.

OT: Alex Kupper, Louisville. Those who have followed the Cardinals believe Kupper had one of the best performances of his career in the win over the Gators. For the first time in a four-game stretch, Louisville was able to get its run game going.

C: Mario Benavides, Louisville. Benavides has been the best center in the Big East for several years, and he played well in the final game of his career.

OG: Austen Bujnoch, Cincinnati. Bujnoch played with a foot injury after missing most of the bowl practices and had another great game as the Bearcats ran for 222 yards.

OG: Zack Chibane, Syracuse. Chibane teamed with Pugh on the left side to open huge holes all day.

TE: Travis Kelce, Cincinnati. Kelce capped his monster season with a monster game, catching five passes for a career-high 123 yards -- including the 83-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 44 seconds left.

WR: Anthony McClung, Cincinnati. McClung had three catches for 110 yards and a 25-yard touchdown against Duke in the Belk Bowl in one of the best performances of his career.

WR: Devin Street, Pitt. The Panthers had a dreadful day on offense, but Street was a bright spot with seven catches for 83 yards and a touchdown in a 38-17 loss to Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl.


DL: Marcus Smith, Louisville. Smith came through in a big way on the line in a dominating performance against Florida. His name does not show up often on the stat sheet, but he made his presence felt.

DL: Brandon Sharpe, Syracuse. Sharpe was a big reason why Geno Smith was flustered all day long. Sharpe finished with four tackles, a sack and a forced fumble on the day.

DL: Jamil Merrell, Rutgers. Merrell had a huge game in a 13-10 overtime loss to Virginia Tech, notching a career-high two sacks in the game as the Scarlet Knights held the Hokies to 196 yards of total offense.

LB: Siriki Diabate, Syracuse. Diabate led the way with 10 tackles, three tackles for loss and half a sack, and he contributed to a safety early in the win over the Mountaineers.

LB: Greg Blair, Cincinnati. Blair set a Cincinnati bowl record with a game-high 15 tackles. He forced and recovered a fumble early that changed the momentum against the Blue Devils.

LB: Preston Brown, Louisville. Brown finished with 13 tackles -- 1.5 for loss -- and one pass breakup in the win over the Gators.

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. Greene was a stalwart once again, finishing the loss to Virginia Tech with 11 tackles, half a sack and one forced fumble he recovered in the end zone -- the only Rutgers touchdown of the game.

CB: Terell Floyd, Louisville. Floyd's 38-yard interception return for a touchdown on the opening play of the game set the tone for the Cardinals. It was Louisville's first defensive score of the season.

CB: Brandon Jones, Rutgers. Jones set a career high and Rutgers single-game bowl record with two interceptions against the Hokies.

S: Jason Hendricks, Pitt. Hendricks had a great game in a loss to the Rebels, with a whopping 17 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception.

S: Calvin Pryor, Louisville. Pryor had six tackles and registered his fifth forced fumble on the season when he recorded his first sack of the season in the third quarter.


P: Matt Yoklic, Pitt. Yoklic had plenty of opportunities to punt in this game and made the most of them, leading all Big East postseason punters with a 48.3-yard average on six punts.

K: Tony Miliano, Cincinnati. Miliano led all Big East kickers during postseason play with 12 points -- making both his field goal attempts and all six extra-point attempts against Duke.

Thanks to 24-point first half and commanding performance by its defense throughout the afternoon, Ole Miss captured its first bowl victory since 2009 with a 38-17 win over Pittsburgh in front of a sea of red that was a part of a record crowd of 59,135 for the BBVA Compass Bowl.

The SEC improved to 5-3 in bowl games, while the Big East ends bowl play with a 3-2 record.

It was over when: Ole Miss back up quarterback Barry Brunetti pushed forward on a quarterback keeper for a 1-yard touchdown to make it 31-10 Rebels with 21 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Game ball goes to: First-year coach Hugh Freeze. He didn't throw any passes or make any tackles, but he had his players very ready for Saturday's bowl game. This game meant a lot to players and fans, and the Rebels came out fast on offense and hunkered down on defense. After missing out on a bowl game the last two seasons, and winning just six total games during that span, Ole Miss finished the year 7-6 after a major culture overhaul thanks to Freeze's guidance.

