Uncertainty hangs over season of promise for Pitt football

The+Panthers+hope+to+take+another+step+toward+the+ultimate+goal+set+by+head+coach+Pat+Narduzzi+to+add+a+10th+national+title+to+a+trophy+case+barren+of+recent+additions.+

Thomas J.Yang | Senior Staff Photographer

The Panthers hope to take another step toward the ultimate goal set by head coach Pat Narduzzi to add a 10th national title to a trophy case barren of recent additions.

By Ben Bobeck, Senior Staff Writer

For Pitt football head coach Pat Narduzzi, the 2020 season seemed to be the year it all came together. After eight seasons overseeing defenses under now-former Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, Narduzzi arrived in Pittsburgh in 2015 facing a transitional period with no athletic director while being handed a team struggling to break .500.

A coveted head coaching candidate for his defensive prowess, the 2013 Broyles Award winner — given to the nation’s top assistant coach — touted Pitt not as a resumé-builder, but as a long-term project he was committed to. After an offseason where questions were raised over the possibility of Narduzzi returning to East Lansing to fill Mark Dantonio’s shoes as the Spartans’ head coach, that commitment to the program and his players is clear.

Now, after reaching the ACC Championship for the first time in 2018 to earn his first bowl win as the Panthers’ head coach, the time has come for that project to take another step forward toward what Narduzzi has boldly set as the ultimate goal — a 10th national title to add to a trophy case barren of recent additions.

Hopes for this season must include a disclaimer — a recognition that this season of promise may not happen, and for good reason. The current state of the world is fragile, ever-changing as rapidly as seems possible. A full college football season starting five months into a global pandemic is far from a sure thing, according to officials around the sport.

A world where the NCAA, an organization facing challenges to its authority — as questions about its regulation of likeness and image profiting are examined by governments of all levels — is able to ensure the safety of its student-athletes and the countless others so vital to the operation of a standard season is in question.

The example set by the “bubble”-averse MLB does not inspire any confidence in college football’s — a sport with vastly larger teams and operating staffs — ability to keep those involved healthy.

There will be complications. There may very well be teamwide spikes. How individual institutions, their conferences and the NCAA as a whole regulate activities for the next month will be crucial in seeing how much of this season is actually played out on the fields, rather than the imaginations of fans in perpetuity.

OPPONENTS

As a result of the pandemic, the ACC conference revised its football schedule to feature 10 conference matchups, plus an additional nonconference matchup to be played with restrictions on possible opponents. The ACC will also integrate the normally independent Notre Dame into official conference play this year in exchange for revenue sharing of ND’s home television deal with NBC and the Irish becoming eligible for the ACC Championship Game.

Pitt had dropped two of three non-conference games, with Miami (OH) retaining the lone remaining spot before the MAC conference suddenly announced the postponement of all fall sports Aug. 8, leaving Pitt temporarily without a nonconference opponent. In conference play, the Panthers will no longer play Duke, Virginia or North Carolina in the regular season while adding matchups against 2018 ACC title game foe and perennial powerhouse Clemson, as well as Louisville, NC State and Boston College.

Games versus UVA and Duke made the Panthers’ schedule slightly more favorable before the adjustment. While adding perennial power Clemson, as well as a surging Louisville program, will toughen the schedule, both games are challenges this Pitt team will relish.

DEFENSE

As the Spartans’ defensive coordinator, it took Narduzzi five seasons to construct a defense that ranked in top half of the Big Ten conference. In that same time frame at Pitt, it seems he has rebuilt Pitt’s defensive unit to a similar level — the Panthers defense finished the 2019 season 38th in the nation in scoring defense, 14th in total yardage allowed and tied for best in the nation with 51 sacks.

Led by Preseason All-Americans DT Jaylen Twyman and S Paris Ford, as well as six other returning defensive starters including DE Patrick Jones II and fifth-year S Damar Hamlin, Narduzzi has established a deep defensive squad ready to elevate itself even further. Besides the defensive leaders in Twyman, Hamlin, Ford and Jones, Pitt’s recruiting and player development has yielded depth across most position groups, especially on the defensive line.

Given their injury-shortened 2019 seasons, veterans DE Rashad Weaver and DT Keyshon Camp haven’t received the same attention as Twyman and Jones, but will look to bounce back with an even more overstated impact. In rotation, Rome native Haba Baldonado will provide meaningful contributions when either Jones or Weaver leave the field.

