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February 4, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt loses another prospect

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Pitt received its first piece of bad news an hour into the letter of intent day Wednesday when two-star linebacker Shawn Curtis of Miami flipped to Ole Miss.
Curtis, 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, is a two-star prospect from tiny Ronald Reagan High School in Doral, Fla. He committed to Pitt on Jan. 21.
He is the eighth prospect to flip from the Panthers after initially giving Pitt coaches a verbal commitment.
Curtis confirmed that he chose Ole Miss, but declined further comment.
Quarterback Ben DiNucci ignited signing day when he became the first prospect to deliver his letter of intent.
DiNucci, a Pine-Richland senior, became the first quarterback in Pennsylvania history to throw for 4,000 yards (4,269) last season. Pitt did not recruit DiNucci until after coach Pat Narduzzi was hired and former Panthers commit Alex Hornibrook followed Paul Chryst to Wisconsin.
DiNucci was followed by Apollo-Ridge wide receiver Tre Tipton, who totaled 2,018 yards rushing, throwing and receiving last season, Hempfield offensive lineman Tony Pilato, Central Valley cornerback Jordan Whitehead, Cornell/Quaker Valley defensive back Dane Jackson and Canon-McMillan offensive lineman Alex Paulina. Whitehead is the No. 1 prospect in Pennsylvania.
After the first 75 minutes of the signing period, 12 Pitt prospects had sent in their letters to Pitt.
Letters arrived from wide receiver Quadree Henderson, safety Jay Stocker, junior college defensive end Allen Edwards, linebackers Anthony McKee and Saleem Brightwell and running back Darrin Hall.
Narduzzi also announced early enrollee Malik Henderson, a cornerback who graduated from Hallandale Beach (Fla.) High School last year and started attending classes in January. He will be eligible for spring drills that begin in March.

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January 23, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi hits the airwaves

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi appeared on “The Starkey and Mueller Show” on KDKA-FM on Friday afternoon, with my Trib colleagues Joe Starkey and Rob Rossi conducting the interview. Chris Mueller was on vacation.
Narduzzi downplayed the rivalry with Penn State, pointing out (correctly) that “a rivalry doesn’t start until you start playing it.”
He downplayed the budding Twitter war between the coaching staffs, saying he and his assistants are only trying to point out what is good about Pitt. “It has nothing to do with them,” he said.
But he didn’t say he is banning his coaches from Twitter. Indeed, the new Pitt staff — completely rebuilt, by the way, in a span of less than four weeks — has been active on social media, aggressively getting the word out about a program that has been too far under the radar in recent years.
Meanwhile, the coaches are building plenty of frequent flyer miles while trying to salvage the Class of 2015.
With signing day Feb. 4, Pitt has 13 verbals. Several recruits are expected to visit the campus this weekend.
Former coach Paul Chryst brought in 50 freshmen the past two years, putting Pitt close to the 85 scholarship limit. During the 2014 season, Pitt had 81 on the roster. Subtract the 11 seniors, account for a few other departures for various reasons and add the incoming freshmen. That might mean this year’s class probably will stop somewhere shy of 20.
Of course, Narduzzi can bring in more than that, but that assumes there will be considerable attrition after spring practice (which could be bigger than normal this year with a new coaching staff).
Speaking of the new coaching staff, one of the most significant remarks on the radio show came from Narduzzi, who repeated what a recruit’s parent told him recently:
“It seems like you guys have been together for three years.”
“And we had been together for 72 hours,” Narduzzi said.

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January 21, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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I thought he coached at Pitt

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I am posting this, but I can’t believe it is not a gag/hoax. How could anyone at the University of Wisconsin not notice this mistake before it was sent out to, presumably, dozens of recruits? But it’s not surprising that Chryst didn’t bother to proofread it.

