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February 11, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Boyd will join 331 other prospects at NFL Combine; plus thinking spring

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I joined Ken Laird, Tim Benz and Josh Taylor on Friday morning to discuss Pitt (finally!) moving its spring game to Heinz Field. The game is April 16. Listen here.

Tyler Boyd will take his first significant plunge into the NFL Draft pool when he joins 331 other prospects at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, scheduled for Feb. 23-29.
Boyd, who left Pitt after setting school reception and yardage records in only three seasons, was invited, along with 12 other players with local ties. Let’s look at what NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein, a talk show host in Houston, wrote about Boyd, who was listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds last season:
Strengths: Ultra-competitive. Known for powerful hands that clamp instantly onto ball and finish heavily contested catches. Has over-the-middle toughness. Plays with outstanding body control and has ability to gyrate and contort in mid-air in order to make acrobatic catches look easy. Brimming with confidence. Targeted 124 times or more in each of his three seasons. Able to create window through route polish. Sinks into breaks and comes out low with good turn radius when needed. Sits in space and slows routes when necessary to prevent safety from crowding him in deep middle. Has handled some kick return and punt return duties during his time at Pitt.
Weaknesses: Relatively low touchdown production (21) to target rate. Marginal long speed. Isn’t a threat to run by corners and has to win with routes and hands. Just a possession receiver much of the year. Limited YAC (yards after catch) potential due to lack of shake in open field and power to break tackles. Became a fumble factory on punt returns this year and ball security must be addressed. Lacks juice to be a full-time kick returner. Separation windows close quickly due to average getaway quickness out of breaks. Needs to use body better to protect the catch rather than just relying on strong mitts.
Sources tell us: “I think he can overcome some of his speed deficiencies with good routes and he has hand strength like (Jarvis) Landry in Miami. I would take him in the second or third (round).” — AFC East scout.
NFL comparison: Keenan Allen of the San Diego Chargers.
Bottom line: Pitt asked Boyd to be a running back and possession receiver this season, but that doesn’t define what he can be in the pros. Boyd makes up for a lack of speed with vice grips for hands and intelligence in his routes. Boyd isn’t a standalone WR1, but he can be a very productive starter in a play-action attack that allows him to play to his strengths.

I can’t disagree with anything Zierlein wrote, but I might add that Boyd quickly picked up the nuances of the wide receiver position very quickly (he was not solely that at Clairton), and he worked with three different quarterbacks at Pitt (Tom Savage, Chad Voytik and Nathan Peterman).
What I found interesting about that latter factoid is that Boyd recorded his longest catch with Savage (69), most yardage and touchdowns with Voytik (1,261 and eight) and most receptions with Peterman (91).
Also, Boyd led the team in receptions in all three seasons, and the No. 2 pass catchers (Devin Street, J.P. Holtz and Dontez Ford) averaged 52 receptions behind him.
After Street left for the NFL in the 2014 draft, Pitt never found a consistently effective complement for Boyd. In the NFL, Boyd will have another talented wide receiver lining up with him; it will be interesting to see what he does when he’s no longer the sole target of the secondary.
The second or third round appears to be what most analysts are predicting for Boyd on draft weekend (April 28-30).
Boyd has been working out in California almost since the end of Pitt’s season. He wants it, and knows what it takes. His willingness to work hard and his adherence to the concept of team (in my eyes his two most admirable qualities at Pitt) will help him construct a good NFL career.

A couple other observations about the combine list:
Eastern Kentucky outside linebacker Noah Spence, a graduate of Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, is rated the No. 2 edge pass rusher available in the draft by respected analyst Mike Mayock.
While in high school, Spence seriously considered signing with Pitt and might have done so if Dave Wannstedt hadn’t been fired. But his college career was full of potholes.
He went to Ohio State and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2013, but he failed two drug tests and was treated for addiction, according to Zierlein. Spence, 6-2, 254, also was arrested last year and charged with alcohol intoxication and second-degree disorderly conduct, but the incident was expunged from his record after he performed community service.
On the field, he knows how to rush the passer. He had 22 1/2 tackles for a loss and 13 1/2 sacks while earning FCS All-American honors last year.

