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Narduzzi has Panthers primed for improvement in debut season

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Narduzzi has Panthers primed for improvement in debut season

By Jeremy Tepper / Senior Staff Writer

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For Pitt football, last season told a story of missed opportunities and questions of what could’ve been.

Led by new coach Pat Narduzzi, the Panthers hope to right the wrongs that ailed them last season.

“No more ‘we should’ve done this, we could’ve done that.’ No more excuses,” redshirt junior safety Reggie Mitchell said.

Capped by a disastrous 35-34 Armed Forces Bowl loss to Houston, Pitt consistently faltered in crunch time. Including the bowl game — when it gave up a 31-6 lead in the fourth quarter — Pitt squandered three fourth quarter leads to finish 6-7 on the year.

Mitchell hasn’t forgotten those losses.

“We still have a bitter taste in our mouth from last year,” Mitchell said. “A lot of the close games we were in, but a lot of them we just threw away.”

The source of Pitt’s inadequacies late in games, Mitchell said, was the inability to make plays when it mattered. Instead of being the aggressor, Pitt was often scrambling to defend.

“We would fight so hard for the first three quarters, and then the fourth quarter came and we were standing there with our mouths wide open,” Mitchell said.

There is no instant solution to these problems, Narduzzi said, though it starts with building trust with his players.

“There’s no quick fixes,” Narduzzi said. “You start with the people you’re involved with and building relationships with your players. Anywhere I’ve ever been, my players are going to play their tail off for me.”

Part of the solution, he said, comes with changing the mentality of the players, where everybody looks to make a play instead of waiting around.

“You can’t depend on other people to [make a play], because if you do that, the other team’s going to make a play,” Mitchell said. “A lot of times last year we were looking around for someone else to make a play. Now, when we do seven-on-seven practices, everyone’s in there trying to make a play.”

Narduzzi has been able to change that mentality through competition, Mitchell said, making everybody earn their spot on the field.

On top of the change of mentality, though, comes a bigger change — a whole new playbook and coaching staff.

Offensively, tight end J.P. Holtz said he and his teammates picked up the playbook and concepts quickly.

“We aren’t going to miss a beat on it,” Holtz said.

The same goes on the defensive end, which despite being starkly different conceptually than past Pitt defenses, has been easy to transition into, mostly because of its simplicity.

“Usually you feel the entire switch, but with these coaches it didn’t feel like there was a transition,” Mitchell said. “Guys aren’t thinking as much as they were last year. It gives us a lot more leeway to take same chances and make some plays.”

To the players’ credit, they immediately approved of Narduzzi’s plans for the team, which has helped ease the transition.

“The thing that really surprised me was how quickly our kids bought into what we were doing,” Narduzzi said. “Our strength coach Dave Andrews would call me every night and say, ‘Coach, I’ve never seen guys work like this.'”

Yet, it still remains to be seen if the defense will improve and meet Narduzzi’s standards, whose Michigan State defenses consistently ranked among the best in the country.

Though it finished 59th in the nation in points given up, Pitt’s defense struggled late in games, causing turnovers and getting to the quarterback. To the latter point, the Panthers finished 103rd in sacks, 84th in interceptions and tied for 117th in fumble recoveries.

The playmakers were there last year, Mitchell said, but they didn’t have the disposition to make the plays.

“I think that’s changed,” Mitchell said. “Our whole entire defense is hungry.”

The defense’s improvement is important, as Pitt is likely to boast one of the ACC’s top offenses, led by preseason all-ACC wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner.

Conner finished last season with 1,765 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while Boyd hauled in 78 catches for 1,261 yards and eight touchdowns. The focus, once again, will be getting the ball in both players’ hands as much as possible — especially Conner’s.

“He’s your workhorse. I’d hand him the ball down here in Pinehurst and let him carry it back to Pittsburgh if I could,” Narduzzi joked at ACC Media Day.

Having improved throughout the season, Pitt’s offense averaged 36.4 points in its last five games. With Boyd and Conner — plus quarterback Chad Voytik, whose adjusted quarterback rating of 88.1 in his last five games ranked sixth in the country — Holtz is confident in the offensive unit’s strength.

“We didn’t lose many people,” Holtz said. “With the talent we have coming back we can be really dangerous.”

With a productive offense and increasingly assured defense, Mitchell believes Pitt can win quite a bit in a seemingly wide-open ACC.

“[Our expectations are] definitely higher this year,” Mitchell said. “We feel like we can take advantage of our schedule and win games.”

And if Pitt can play to its expectations, Holtz has unbridled confidence that it can compete for some conference hardware.

“We just need to play like we can. We have so much talent on our team,” Holtz said. “We can make a run at the ACC championship and I think we’re going to.”

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Narduzzi has Panthers primed for improvement in debut season