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January 15, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Twitter proves it: Narduzzi, staff off to interesting start

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It’s easy to like and be impressed by Pat Narduzzi.
Energetic, engaging, funny (at times, with a dagger), smart about football, devoted to his family (his wife Donna’s tears on the night of the Cotton Bowl proved that) and a guy who has been handed the keys to the Pitt football kingdom and seems to know what to do with them.
But the ACC doesn’t hand out victories based on news conferences, what coaches get hired and recruits. All of that is important, but the true test of Narduzzi’s leadership and abilities as a football COO will occur during the season.
For now, though, give him high marks for a skill Paul Chyrst never perfected (or wasn’t given tools to perfect): Hiring the right staff.
Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said he has increased the salary pool for assistant coaches for Narduzzi, who has put the money to work.
The most impressive hire is offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who has 15 years experience at that position at three Power 5 schools — Purdue, Tennessee and Arkansas. He also spent three seasons with the St. Louis Rams.
If he makes the wrong call on game days — and, believe me, he eventually will face that accusation — it won’t be from inexperience.
Working closely with Chaney will be tight ends coach Tim Salem. He has been an offensive coordinator for nine seasons at Purdue (he preceded Chaney), Central Florida, Eastern Michigan and Phoenix College. He has coached every offensive position, except the line.
Pitt hasn’t announced Salem’s hiring yet, but the secret is out. He hasn’t been shy talking about his new position on Twitter.
He identifies himself as Pitt’s tight ends coach, with a photo of a Pitt script helmet. Plus, he tweeted a photo of a stadium that looks suspiciously like Heinz Field, with a list of several Pitt football achievements over top of it. He also retweeted the Twitter addresses of eight new Pitt coaches.
It’s also interesting to see the Twitter avatar of defensive line coach Tom Sims, whose hiring also hasn’t been officially announced by Pitt officials.
Sims played at Pitt in 1988 and 1989 (nothing wrong with a little taste of the past), and his Twitter avatar shows him standing in uniform at Pitt Stadium.
It appears most of Narduzzi’s coaches are on the road recruiting, starting Thursday when the dead period ended.
Offensive line coach John Peterson tweeted this Thursday: “On the road looking for the next DUDE !! Awesome feeling walking into schools with PITT on my chest!! #H2P #PittPride”
Oh, Peterson’s hiring also hasn’t been announced.
Two coaches whose hirings are official — defensive coordinator Josh Conklin and linebackers coach Rob Harley — have also appeared on social media.
Conklin tweeted, “We have punched the time card in South Florida.”
Harley retweeted a welcome from a Pitt fan club in Philadelphia.
And here’s a Tweet from Narduzzi himself, revealing where most of his staff was on Thursday. Imagine Chryst doing that. I can’t.
Maybe the most impressive Twitter action came from special teams/running backs coach Andre Powell: He followed me. Thanks, coach.
One more thought on Narduzzi’s sense of humor. When he appeared on Hines Ward’s TV show and Ward asked him about competing with Penn State and coach James Franklin’s prediction of dominating the state, Narduzzi, formerly of Michigan State, was quick with a reply:
“I’ve been a state where they thought they owned it. They thought.”

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January 3, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt fans: It’s time to move on

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Judging from my email box and Twitter notifications, Pitt fans are angry.
You can’t blame them after an epic collapse Friday at the Armed Forces Bowl.
Losing a 25-point lead to unranked Houston in less than a quarter was inexcusable and even irresponsible.
Did I mention that Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., not Peyton Manning, led his team to 292 yards in less than a quarter (a nearly 1,200-yard pace), plus four touchdowns and a two-point conversion?
But defeat easily could have been avoided.
All the Pitt defense had to do was stay behind the pass catchers or perhaps turn in the right direction occasionally. Somebody, somewhere could have stepped up and made one play.
All the hands team had to do was recover one of two onside kicks. It’s not like they were surprised by them.
All the offense had to do was get in field-goal range (one more catch by Tyler Boyd would have done it).
If any of those things had happened, Pitt probably would have had back-to-back bowl victories and winning seasons.
But here’s the best part, the part that matters:
The two most important people to the football program — Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and coach Pat Narduzzi – were there to see first-hand what has become a culture of losing at Pitt.
It started long before Paul Chryst arrived,
* With the arrests of so many Dave Wannstedt players.
* With the one-point loss to Cincinnati after blowing a 21-point lead that would have yielded a Big East championship.
* With the loss to Youngstown State in Chryst’s first game after he suspended six players.
* With the close defeats this season to Iowa, Virginia, Duke, North Carolina and Houston. And don’t forget Akron and the five fumbles in the first quarter against Georgia Tech.
That adds up to 6-7.
Now, Narduzzi has seen with his own eyes how Pitt seems bogged down by losing that just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
After speaking with so many Michigan State players at the Cotton Bowl on Thursday, I’m convinced Pitt hired the right guy. He’s smart, savvy and he earns respect and trust from his players. That last one really mattered to the Spartans.
Put that Houston loss aside, Pitt fans. It will mean nothing in a day or two and less than nothing if Narduzzi is successful next season.