NFL.com also listed a few notable players who weren’t invited to the combine:
— Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who set a record with 88 rushing touchdowns, but will switch to running back and/or kick returner in the NFL.
— Wisconsin’s Mike Caputo, a West Allegheny graduate, who is a two-time, second-team All-Big Ten safety.

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January 7, 2017
by Jerry DiPaola


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The day Le’Veon Bell and Pat Narduzzi became friends

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When Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell was asked to convey his best Pat Narduzzi story, he just smiled.
“There are too many,” he said.
This was Friday, and Bell had a big game in two days, so he didn’t have time to relate them all.
He settled on the first time the two men got to know each other.
It was Bell’s freshman year at Michigan State and he admits, “I’m a guy who loves talking trash.”
Meanwhile, there was the current Pitt coach and then-Michigan State defensive coordinator challenging his defense to stop Bell during practice one day.
“This is the one time where I figured out how much energy he had,” Bell said. “He was going crazy, (telling the defense), `You better not let him get another yard. You better not let him get another yard.’ ”
From that day forward, Narduzzi and Bell became friends and now they’re neighbors at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
“I put questions in his head,” Bell said, ” `Why does the defense play like this? Why does the linebacker play this technique?’ He helped me understand the defense a little bit more.
“At the same time, he was asking questions: `Why does a running back line up at this depth? Why do you run a route this way?’ ”
They went from trash talkers to friends to advisors.
“He’s my guy,” Bell said. “I’m glad he’s over there. He’s going to change that program.”

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December 12, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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LSU interested in Canada, but Pitt working to keep him

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The news Pitt fans have been dreading came Sunday night when the Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate reported that offensive coordinator Matt Canada is among three serious candidates to get the same job with LSU.
But there is no reason to panic — or start blaming Pitt administrators — because Canada is no lock for the LSU job and Pitt is making moves to keep him.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron (as you can see by reading Advocate reporter Ross Delenger’s story) wants to hire Alabama OC Lane Kiffin, who has been a candidate for many head coaching jobs so far this off-season, but hasn’t landed one yet.
Orgeron and Kiffin are good friends from their time together at USC and Tennessee, and that might be reason enough for the two to reunite at LSU.
Aside from Canada, others on LSU’s list are former Southern California and Washington coach Steve Sarkisian (an offensive analyst at Alabama) and former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, according to the Advocate.
What about Canada?
After leading Pitt’s offense to a record-setting season (42.3 points per game), Canada will be high on many coaches’ lists if they are looking for an offensive coordinator. But Pitt wants to keep him, and isn’t just talking about it, according to athletic director Scott Barnes.
Barnes said recently on 93.7 The Fan (KDKA-FM) that contract extension talks have begun with Canada.
“There’s those calls (from other teams),” Barnes said. “Some time ago, we stepped up and had conversations with Matt about keeping him longer term. We’ve got it moving in the right direction.”
Barnes didn’t say those talks have yielded a new or richer contract for Canada, but the fact they are talking is a good sign.
If LSU lures Canada from Pitt, that would be two OCs in two years leaving for the SEC. Jim Chaney left last year at this time for Georgia. I don’t think Pat Narduzzi wants to subject his offense to three different coordinators in his first three seasons.
Some SEC schools can pay more than Pitt has been accustomed to paying for assistant football coaches. But that could be changing on Pitt’s side, given the talks with Canada and recent developments that include the Panthers beating two teams that finished in the Top 5 this season.
One more thought: Heaven help the OC who replaces Canada at Pitt. Fans will expect the new guy to have the same offensive imagination — and success — as Canada. That will be difficult to replicate in any season.