Stat of the game: Ole Miss held the rushing advantage over Pittsburgh 222-81.

Stat of the game II: Pittsburgh defenders Jason Hendricks and Shayne Hale combined for 30 tackles and 21 of those tackles were solo.

Best call: All year, Freeze rotated his quarterbacks throughout games. Bo Wallace was always the starter but Brunetti would come in for obvious running plays. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it was a little too obvious, but it certainly worked on Saturday. Wallace finished the game with 151 passing yards and three touchdowns to two interceptions on 22 of 32 passing. He also ran for 27 yards, while Brunetti totaled 34 yards, but helped really open up a running game that finished with 222 yards and 4.6 yards per carry.

Unsung heroes of the game: Running back Jeff Scott left the game early with a hamstring injury, leaving freshman Jaylen Walton to help carry the load. He kept the chains moving for the Rebels, carrying the ball 10 times for 56 yards. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry in the process. Linebacker Mike Marry has been one of the most underrated players in the SEC this year and he had a very productive day. He was all over Pitt's backfield, registering four tackles for loss. He finished the day with seven total tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

What Ole Miss learned: This team brought a lot of fight to Birmingham, Ala. When Scott went down with his hamstring injury, there had to be some concern on that Ole Miss sideline that the Rebels' offense might lose some of its rhythm. It didn't. The Rebels continued to work the ground game with other options and just wore down the Panthers up front. That running game helped open up the passing game and helped the Rebels enter the offseason with a ton of momentum after this win.

What Pitt learned: It had no offense without star senior running back Ray Graham. He had a heck of a career with the Panthers, but a hamstring injury kept him out of the BBVA Compass Bowl, and the Panthers just couldn't replace his production on the field. Pitt ran the ball 36 times for 81 yards, averaging just 2.3 yards per carry. Rushel Shell replaced Graham, rushing for 79 yards on 25 carries. That lack of a running game severely limited the Panthers through the air as well, as quarterback Tino Sunseri passed for just 185 yards.

Pregame: BBVA Compass Bowl

January, 5, 2013
Pittsburgh (6-6, 3-4 Big East) vs. Ole Miss (6-6, 3-5 SEC)

Who to watch: It's pretty obvious that the most popular person wearing a football jersey in the state of Mississippi is Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief. The 6-foot-2, 214-pound sophomore gobbled up the defensive backfields of LSU and Mississippi State during the last two weeks of the season, catching 13 passes for 334 yards and five touchdowns. Now, he takes on a Pittsburgh defense that is giving up less than 200 passing yards a game through the air. The Panthers have also given up 12 passing touchdowns while collecting 13 interceptions. Expect Pitt free safety Jason Hendricks to try and take Moncrief out of deep-ball situations. He was one of the Panthers' most productive defenders this fall, and is Pitt's last line of defense against Moncrief. In order to get the most out of Ole Miss' offense, the Rebels must feed Moncrief.

What to watch: Pitt has quite the dynamic duo in quarterback Tino Sunseri and running back Ray Graham. Because of their solid play this fall, the Panthers have their first 3,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher in the same season. The Panthers will try to establish the run to open up the pass, but it will do so against quite the line. Ole Miss' defensive line really came along this fall. What was supposed to be down year for the Rebels up front turned out to be pretty eventful. The Rebels rank third in the SEC with 34 sacks (2.8 per game) and totaled 92 tackles for loss during the regular season. The Panthers struggled with protection during the season, giving up a Big East-leading 34 sacks, which means Rebels defensive end C.J. Johnson, who leads Ole Miss with 6.5 sacks, could be in for a productive day.

Why to watch: Sure, these are two 6-6 teams going at it, but both come into the game with very interesting storylines. Remember, Pitt began the season 0-2, which included an embarrassing loss to Youngstown State to start the season. But the Panthers bounced back in a big way, winning four of their last six games. They ended the season with wins against Rutgers and South Florida by a combined score of 54-9. They also took Notre Dame to triple overtime before losing by a field goal. Thanks to the guidance of first-year coach Hugh Freeze, the Rebels are in their first bowl game since 2009, and won six games after totaling just six wins in the previous two seasons. If not for a couple of second-half meltdowns, the Rebels might have won eight games this season.

