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March 4, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Vinopal opens eyes at Pitt’s first open Pro Day

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A couple of notes from Pitt’s Pro Day, the first in memory (maybe ever) to be open to the media.
— Chatted with coach Pat Narduzzi on the way across the parking lot after the weightroom session. He couldn’t believe this is the first year reporters and photographers were permitted to watch the drills. The new transparency was his idea, by the way.
I didn’t tell him about the years when we had to stand outside the indoor facility — in the cold — waiting to conduct interviews.
Narduzzi is finally catching his breath after more than two hectic months on the job. He won’t have much time to relax, however. Spring practice starts March 15.
Narduzzi, who seemed to know most of the 41 NFL scouts in attendance, was pleased to see many members of his team watching the proceedings and supporting the eight seniors working out for NFL scouts.
He said safety Ray Vinopal, who had a great day, originally planned to lift following the conditioning drills after most of the non-NFL spectators had gone home. But he changed his mind when he saw his teammates there to support him.
“He got the adrenaline going,” Narduzzi said, “said `I’m going to get this in right now,’ then popped out 26 reps (in the bench press). He looked great in all the drills out here as well.”
— Vinopal had long chat with San Diego Chargers scout James MacPherson, and Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake offered a congratulatory handshake. Vinopal, who was clocked in the 40 in the low 4.5s on most NFL stopwatches, ran faster than most of the safeties at the scouting combine last month in Indianapolis.
He also looked to be in great shape after two months working out in Miami.
Slightly undersized at 5-10, Vinopal speaks and acts with plenty of confidence. Those characteristics will serve him well in the NFL, and I’m certain he’ll end up in some team’s camp — drafted or not.
“I am stronger than most safeties,” he said. “I can come down and fill a hole (in run defense).
“This year, I played more solid football. Anybody who digs in the film and knows football will see that. Missed assignments just weren’t happening this year like they were last year. I knew the game.”
— Also looking to be a bit bigger and stronger since the end of the season was quarterback Chad Voytik, who was watching the proceedings with former Pitt quarterback Trey Anderson. Voytik said he might have put on about 5 pounds since January.
Anderson, who is graduating this spring, said he is looking to transfer closer to his home in Pearland, Texas, for his final year of eligibility. He hasn’t picked a landing spot yet.
— Quick note about Anderson:
He came to Pitt in 2011 because he was a fit for former coach Todd Graham’s offense. After Graham left and Paul Chryst brought in a pro style offense, Anderson didn’t go running back to Texas, feeling sorry for himself. He stayed through the next three years even though he knew he had little chance to play. Good for him. There’s a kid with his priorities in order.
He became a key part of Pitt’s quarterback meetings, offering help to Chryst and Voytik while attempting only 20 passes in three seasons — without complaint. He will leave town with his degree and plenty of good memories.
His goal is to coach, and Chryst and Voytik have said many times that Anderson will make a good one.
— Good to see former Steelers director of football operations Tom Donahoe at Pro Day. He now scouts for the Philadelphia Eagles. One of the NFL’s good guys.
— Also in attendance was former Pitt All-American and current St.Louis Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He was offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings’ roommate at Pitt, and now the pair can become Pitt’s first back-to-back first-round draft choices since Darrelle Revis and Jeff Otah in 2007 and 2008.
— Clemmings did not run or lift after performing for scouts at the Combine last month. But he spent a lot of time working with Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak and seemed more relaxed than at any time during the season.
And why not? He is on the brink of landing a big contract.
He also credited Chryst for urging him to move to offense after three unproductive years at defensive end and former Pitt line coach Jim Hueber for pushing him to become one of the ACC’s best tackles last season.
“Nothing to stress about,” Clemmings said. “I’m happy to be here. I didn’t think I’d be here.”

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February 27, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Football season arrives early — 5:15 a.m. to be exact

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The temperature dipped to 5 degrees at 5:15 Friday morning. But, yes, there were two Pitt football players running to practice wearing nothing but a T-shirt, shorts and workout cleats?
Did I sleep through spring and most of summer and it’s August already?.
No, this was one of the twice-a-week conditioning sessions Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is holding in advance of the start of official spring drills March 15. He invited the media to watch the first half-hour (5:30-6), and five of us accepted his invitation.
When I walked inside the indoor facility, the first player I encountered was rehabbing center Artie Rowell, who looked at me as if I had lost my mind. He did offer a warm handshake, a smile and a shake of his head, with the words, “What are you doing here?”
What we saw at first before we were herded away for a promise of breakfast (thank you, Celeste, for the snicker doodle muffins and chocolate milk) were mainly warmup drills, high leg kicks and easy sprints. All the while, strength coach Dave Andrews kept blowing into what appeared to be an increasingly shrill whistle.
Then, Narduzzi herded the team into the middle of the field for a tug-of-war (offense against defense). As far as I could tell, the defense won twice, with the losing team hitting the floor for up-downs. Narduzzi continually kept up the intensity by shouting in the players’ ears.
Later, players participated in a drill in which they pull on thick ropes, curling them into waves, while assistant strength coach Austin Addington-Strapp shouts instructions.
In case you’re wondering, these conditioning sessions are perfectly legal per the NCAA if no footballs are present. I looked. Pitt was clean.

