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Pittsburgh opens spring with questions across defense

Pittsburgh opened spring practice Thursday with big questions across the board. Here are the three biggest the Panthers hope to answer.

1. Hello, defense: There is no denying that the Pitt defense last season was difficult to watch, most especially in the secondary. Pitt gave up way too many big plays, points and yards, surviving most of its victories in shootout fashion (and losing a few in the same way). Shoring up the back end is a priority this spring, and the hope is that a healthy Jordan Whitehead can help lead the improvement. Avonte Maddox and Phillipie Motley also return, and more will be expected of Damar Hamlin, one of the best recruits Pitt signed in 2016. The questions extend beyond the secondary, though. Pitt must find a way to replace Ejuan Price, who led the team the last two seasons with 24.5 sacks.

2. Hello, quarterbacks: With USC transfer Max Browne participating during the spring, the assumption is that he will eventually be named the starter to replace Nathan Peterman. Ben DiNucci and Thomas MacVittie are also in the mix.

"There's a lot of competition at that quarterback spot," Narduzzi said during a news conference to preview spring practice. "I feel like we got four guys that are going to compete at quarterback. We didn't have that competition a year ago, but even if Nathan was back this year, there'd still be competition. We didn't have that a year ago. We had really one guy, just hoping he stayed healthy. He didn't in that bowl game, and we saw what happened."

3. Hello, running backs: James Conner was the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh team a year ago, not to mention an All-ACC running back and 1,000-yard rusher. There is no way the Panthers will be able to replace everything he did, but finding answers at the position itself is certainly a priority. Pittsburgh should have depth here, and plenty to work with, starting with Qadree Ollison, whom Narduzzi heaped praise on during his conference. Ollison was the 2015 ACC Rookie of the Year before fading last season. But Narduzzi has seen a new outlook this offseason and is encouraged. Chawntez Moss also returns. With Darrin Hall out this spring because of an injury, look for Ollison and Moss to get the bulk of the work.