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December 21, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Almost forgot, there is a game to play

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It’s strange to admit, but true.
Paul Chryst is becoming yesterday’s news.
The next chapter of Pitt football is still being formulated in the minds of the coach search committee, but in the meantime there is a game to play in less than two weeks.
The players had their last practice before Christmas on Saturday, and afterwards interim coach Joe Rudolph canceled Sunday’s scheduled session.
The team will take off next week and reconvene next weekend before leaving Dec. 29 for the Armed Forces Bowl and a game against Houston on Jan. 2.
Quarterback Chad Voytik said he has seen so much Houston video, he feels like he’s been watching it for two years — not two weeks.
“I feel like I know them inside-out now,” he said.
The difference for Voytik is Chryst is no longer his quarterback coach. Now, it’s another former Wisconsin quarterback, graduate assistant Jon Budmayr.
Voytik and teammates James Conner and Reggie Mitchell chatted with reporters Saturday, and a topic of conversation was how Chryst said goodbye.
I was there in 2010 and 2011 for the final days of Dave Wannstedt and Todd Graham. Many grim-faced players looked ready to cry or tear up a room.
This time, they understand.
“It was a distraction when (Chryst) was on the fence about (leaving),” Voytik said. “But it was just that one day. We’ve turned it around and I think we are having some good practices and prepping for Houston pretty well.”
Voytik said Chryst kept the team updated about Wisconsin’s interest in him throughout the process.
“We respect coach for how he did it and how he handled it,” he said.
“We have a tight relationship and probably will for the rest of our lives,” Conner said.
Mitchell compared Chryst’s situation with his own. Mitchell, a Shady Side Academy graduate, transferred from Wisconsin to return home to Pittsburgh, just as Chryst is returning home to Wisconsin.
“Coach Chryst met with us almost every day, keeping us informed about what was going on,” Mitchell said.
“I’m happy he was communicating every day. That kept down the stress of the whole situation.
“It’s a dream job for him. It wouldn’t be right as a man if I wasn’t happy for him.”
Conner added, “I will always have love for him. If it wasn’t for coach Chryst I wouldn’t be here.”
But Conner also displayed a strong grasp on reality when he said, “No matter who the coach is, it’s the players that really matter.”
One final note:
Rudolph said he was “humbled” when five players – Voytik, Conner, J.P. Holtz, Adam Bisnowaty and Artie Rowell – met with Chancellor Patrick Gallagher on his behalf. Rudolph hopes to be a candidate for the job vacated by Chryst.
“That’s pretty neat that that group is together and standing up for things,” he said. “It reflects back to the fact they’re a team and they have some pride with what they feel, about what they’re doing and how they’re going about doing it.
“Their vision and expectations are big. That’s one of the things you see in a team where you say, `OK, they are taking ownership of this.’ ”

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December 12, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Chryst `poised’ to take Wisconsin job, Milwaukee newspaper reports