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February 23, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Howard’s dismissal hurts Pitt’s depth at shallow cornerback position

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You can look at the dismissal of cornerback Titus Howard by Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi in one of two ways:
— It’s either a devastating blow to a position that had little experienced depth before Howard’s departure.
— Or, it’s a unique opportunity for incoming freshmen cornerbacks Jordan Whitehead, Malik Henderson and Dane Jackson. Time to turn the page. Again.
Howard once had a bright future at Pitt. He played in 11 games during his freshman season of 2013, starting two. He contributed two pass breakups in the victory against Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Then, former coach Paul Chryst suspended him for the 2014 season for unspecified disciplinary reasons. Yet, the opportunity remained within Howard’s grasp. He practiced with the team every day; the suspension took effect only on game day. He looked like a player on his way back to good standing.
But Howard lasted less than two months with Narduzzi. Despite a shallow pool of players at cornerback, Narduzzi acted in what he believes to be the best interests of the program, dismissing Howard for violating unspecified team rules. Trivia such as the number of capable cornerbacks remaining on the roster was unimportant in this case, as it should be.
Clairton coach Wayne Wade said he didn’t know the details of Howard’s situation.
“I was excited for the kid,” Wade said. “He was working so hard to get back.”
Howard is the second former Clairton cornerback to leave Pitt without exhausting his eligibility. Trenton Coles transferred to Duquesne last summer.
What’s next for Pitt at one of the most important positions on the field?
The answer could emerge in how quickly the incoming freshmen, especially Whitehead, pick up the Narduzzi defense. Whitehead might be the most talented cornerback on the team as soon as he steps on campus this summer.
Elsewhere on the depth chart, veteran Lafayette Pitts is entering his final year of eligibility, and should be eager for a fresh start. Troy Douglas, the secondary coach under Chryst, called out Pitts late last season for a lack of consistency on the practice field. New cornerbacks coach Renaldo Hill should become Pitts’ new best friend.
The other returning cornerback, sophomore-to-be Avonte Maddox, is coming off a season in which he started six games and showed promise.
Also, junior-to-be Reggie Mitchell started seven games at cornerback last season before moving to safety. He could return to cornerback, but there is a hole at safety with Ray Vinopal graduating. Mitchell might be needed at both positions.
What does Narduzzi think? Good question. Spring practice starts March 15. Keep an eye on Triblive.com for some answers.
On an unrelated Pitt note that shouldn’t surprise anyone, there will be a spring game in April after Chryst canceled it last year.

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February 16, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Clemmings rides first-round roller coaster on eve of NFL Combine

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More than two months before the NFL Draft and a day before the start of the NFL Combine, Pitt right tackle T.J. Clemmings already is riding a roller coaster.
Not long after the season, he was considered a top-10 draft choice. After an uneven Senior Bowl when he played offensive left tackle for the first time in his career, he dropped several spots. ESPN’s Mel Kiper has him going No. 25 to the Carolina Panthers.
But NFL.com’s Mike Mayock, one of the elite NFL talent evaluators, still ranks Clemmings the No. 1 offensive tackle in the draft — ahead of Stanford’s Andrus Peat, LSU’s La’el Collins and Miami’s Ereck Flowers. He lists Iowa’s Brandon Scheff as the top interior lineman.
During a conference call Monday, in which 50 reporters were still waiting to ask a question after the first two hours, Mayock had high praise for Clemmings, mixed with words of caution.
“His upside is unbelievable,” he said. “He is so gifted. But he has some technique issues.”
The issues are not unexpected, given Clemmings, 6-6, 315, played only two years of high school football in Teaneck, N.J., and was a defensive lineman at Pitt until Paul Chryst convinced him two years ago that offense was where he would make his fortune.
“He’s raw,” Mayock said, explaining Clemmings’ problems at the Senior Bowl. “He was exposed a little bit, but that didn’t hurt him. We all know of his talent, but we respected that he came out and competed.”
Mayock added that he believes Clemmings will be drafted in the “15-25 range” of the first round.

Other notes from Mayock’s call:
— He lists West Virginia’s Kevin White as the top wide receiver, ahead of Alabama’s Amari Cooper and Louisville’s Devante Parker. “He has a higher ceiling than Cooper,” he said. “But I want to know what he runs (at the Combine).”
Cooper is the “safest pick” among wide receivers, according to Mayock. But White and Parker are “bigger-bodied guys (6-foot-2 and about 210 pounds).”
“You can throw it up and they can win jump balls.”

— Count Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong as a wide receiver to watch after catching 82 passes for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns for Todd Graham, who plucked him out of a community college in California. Strong is a Philadelphia native, who went to the same high school as Pitt safety Patrick Amara (West Catholic).
“He has the physical traits, height, weight (6-3, 212) and speed of Larry Fitzgerald when he came out of Pitt,” Mayock said. “That doesn’t mean he is anywhere close to him from a technique perspective. He’s really raw.”