Prediction: Ole Miss 31, Pittsburgh 21. The Rebels weren't supposed to be here, but Freeze's transformation of the program made Ole Miss a legitimate team in the SEC West this season. The momentum from that Egg Bowl win will carry over into a big win in Birmingham. Pittsburgh's defense has been pretty good all year, but the Rebels' spread and their heavy amount of speed will be too much for the Panthers late in the game.
Let's put one final bow on the spring with a look at five top breakout players.

JaQuez Jenkins, safety, USF. With starting strong safety Jon Lejiste out for the spring because of injury, Jenkins made his presence immediately felt in the defensive backfield and had one of the best springs of anybody on the Bulls roster. Jenkins was everywhere, making big plays and hard hits. His emergence gives USF a nice problem to have once Lejiste returns in the fall.

Scott Radcliff, receiver, Louisville. The most talked-about receiver after the Cardinals' spring game the former walk-on, who played with the first team and led all receivers with nine catches for 119 yards. He is listed ahead of Eli Rogers at the H-receiver spot on the post-spring depth chart.

Walter Stewart, defensive end, Cincinnati. Yes, Stewart is a returning starter. But he has never had a spring like the one he just completed, in which he was able to maintain what he started as his position. Stewart had been switched to several positions earlier in his career, but now he has a home at end and is ready to be a force this season.

Ray Vinopal, safety, Pitt. Safety could actually turn out to be a position of strength across the Big East with some of the talent that has emerged this spring. Vinopal sat out a year after transferring in from Michigan, and despite the coaching change, had an outstanding spring. He made big plays, forced turnovers and now makes safety a bright spot for the Panthers with Jarred Holley, Andrew Taglianetti and Jason Hendricks all returning.

Ryan Wirth, defensive tackle, UConn. The Huskies lost an NFL player in Kendall Reyes, along with their other starting tackle, so this is a huge question going into the season. But Wirth showed he can make an impact inside, especially after his spring performance, with 4.5 sacks and a safety.
Pitt running back Ray Graham is out for the season with a right knee injury, dealing the Panthers a devastating blow as they hit the stretch run of the season.

Graham hurt his knee early on in a victory over Pitt on Wednesday night. Pitt did not say how badly Graham hurt his knee, only that he would undergo surgery.

Graham has been the only consistent player on the Panthers' offense this season. He had two 200-yard games, and leads the team in carries (164), rushing yards (958), rushing touchdowns (nine) and receptions (30). His rushing and receiving yards account for 40 percent of all the yards Pitt has gained on offense this season.

In addition, receiver Cameron Saddler (fractured sternum) and offensive lineman Matt Rotheram (fractured ankle) sustained season-ending injuries against the Huskies.

“We are incredibly disappointed for these three young men,” coach Todd Graham said in a statement. “They have put so much work into our program and it’s heartbreaking to see their seasons end prematurely. Even from the sidelines, I know they are going to remain important leaders who will continue to make an impact as we strive to reach our goal of a Big East championship.

“I know each will attack their rehabilitation programs with incredible commitment and be back better than ever for next season. That’s the type of people and competitors they are and we’re proud that they are Panthers.”

Injuries have hit Pitt particularly hard. Starting offensive lineman Chris Jacobson (knee), starting safety Jason Hendricks (shoulder) and receiver Salath Williams (shoulder) also are out for the season.

With Graham out, Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown emerges as the No. 1 running back. Against UConn, he led the team with nine catches for 84 yards, and had 12 carries for 30 yards and a touchdown.

Turnovers (again) hurting Irish

September, 24, 2011
PITTSBURGH -- This one didn't come in the red zone, as Notre Dame had a first-and-10 out of a timeout at the Pitt 24. But Tommy Rees let a pass hang way too long to Tyler Eifert near the goal line, and Jason Hendricks stepped in for the interception.