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There is no official word yet, but it appears Paul Chryst is leaving Pitt after three seasons.
The Milwaukee (Wisc.) Journal Sentinel reported Friday morning that Paul Chryst is “poised” to become the next coach at Wisconsin, his alma mater.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez moved swiftly to replace Gary Andersen, who resigned Wednesday to accept the head coaching job at Oregon State.
Chryst, 49, was 19-19 in three seasons at Pitt after replacing Todd Graham, who left for Arizona State after one season. Pitt hasn’t had a coach see a recruiting class through to the end of its senior season since Dave Wannstedt in 2009.
Accepting the Wisconsin job represents a return home for Chryst, who was born in Madison, played quarterback for Wisconsin from 1986-1988 and was named the Badgers’ offensive coordinator in 2005, a position he held through the 2011 season when he was hired at Pitt.
Chryst helped produce two All-Americans at Pitt — defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a consensus choice last year, and sophomore running back James Conner, who was named second-team Walter Camp All-American on Thursday.
Chryst has led Pitt to three consecutive bowl berths, including the Armed Forces Bowl Jan. 2 in Fort Worth, Texas, where the Panthers will play Houston.

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December 4, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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ACC will announce bowl selections on its webpage Sunday

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The ACC will announce its teams’ bowl destinations at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on “The ACC Live: Bowl Selection Show” that can be seen on theACC.com/Bowls page.
Host Jeff Fischel will be joined by former ACC stars Clinton Portis (Miami) and Tajh Boyd (Clemson) in analyzing the postseason.

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December 3, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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If you want your head to spin, try to figure out Pitt’s bowl destination

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Here’s what I think about that Pitt/Penn State bowl game everyone 150 miles west of State College seems to want:
Penn State really doesn’t want it.
It prefers the Pinstripe and the glitz and glamour of New York City and Yankee Stadium. And I believe Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and the Yankees — the bowl’s sponsors — share that sentiment. Meanwhile, the Pinstripe has no interest in matching two 6-6 teams. After all, it is an ACC Tier 1 bowl (no sarcasm intended).
Penn State fans prefer the Pinstripe to Detroit’s Quick Lane Bowl. It’s closer to home after many of them blew their vacation budgets on the trip to Ireland at the start of the season. Detroit in December? Really?
The matchup still could happen, but it’s a lose-lose proposition for Penn State. Let me explain:
Penn State does not fear Pitt. That’s not my point. Truth be told, Penn State’s defense would be a formidable challenge for a Pitt offense that has scored at least 28 points in each of the past five games and features the nation’s fourth-most productive running back in James Conner. Plus, a wide receiver, Tyler Boyd, who Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg would love to have on the other end of his passes.
Penn State, with big-time stars Mike Hull at linebacker and Anthony Zettel at defensive tackle, allowed 20 or fewer points in eight of 12 games. Penn State’s defense is better than any Pitt has faced in the ACC since October.
Hull vs. Conner … Bring it on.
But this is not the year Penn State coach James Franklin prefers to play such a high-profile game with so many perceptions at stake. The Nittany Lions aren’t very good; they will be better, presumably, in 2016 when the series is scheduled to resume at Heinz Field.
Many people would love to see the first Pitt/Penn State bowl game, but I get the sense Pitt fans are the only ones making noise about it. If Notre Dame doesn’t mind going back to the Pinstripe for a second consecutive year, Penn State fans would prefer a renewal of their series with the Irish that was played through most of the 1980s and into the early ’90s.
I get the sense Franklin would rather take his team west — Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., for example — where a loss to a Pac-12 team may not hurt his recruiting efforts back east.
A loss to Pitt would delay his plans to dominate the state of Pennsylvania (again, no sarcasm intended).
In my opinion, Pitt isn’t going back to Detroit without Penn State; it played there last year and defeated MAC champion Bowling Green. Perhaps Pitt’s 4-4 ACC record is worth more this season.
Pitt might be hoping to wedge itself into one of those five bowls tied to the Big 12, which has only six eligible schools at the moment. TCU to the national semifinals and Baylor to the Cotton Bowl could send Pitt to the Cactus Bowl against a Pac-12 team (no, not Arizona State). I don’t know … on paper, that sounds like a longshot.
All that being said, there are still some very smart people who are projecting Pitt/PSU for the Quick Lane. Only a few hours before I posted this blog Tuesday night, I got an excited text message from a well-connected media guy, based in Pennsylvania, who wrote: “Oh, Lord, have mercy … Brett McMurphy (ESPN’s well-respected and knowledgeable college football analyst) changed his bowl pick to PSU and Pitt in Detroit.”
College Football News, an offshoot of Scout.com, predicted the same.
Then, there is this opinion that seemed to come out nowhere: Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com and Mark Schlabach of ESPN are predicting Pitt to the New Orleans Bowls to play Sun Belt runner-up Louisiana-Lafayette.
Another ESPN expert, David Hale, is also going in that direction, predicting Pitt getting shoved from the ACC bowls and ending up elsewhere. His post did not identify a landing site for the Panthers, but I don’t blame him.
Joe Giglio, a veteran ACC scribe who writes for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer, believes enough dominos will fall in Pitt’s favor to send it to one of the ACC bowls — Quick Lane, Independence, Military or Bitcoin.
From what I’ve read and heard, I’m leaning toward Giglio’s way of thinking, but don’t ask me which bowl.
Why go out on a shaky limb? Ask me Sunday night. I’ll know then.