— Mayock rates Penn State tight end Jesse James of South Allegheny as “an inline blocker who is pesky. Not overly powerful, a mid- to late-round tight end.”

— Penn State linebacker Mike Hull of Canon-McMillan has caught Mayock’s eye. “He’s a smart, tough, impressive Penn State linebacker,” he said. “He gets the game of football. He will make his living on special teams and will show coaches how impressive he is (and earn a starting job).”

— Mayock said Penn State offensive tackle Donovan Smith has “awesome right tackle ability, who may not get drafted until the second or third round.”

— Asked about players leaving college early for the NFL, Mayock made an interesting — but not unexpected — observation about running backs.
“Certain positions, like running back, once you’ve proven yourself, you probably need to go,” he said.
Keep that in mind a year from now.

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February 5, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt LOI day: A look back

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Letter of intent day was winding down early Wednesday night when I checked the Rivals.com Class of 2015 rankings.
Pitt was 70th.
Thursday morning, I checked again: 72nd.
A couple of schools must have added a name or two and moved ahead of Pitt, but the Panthers’ class was no better or no worse Thursday than it was Wednesday when coach Pat Narduzzi said:“We have a group full of guys who can take us to the next level.”
The point: Don’t pay too close attention to what the analysts are saying.
It’s true that Pitt’s class appears to have its share of holes, but predicting how high school seniors will develop as men and football players over the next four years is difficult, if not impossible. With the right work ethic, training and direction, any player with enough athletic ability can succeed.
The best example of that surfaced in 2010 when former Pitt All-American Aaron Donald was just another overlooked defensive tackle coming from Penn Hills High School, with only four offers (Pitt, Akron, Rutgers and Toledo). Defensive end Bryan Murphy and quarterback Mark Myers were rated ahead of him.
As it turned out, Murphy and Myers never fulfilled their promise and left the team before graduation. Donald was one of the most richly decorated players in college football history in 2013 and the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year in 2014.
Another example: The average star rating of the Patriots’ and Seahawks’ starters in Super Bowl XLIX was under 3. The game had no 5-stars.
Other than Florida State and Clemson, the remaining 12 ACC schools recruited no 5-stars this year. Also, FSU and Clemson had 19 of the conference’s 34 4-stars. Defending Coastal Division champion Georgia Tech, Boston College and Syracuse had none. Pitt has two.
The bottom line: Narduzzi could have recruited the greatest class in ACC history, and he still would have a lot of work ahead of him.
Here is a brief scouting report — straight from Narduzzi during his Wednesday news conference — on each of the 15 players in Pitt’s class:
OLB Saleem Brightwell — “Very athletic … really fits a need as far as an outside linebacker with speed.”
QB Ben DiNucci — “We started scouring quarterbacks across the country. We didn’t pick him because he was just up the road and it was easy for (offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to go see him. The reason we picked him is he was the best quarterback we found out there. Smart, composed and athletic enough to run. I don’t know what else you look for in a quarterback.”
Junior college DE Allen Edwards — “I watched him practice in November (when Narduzzi was still at Michigan State). We won’t be known for taking a bunch of JC guys, unless there is a need.”
RB Darrin Hall — “Big, old tailback (5-11, 215). Physical, will punish you. Has great hands out of the backfield.”
CB Malik Henderson – Enrolled last month. “He could have turned around and went back home (after Paul Chryst left). Very athletic. Shows ability to run with loose hips.”
WR Quadree Henderson — “Electric. Not afraid to catch the ball over the middle. Played some defense.”
WR Gentry Ivery — “Why was that guy still out there (without many offers)? He will be an impact receiver for us in the near future.”
DB Dane Jackson — “Returner. Smooth guy who will strike you. We need guys in the (secondary) who will strike you.”
LB Anthony McKee — “We need some athletic linebackers in this program. He will fit that.”
OL Alex Paulina – “Maybe the toughest guy in our class. You talk about finishing blocks and taking people to the ground. He’s never going to fall on the ground. He’s going to be on the ground a bunch because he’s going to be on top of somebody.”
QB Nathan Peterman — “He was a guy we felt we needed, an older guy to fill in the gap with his experience playing in a big-time program. Brings a ton of maturity. He makes all the throws. He makes us better.”
OL Tony Pilato – “Tallest center (6-5) I have seen in high school football.”
S Jay Stocker — “Played a lot of our defense, our scheme (in high school). Can make an immediate impact. Tough enough to come down in the box and tackle people. Sometimes, you can’t get that.”
WR Tre Tipton – “Coach Chaney said we can borrow him on defense if we need him. Great speed, but looks like a great route runner. Here’s a guy who fought off some action (other schools trying to flip him).”
CB Jordan Whitehead — “Can make an immediate impact. I want him to play both (offense and defense). First of all, we have to find out how fast he picks things up. We don’t want to fill his head with so much information, we slow him down. Once he says he has it, we will give him something else to chew. One of the easiest guys (to keep from flipping), with the great family support system.”

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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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