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December 10, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Browne could fit at Pitt and many other places

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News broke Thursday night — through ESPN and my good friend @PantherLair – that USC quarterback Max Browne was visiting Pitt this weekend.
Big news, for sure, because Browne of Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., was the No. 1 quarterback in the nation in the Class of 2013. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is trying to improve the experience factor in his quarterback room with Nathan Peterman and Manny Stocker graduating. The 6-5, 220-pound Browne, who figures to be on the wish list of many schools, might fit.
“Somebody is going to get a fantastic quarterback,” Browne’s coach Mat Taylor said
Taylor loves Browne like he’s one of his own, and he is not happy with how Browne was treated this season, having the starting job yanked away after three games. Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold replaced Browne and led USC to a 9-3 record and No. 9 national ranking.
“For a kid of his character and integrity to stick with the program through all the turmoil (previous coaching changes), be named starter and be named captain and then lose his job after three games … Max would have done the same things (Darnold) is doing,” Taylor said.
Taylor said Browne has several decisions to make, including where to go and when to enroll. “Does he go in January or wait and see what is out there?” he said.
“It’s pretty stressful. He has to find the perfect fit. He only has one year.”
Taylor pointed out that Browne’s original recruitment was “refreshing.” He only visited USC before committing.
“For the national player of the year, he only took one official visit,” he said. “He’s not going to just go and take a visit to waste anybody’s time.”
What are Pitt’s chances? Hard to say, but Browne is serious about Pitt or he wouldn’t have flown cross-country to see the campus. He may want to enroll in January, too, because he’s graduating this month from USC. He may make up his mind sooner rather than later.

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November 30, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Is Pitt vs. WVU in the Backyard Brawl Bowl too far-fetched to consider?

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Pitt was included in the College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday night, sliding into 25th place and gaining an important boost for its resume five days before bowl bids are issued Sunday.
What does that mean for Pitt’s postseason destination?
Pitt, which is in a tie for 24th with South Florida in the AP Top 25, is the fifth-highest ACC team in the CFP rankings, after No. 3 Clemson, No. 12 Florida State, No. 13 Louisville and No. 23 Virginia Tech. (By the way, that’s precisely how I listed all five ACC schools on my AP Top 25 ballot.)
Back to the point, the four teams ahead of Pitt (8-4) likely will get the most prestigious berths, led by Clemson which probably will return to the Final Four if it defeats Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game Saturday.
That may leave the next-highest ACC team — Florida State — for the Orange Bowl, possibly sending Louisville and Virginia Tech to the Citrus and Russell Athletic games in Orlando, Fla.
How can Pitt go to Orlando for a possible Backyard Brawl Bowl with West Virginia?
Virginia Tech is only two slots ahead of Pitt. If it loses big to Clemson on Saturday night, could idle Pitt vault ahead of the Hokies in the final CFP rankings Sunday?
If not, Pitt would have to settle for one of the ACC’s five Tier One bowls — Belk, Sun, Pinstripe, Music City or Taxslayer.
I’m hearing the Orlando Chamber of Commerce likes Pitt, which hasn’t played a postseason game in that city since 2001 and is opening up some national eyes with its amazing ability to score points.
The 300-person (that’s right, 300 people in one room) Florida Citrus Sports committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the Citrus and RA games.
If enough of them are infatuated by Pitt …
And if they are convinced the Panthers will bring lots of tourists to Orlando …
And if Virginia Tech is embarrassed by Clemson, a team Pitt defeated in Death Valley in front of CFP committee member Dan Radakovich, the Clemson AD …
Wait, that may be too many ifs. But if this season has taught us anything, things aren’t always as they seem.