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November 26, 2014
by Jerry DiPaola


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Todd Graham’s only Pitt recruiting class, four years later

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The full value of a school’s recruiting class most often can’t be measured until the end of its fourth year.
It’s time to put Todd Graham to the test.
Graham put together his first and only Pitt class in February of 2011. On signing day, I was granted access to the so-called war room — actually, it was the lobby outside Graham’s office — and I can still hear him talking into his cell phone when a recruit called to confirm receipt of his letter of intent:
“Hey, big stud. Ready to win a national championship?”
But I digress.
Graham signed 21 players that day, a hastily assembled class that had started falling apart when Dave Wannstedt was fired and Michael Haywood was arrested in December.
It is now nearly four years and four seasons later, and only nine of the 21 players remain. Here’s a salute to the survivors:
Running back Isaac Bennett, cornerback Lafayette Pitts, defensive tackle K.K. Mosley-Smith, linebacker Nicholas Grigsby and center Artie Rowell. The others remain on the team, but are rarely used in games:
Defensive end Devin Cook, wide receiver Ronald Jones, safety Jevonte Pitts and defensive tackle LaQuentin Smith. Backup quarterback Trey Anderson, who is 11 for 18 this season, came along in August.
By the way, only Bennett and Smith, who weren’t redshirted, will exhaust their eligibility at the end of this season. Read about Bennett’s Pitt journey here.
Perhaps more players would still be at Pitt if Graham hadn’t left 10 months after signing day. Many of them were selected specifically for Graham’s speed-based offense, and didn’t fit Paul Chryst’s more conventional style.
But the point is the departure of 12 of the 21 players left Pitt without enough seasoned leadership this season.
Contrast that class to Wannstedt’s 27-man class in 2006. A total of 17 of them made it to 2009 when Pitt recorded its only double-digit victory total (10) in the past 33 years. It was Wannstedt’s fifth season.
Making it all the way were offensive line starters Jason Pinkston, Joe Thomas and John Malecki and several other key players, including tight ends Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson, cornerback Aaron Berry, safety Elijah Fields and Big East co-defensive player of the year defensive end Greg Romeus.
Using this formula, Pitt’s 2016 team will be the first true gauge of Chryst’s recruiting skills. Delay your evaluation until 2017 if Tyler Boyd and James Conner, who will be draft eligible after the 2015 season, leave early for the NFL.
PITT/MIAMI PREDICTION
Thanks to the Thanksgiving holiday and Friday’s travel demands, I’ll offer my weekly prediction a few days early.
It will be difficult for Pitt to keep up with Miami’s speed Saturday night. So expect a high-scoring game. Miami’s defense has struggled this season, and Pitt will have some success moving the chains.
But what about Conner’s injured hip?
He will try to play, his determination and courage leading him toward the field — no matter what the doctors say, no matter the amount of pain he’s feeling.
Will he be 100 percent? Not sure. But his health is the key to the game for Pitt. Chris James and Bennett ran well last week against Syracuse, but can you imagine Pitt winning at Miami without the ACC’s leading rusher?
I can’t.
Let’s assume the national TV spotlight will awaken the sleeping Hurricanes, who almost upset Florida State two weeks ago on the same Sun Life Stadium field they will share with Pitt.
Miami 35, Pitt 24.

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