By: Mike Vukovcan

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Year number two of the Pat Narduzzi era at Pitt officially gets underway today with the start of spring practice.

Narduzzi led Pitt to an 8-5 record in his first season and will return 16 of 21 starters on offense and defense.

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Pitt will be without seven players on offense from last season: Tyler Boyd, Artie Rowell, Gabe Roberts, J.P. Holtz, Tony Harper, Chad Voytik and Chris James.

On defense, gone are: K.K. Mosley Smith, Darryl Render, Mark Scarpinato, Nicholas Grigsby, Jamal Davis, Jameel Poteat, Matt Steinbeck, Jevonte Pitts, Pat Amara, Lafayette Pitts and David Murphy.

Over the next five weeks, the Panthers will hold 14 practices leading up to the Spring Game on April 16 at Heinz Field.

Here are five questions heading into spring practice:

1.  How will Pitt replace the production from Tyler Boyd?

No one player will replace Boyd, it will have to be done as a group. Boyd left Pitt as the school’s all-time leader in catches (254) and receiving yards (3,361). Players like Dontez Ford, Zach Challingsworth, Quadree Henderson, Tre Tipton, Elijah Zeise and Ruben Flowers will all be looked upon to produce.

2) Will James Conner return in 2016?

We all know the battle that Conner is currently undergoing with cancer. When Conner wins that fight, will he physically be able to return to the football field? Despite undergoing cancer treatments, Conner has been a participant in offseason workouts.

If Conner is able to return, offensive coordinator Matt Canada will have a deep and talented backfield. How’s this for a running back depth chart: Conner, Quadree Ollison (ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year), Rachid Ibrahim (averaged 6.7 yards per carry in his first three seasons), Darrin Hall, Chawntez Moss, George Hill and from time to time, Jordan Whitehead.

3) Can Nate Peterman take the next step?

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This will be Peterman’s second year at Pitt, but his first year under Matt Canada. Last year, Peterman surprised a lot of people by unseating incumbent Chad Voytik.

In 2015, Peterman threw for 2,287 yards, 20 touchdowns and threw 8 interceptions. After taking over in the third game of the season, Peterman went on to finish second in the ACC  in completion percentage (61.5 percent), third in touchdown passes and fourth in passing efficiency (138.57).

Without leaders like Boyd and senior TE J.P. Holtz, this will be Peterman’s offense and his leadership will be crucial.   Behind Peterman on the depth chart will be Ben DiNucci, Adam Bertke and incoming freshman Thomas MacVittie.

4) How productive will the defensive line be?

Like running back, the defensive line (particularly defensive end) has a chance to be really good. In just its first season under Narduzzi and Josh Conklin, the defense got to the quarterback and created turnovers, two staples of a Narduzzi defense.

Returning in 2016 will be Ejuan Price (19.5 tackles for losses and 11.5 sacks), Rori Blair, Dewayne Hendrix (Tennessee transfer), Allen Edwards (redshirt transfer), Patrick Jones, Shakir Soto, James Folston, Jeremiah Taleni  and Zack Gilbert.

5) How good will Jordan Whitehead be in 2016?

Plain and simple, Whitehead was spectacular in 2015, winning the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Whitehead led Pitt in tackles with 109, the most by a true freshman in school history. Only one other Pitt true freshman recorded 100 tackles – Marc Spindler with 106 in 1987.

The last time a freshman led Pitt in tackles was in 1999 when safety Ramon Walker had 131 tackles.

Aside from starring on defense, Whitehead also made an impact on offense, averaging over 12 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. I’d be surprised if Whitehead didn’t have a bigger role on offense in 2016.

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