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November 25, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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If Pitt wins Saturday, the Panthers should not lament what could have been

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Here’s how far Pitt’s football team sits from a rematch with Clemson in the ACC Championship game Dec. 3:
— A victory Saturday against Syracuse.
— One fourth-down stop on four attempts in the fourth quarter while protecting 36-23 and 36-30 leads Sept. 24 at North Carolina.
— Or, just better defense in the fourth quarter of the 39-36 loss to Virginia Tech on Oct. 27 at Heinz Field. The score was tied, 29-29, with about 10 minutes to go.
Will coach Pat Narduzzi feel like banging his head against a wall if he finishes 8-4 by beating Syracuse, knowing how close he came to a coveted berth in the ACC title game? Of course, not.
A victory against Syracuse would give Pitt consecutive eight (or more)-victory seasons for the first time since 2010, the year Dave Wannstedt was fired. The program has come a long way under Narduzzi’s stewardship.
If Virginia Tech loses to Virginia (I’m not predicting that) and Pitt beats Syracuse, Pitt and the Hokies would have identical 5-3 ACC records. The Hokies, though, will be the Coastal Division representative in the conference title game Dec. 3 against Clemson in Orlando, Fla.
A loss to Syracuse would be just short of devastating, but the Panthers should win to extend their record against ACC Atlantic teams to 7-1 since they joined the conference in 2013.
Score? Pitt 35, Syracuse 28. Yeah, take the Orange and the 24 1/2 points. Both teams can — and will — score.

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November 23, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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If you dare, tackling Conner can be a matter of pride

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By now, you’ve seen the eight-second video of James Conner stiff-arming Duke freshman linebacker Koby Quansah and then using the same right hand to call cornerback Mark Gilbert over toward him, daring him to risk the same fate that befell his teammate.

Pitt defensive end Ejuan Price watched the play Saturday with amusement and a little disgust toward Gilbert, who didn’t take the bait and chose the more effective — and safer — method and tackled Conner low.
Price said it would have been different if he was in Gilbert’s place.
“Man, you have to have a little more pride than that,” Price said. “You’re not just going to tell me to `c’mon’ and not get none.
“Me and James had a couple good collisions (in practice), but just him being the type of person he is and me being the type of person I am, he knows I’m not backing down. I know he’s not backing down.
“It’s definitely hard (to tackle Conner). Don’t me wrong. (Conner’s) a big body. But I’m saying I have a lot of pride. He ain’t just scoring. You can’t do me like that.”
My conclusion: The pride and toughness shown by Conner and Price have played a big role in Pitt’s recent success.

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November 19, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt prediction blog, an hour before gametime

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I meant to post this prediction blog Friday, but the end of the week turned busy and hectic.
I spent a few moments chatting with Pitt target Lamont Wade of Clairton and Pitt verbal commit Paris Ford of Steel Valley, then entered Heinz Field as a fan Friday night for the Class 6A championship game between Central Catholic and Seneca Valley (home district).
One side note about Central Catholic, a 42-7 winner for its third championship in four years and sixth overall. That’s a great defense coach Terry Totten has constructed, with Notre Dame verbals Kurt Hinish and David Adams and Jamain Stephens, the son and namesake of a former Steelers first-round draft choice.
Back to Ford: He allowed himself to dream about a future Pitt secondary of himself, Wade and freshman cornerback Damar Hamlin (another Totten product).
Whether that happens depends on Wade, who told me he will announce his choice Dec. 17 from among UCLA, Pitt, Penn State, Tennessee and West Virginia. From what I hear from people in the know, the smart money is on either Pitt or Penn State. If Wade’s as good as advertised, Pitt could use the help in its secondary. He’s enrolling in college in January, by the way.
On to Saturday’s proceedings:
I hesitated writing my prediction blog until now because I was afraid to go with my first inclination: Pitt will win comfortably.
Duke quarterback Daniel Jones doesn’t typically throw long — he’s averaging 10.9 yards per completion — and that could be an advantage for Pitt, which allows 13.4 yards per completion and 2.1 aerial touchdowns per game.
Both teams are coming off big victories, but Duke is 2-4 in October and November. Pitt is 4-2.
I wonder if the 4-6 Blue Devils will lose interest on a cold day if Pitt takes an early lead and James Conner starts punishing defensive backs who might get in his way.
I also respect the leadership the Pitt senior class is showing. I don’t believe the seniors will allow the team to suffer a Clemson hangover.
Pitt 35, Duke 23.