There is no doubt that this group of defensive backs, with Jason Pinnock and Damarri Mathis at cornerback, plus the elite duo of Ford and Hamlin, has incredible talent. Whether the discipline rises to a level where it’s apparent game in and game out is yet to be seen. The aggressive man-style of play preached by Narduzzi and the rest of the defensive staff has contributed to Pitt ranking as No. 119 in the nation in penalty yardage in 2019.

OFFENSE

The more significant question marks emanating from Narduzzi’s tenure at Pitt come on the offensive side. After cycling through three offensive coordinators in the past four years, the Panthers’ offensive outlook was bleak at times. Since Matt Canada’s 2016 offense averaged 40.9 points and nearly 450 yards of offense per game, Narduzzi has been searching for offensive output that matches the defensive capabilities of this Pitt team.

In Mark Whipple’s first season as Pitt’s play-caller and offensive coordinator last year, the Panthers actually declined in points per game from 25.6 to 21.2, as well as turnover margin down from +2 to -8, despite a dramatic change in scheme. After putting up 228 yards of rushing offense per game in 2018, the Panthers dropped to just 119 yards rushing per game, while increasing their average passing from 142 yards to 262 yards per game.

Much of Pitt’s success will be determined by whether the intense defensive play will be matched by offensive production, led by senior QB and three-year starter Kenny Pickett. Pickett’s growth as a facilitator has been nominal since bursting onto the scene as a true first-year in an upset of then No. 2-ranked Miami. But the New Jersey native is primed for a breakout senior season after a second offseason learning from the experienced Whipple and adjusting more to the pass-heavy scheme.

Despite the graduation of top receiving target Maurice Ffrench, Pickett will not be short of options with new weapons all around, as well as a more experienced offensive line in front of him.

The loss of Ffrench will hurt, but there is no shortage of playmakers in pole position to emerge as Pickett’s No. 1 weapon. Sophomore Shocky Jacques-Louis’ 2019 campaign was slow out of the gates after an injury forced him to miss the season’s first two games. But he showed flashes of being the dynamic playmaker the Panthers’ offense needs — his 104-yard performance in the win over UNC being a prime example.

The biggest offensive additions come in the form of a pair of true first years and a massive transfer portal pickup in tight end Lucas Krull. The 6-foot-6 Krull contributed sparsely for the Gators, but has been named to the 2020 Mackey Award watchlist, given to the nation’s best at a position that has haunted Pitt’s offense for years.

Meanwhile first years RB Israel Abanikanda and WR Jordan Addison have made their presence on campus known since arriving as early enrollees in January. Abanikanda’s speed and open-field explosiveness put him in a position to compete for the starting spot with true sophomore Vincent Davis and senior AJ Davis. Addison also has an opportunity to contribute from the start, after taking reps with the first-team all through spring camp.

Up front, captain Jimmy Morrissey will continue to anchor the Panthers’ offensive line after an All-ACC season in 2019 while T Carter Warren will benefit from another year of growth along with the entire position group. Whether Hampton transfer Keldrick Wilson makes the step up to fill the tackle spot vacated by Michigan grad transfer Nolan Ulizio remains to be seen, while the interior remains solidly manned by guards Bryce Hargrove and either Gabe Houy or Jake Kradel.

On paper, the offense looks set to make a big leap from the unit that struggled to produce consistently throughout 2019. Whether that potential translates is now solely on the coaching staff and serious questions must be raised if improvement doesn’t show.

On special teams, Narduzzi and Whipple’s perceived hesitations to be aggressive on offense in third down and similar situations — see the Penn State loss — could be attributed to a trust in PK Alex Kessman, who returns for his redshirt senior season. It remains to be seen whether he picks up punting duties as well from Kirk Christoudoulu as Kessman did down the stretch of the 2019 season.

Narduzzi’s architectural style in building the Pitt program has yielded inconsistent results over the coach’s five-year tenure. His teams have yet to eclipse eight wins in a season and his capstone accomplishment so far — the Coastal divisional championship and ACC Championship game appearance — is tarnished by that season’s 7-7 final record and a disappointing showing in the Sun Bowl loss to Stanford. 

Despite this, Narduzzi’s commitment to the program has been reciprocated by Pitt AD Heather Lyke and the University, with Narduzzi receiving a seven year contract extension in 2017 — a year in which Pitt finished bowless at 5-7 — and a noted commitment by the Athletics Department to retain his assistant coaches in the face of interest from other schools, as all but Strength Coach Dave Andrews return for this season. 

That continuity, coupled with a roster deep in returning talent, could manifest the competitive jump from mediocrity to the Championship Contender Narduzzi believes this Panther team can be. In a season where a 7-5 record will not be enough for Pitt to waltz back to the ACC championship game, there is no time like the present for this team to take that next step. 

Leave a comment.