Curb early expectations, not enthusiasm, for Pat Narduzzi


Hope springs eternal, but unbridled optimism springs sparingly.

There is a palpable excitement in Pittsburgh regarding the Pitt football program and the direction in which it is headed.

Thanks to the enthusiasm and vigor of new head coach Pat Narduzzi, hired in December following the shocking departure of former head coach Paul Chryst, the Panther faithful are abuzz about how the program’s new leader will navigate the team.

I am not here to try to diminish the anticipation. I am not here to try to diminish Narduzzi’s coaching abilities — far from it, actually, as his stays at Michigan State and Cincinnati as a defensive coordinator have already cemented his reputation as a borderline defensive guru.

Instead, I come heeding a plea for something that is all too often thrown to the wayside in sports discourse: reasonability.

Because, for all the fun tweets and energetic practices that this new coaching regime has boasted, the fact remains that there is still a litany of question marks heading into the season. At least for 2015, expectations for Narduzzi’s first campaign should be fair to the circumstances.

While the first-year head coach is entering the season with two of the best playmakers in the nation — junior wide receiver Tyler Boyd and junior running back James Conner — the offense that was dynamic at times in 2014 still is missing some pieces. The offensive line lost its two most dominant maulers — T.J. Clemmings and Matt Rotheram — to the NFL, and aside from Boyd, depth at the wideout position is a huge concern. Chad Voytik will have another year under his belt, but there is no guarantee that the transition from Chryst’s offense to new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s will be immediately smooth.

While Narduzzi is a noted ace on the defensive front, the current unit’s makeup could limit how much magic he’ll be able to perform. The defense lost senior safety Ray Vinopal and senior linebacker Todd Thomas, two of the most consistent performers on an inconsistent defense, and will rely on young talent to improve a passing defense that gave up the 20th-most yards of any school in the nation. While underclassmen defensive backs Avonte Maddox and Pat Amara impressed as freshmen last season, and incoming freshmen Jordan Whitehead, Jay Stocker and Anthony McKee look to make an impact, the defense is severely lacking a clear leader. This is likely something Narduzzi won’t be able to make appear out of thin air, and he might potentially need a season or two to cultivate more distinct leadership.

There will also likely be a learning curve for Narduzzi. As Pitt fans saw in the 2012 opener, when Chryst lost his first game to former Division I-AA Youngstown State, making the leap from coordinator to head coach isn’t always a seamless transition. With Narduzzi facing the same opening opponent in his first season as Chryst, Pitt fans will have an early barometer to watch Narduzzi’s progress.

All of this isn’t to say that Narduzzi wasn’t an excellent hire. The already-apparent enthusiasm and overarching potential he brings made it a home-run choice. There is no reason to doubt that he’ll be able to shift the recent culture of mediocrity and help inch Pitt closer to the glory days of Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino.

Maybe I’ll be wrong. Maybe Narduzzi will shock the ACC, win 10 games and earn a top-15 finish in his first year at Pitt. But fans should leave those expectations to the players and coaches. Instead, give him time to build something. It could be worth the wait.