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November 15, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Playing the what-if game, and a big thank-you for Blewitt’s Aunt Patty

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Nathan Peterman admitted Monday he wasn’t happy when he believed officials missed a possible roughing the quarterback penalty against Clemson during Pitt’s unsuccessful two-point conversion try Saturday night.
But he suggested it might have been for the best.
With Pitt trailing, 42-40, late in the game, Peterman was sandwiched by two Clemson’s defenders as his pass fell incomplete.
“They did a little extra certainly,” he said when asked what he said to the referee on his way off the field. “I think they got away with one.”
But what if officials called a penalty, Pitt made good on its do-over and tied the game at 42? Clemson would have gotten the ball back with 5:12 left in the game, needing to score rather than focus on holding onto its two-point lead.
Same scenario if Chris Blewitt hadn’t missed an extra-point kick after a Pitt touchdown in the second quarter. Pitt wouldn’t have needed the two-point try after its sixth and last touchdown — just another Blewitt chip shot to tie the score.
“Who knows?” Peterman said. “We tie it up and maybe their play-calling is a little different. They want to go down and be more aggressive and they kick a game-winning field goal. It’s all God’s plan, I think.”

Speaking of Blewitt, he had a difficult time getting off the field after his game-winning field goal. Fans wanted their picture taken with the game’s hero.
“It took a while for me to finally see my parents,” he said.
He barely had enough time to take off his uniform and reach the bus to the airport on time.
But he didn’t mind.
“To be able to share that moment with so many fans who came down there to support us was definitely special,” he said.
That included Blewitt’s Aunt Patty, who has traveled from her Athens, Ga., home for three Pitt road games — and he’s kicked the game-winning field goal each time.
“I told her, specifically, she had to come back for the Clemson game because she was good luck,” Blewitt said.
In the end, Blewitt did get to share a moment with his parents.
“Seeing my parents with that look on their faces. They were so happy,” he said. “It was a special moment.”

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November 11, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Keeping a proper perspective, closing a cultural gap and (oh, yeah) a prediction for Pitt’s first trip to Death Valley

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When Alabama coach Nick Saban tried to make reporters believe he didn’t know Tuesday was Election Day, I couldn’t resist bringing up the topic of over-the-top football focus with Pat Narduzzi.
Is it possible, I asked him, for coaches to lose track of the outside world while bunkered in their offices, watching video, designing a game plan, critiquing practice and meeting with each other and players?
“During the day you do (lose track),” he said, “but that’s kind of (why) you unwind at night. I read USA Today (with an app) and try to find out what’s happening.
“You need something just to kind of unwind and get away from what you’ve done in the last 18 hours. I DVR the news. That’s about all I see – not the sports news.”
Narduzzi said he excused his coaches at 2 p.m. on Election Day when the lines at the polls were shortest. “We tried to find a time where you can run in and get out real quick,” he said.
He encouraged his players to vote, but he said he didn’t hear any talk about the outcome.

Pitt’s defensive line could have a different look Saturday at Clemson because of a lower extremity (can we just call it a leg or foot?) injury to Tyrique Jarrett.
Freshman Amir Watts, who puts his pants on just like everyone else and isn’t afraid to say so, probably will get some additional playing time. Junior Jeremiah Taleni also has been told to be ready.
Taleni, a junior from Kaneohe, Hawaii, is making an impact after a slow start to his college career, partially tied to the wide cultural gap between his native Hawaii and Pittsburgh.
“I hadn’t been competing where they wanted me to be, but I eventually caught onto that,” he said. “Now I can line up and play against anyone.”
Taleni admitted his freshman season was “the toughest year ever in my life.”
“I had to take it day by day, stay strong in my faith and I’m still here.”
You could sense the pride in his voice.
Taleni was recruited to Pitt by former Pitt defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield, also a native Hawaiian, who followed Paul Chryst to Wisconsin.
That wasn’t easy for Taleni, but he long ago adjusted to his present line coach, Tom Sims.
Besides the weather, what’s the biggest difference between Hawaii and Pittsburgh in Taleni’s mind?
“We talk a lot here,” he said. “People back home are real chill. Here, everyone’s on the move, everyone is talking. You have to try to keep up.
“When I do go home, they look at me (and say), `Why do you talk so much?’
“I guess you could call me a yinzer.”