Rees now has a fumble lost and an interception in the first half, and he is responsible for nine of the Fighting Irish's 15 turnovers on the season. He is still developing, but it is fair to wonder why he has not been given the same leash as Dayne Crist, who was gone after one pick and one half in Week 1.

Pitt moved the ball into Irish territory and quarterback Tino Sunseri had a beautiful punt that will force Notre Dame to start from its own 2 with just more than four minutes remaining in the first half. Let's see if Rees can get the offense going before halftime.

Q&A with Pitt's Dom DeCicco

October, 8, 2010
Pittsburgh's Dom DeCicco was an All-Big East safety last year. Last week, he was moved down to linebacker to help out that unit and shore up the defense overall. I spoke with the Panthers senior this week as he and his teammates prepared for Notre Dame:

What has the move to linebacker been like for you so far?

Dom DeCicco: It's different to go from a position you know so well at safety to something that's kind of new to you. But I think it's a way for our team to get our best 11 guys on the field. Jason Hendricks stepped up [at safety] and lot of teams play the spread now so you need an extra DB. And me with my size, it's an obvious fit. It's been going pretty well so far.

How different is it, really, since you've been in pass coverage a lot at that linebacker spot anyway?

DD: It's just taking on more blocks from linemen. It's different from safety because at safety you see everything in front of you. At linebacker, that nickel spot, you play with your back to receivers a lot, which is different. But the more you practice it, the more it becomes natural. I've liked it so far and all the linebackers and all the coaches have been helping me out.

[+] EnlargeDom DeCicco
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicDom DeCicco has embraced his move to linebacker.
Ever play linebacker before?

DD: No, I just played corner and safety in high school. Never linebacker until now.

You're known as a good tackler. How much does that help you with the move?

DD: Starting out in college, I struggled at first a little bit in tackling. But as the years went on, that became one of the strongest parts of my game. That helps going down there because you have to do so much of it, so that helps with the transition.

There have been a lot of moves at linebacker recently, plus the injury to Dan Mason. What's the state of that unit in your mind?

DD: I definitely think it's getting better. Max [Gruder] in the middle is real smart and can make all the calls, and Greg [Williams] is getting better every game. So the linebacker corps is going to come on stronger every game. If we can get to where the secondary and the D-line is, our defense is going to be pretty good.

You're facing former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly this week at Notre Dame. Are you seeing a lot of the same things that Cincinnati used to run now with the Irish?

DD: Yeah, definitely. You see a lot of similarities. They're pretty much the exact same as [Cincinnati] last year but with different players plugged in. They just have a lot of talent at Notre Dame at the tight end spot, wide receiver and running backs. You can play against a spread, but this is a more talented team than we've seen running the spread.

What are the challenges of trying to defend guys like Kyle Rudolph and Theo Riddick?

DD: The guy I didn't know as much about was Theo Riddick. I knew about Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph because we played against them, but Riddick adds a whole different element to their offense as a great slot receiver. And Armando Allen looks better than he ever has running the ball. So they're dangerous everywhere, and I think Riddick is really the guy you have to watch out for.

Does it help you guys that you've seen this scheme the last couple of years?

DD: I've seen it so many times playing against Cincinnati, and they do similar stuff. So the third or fourth time you're playing against it becomes, not second nature, but it's familiar to me and the guys. So I think that helps a bit.

Do you see this as a revenge game against Kelly at all for the losses to Cincinnati the last couple of years?

DD: Yeah, you know he's really had our number since I've been here. He's beaten us two times and we've really struggled playing against him and he ended our BCS hopes the last two years. That's not easy to forget and it's always in the back of your mind when you see him across the sideline. But we just have to go out and worry about playing against Notre Dame and getting a win against them.

Most of you guys have played in Notre Dame Stadium before, so does that help with not being intimidated by the atmosphere?

DD: We've played there before, but to be honest I don't think any place for us is going to be worse than playing at West Virginia. But Notre Dame, with all the prestige, the Touchdown Jesus, Rudy and all that, it is pretty neat and you could get caught up in it. But coach gets us focused and makes sure we have our eyes on what we need to do on Saturday.