Most of Pitt’s injured players are getting healthy (Mike Caprara, Avonte Maddox, Dontez Ford and Bam Bradley), but Narduzzi added Jarrett and redshirt freshman wide receiver Tre Tipton to the list this week.
The Tipton upper body injury is significant, but look for Ford to get a lot of looks from quarterback Nathan Peterman. Ford’s a tough-minded Sto-Rox grad, and he’s eager to salvage what’s left of his senior season.

I was thinking what an intriguing day it would be Saturday at Death Valley if Pitt wins the game, or at least keeps the score close into the fourth quarter. A Pitt victory would make an impact that is felt throughout the country.
The most entertaining game at Pitt in the post-Wannstedt era was Pitt’s triple overtime loss to No. 3 Notre Dame at South Bend in 2012. No one thought it was possible, but Pitt overachieved that day.
The difference: Clemson has a far more powerful offense than Notre Dame did. Keeping pace will be difficult against an athletic Clemson defense.
This is the same Pitt team that gave up 51 points to Miami only a week ago. It’s not hard to envision Clemson reaching the 40s.
Clemson 49, Pitt 24.

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November 9, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Conklin: Narduzzi believes in his defensive system

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Pitt defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said Tuesday in his first chat with reporters since the start of the season that he and Pat Narduzzi have had “long conversations” about Pitt’s style of defense.
With Pitt traveling to Clemson on Saturday, Conklin suggested a slight philosophical shift in Narduzzi’s insistence on putting cornerbacks in nothing but risky one-on-one situations.
Emphasis on the word slight.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Nick Saban or Dave Aranda (LSU defensive coordinator) or Pat Narduzzi (Conklin said he has worked with, studied and/or consulted with all three coaches and their staffs), the things that make these guys good is they believe in what they do. They believe in their system,” Conklin said.
“(Narduzzi) is not ever going to be a Tampa 2, cover 2 guy (where safeties offer cornerbacks continuous help). That’s not who he is.”
Conklin said Pitt’s defensive scheme for the Miami game called for safety help and there will be some Saturday, too.
But there will be limits, especially with the threat of Clemson running back Wayne Gallman.

“You’re not going to be able to cover up (the cornerbacks) all game,” he said. “Sometimes, they are going to have to step up and make a play.”
The key for Pitt’s success on defense, of course, is and always has been the need to find and develop athletic cornerbacks. Narduzzi’s defense won’t work without them. That’s an ongoing process that needs more time than the 23 months Narduzzi has been on the job.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on Central Catholic graduate Damar Hamlin, who has proven to the best of the freshman crop of cornerbacks. Circumstances (injuries and spotty play) have forced Hamlin into the lineup, something Pitt’s coaches did reluctantly.
“We would have loved not to have to play (Hamlin) and develop him a year, get him in the strength and conditioning program because that’s what we’re doing: We’re building for the future,” Conklin said.
Instead, Hamlin will be in the Pitt secondary Saturday trying to keep up with Clemson wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, who will enter next year’s NFL Draft as underclassmen, coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday. Quarterback Deshaun Watson and Gallman also are going early.

The College Football Playoff committee released its second rankings Tuesday night, putting Alabama, Clemson, Michigan and Washington first through fourth and into the semifinals at the moment, followed by Ohio State, Louisville, Wisconsin, Texas A&M, Auburn and Penn State.
The Top 10 in my AP ballot is identical, except I put Ohio State four and Washington five. One-loss Ohio State has the better resume in my mind, with victories against Oklahoma and Nebraska that total 80 points and a seven-point overtime decision against Wisconsin.
Undefeated Washington’s only victory against a ranked team occurred against Utah.

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