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August 22, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pre-scrimmage notes on a sunny Saturday on the South Side

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Quick hits from Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s three-minute media briefing prior to the second and final live scrimmage of the summer Saturday morning:
— The team is conducting the scrimmage on a sunny day in front of several alumni and boosters and athletic director Scott Barnes. Reporters were escorted to safety after seeing a couple of kickoff and punt returns and an incomplete pass.
— Freshman wide receiver Quadree Henderson returned punts with the first team, and caught one on a bounce with a running start and returned it about 30 yards, displaying great speed. He makes offensive coordinator Jim Chaney smile almost every day.
— Freshman safety Jordan Whitehead returned punts with the second team and showed great balance on one impressive return.
— Narduzzi said the team will practice Tuesday at Heinz Field for the one and only time this summer. “I’d practice there every day if they let me,” he said. He will conduct a “tamed-down” rehearsal scrimmage Friday.
— He said he will have a “pretty good idea” of the freshmen who will play this season after watching and evaluating video of Saturday’s proceedings. Count on Henderson and Whitehead being among them. Running back Darrin Hall and wide receiver Tre Tipton have opened some eyes, too.
— The voluntary departure of redshirt freshman defensive end Hez Trahan opens up a scholarship, leaving Pitt four short of the NCAA-mandated 85 limit. Asked if any walk-ons will be rewarded next week, Narduzzi said, “Maybe.”

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August 21, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi schedules light practice the day before Saturday’s scrimmage

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Pitt’s players caught a break Friday, taking off the heavy pads, wearing shorts and getting a lighter, shorter workout from coach Pat Narduzzi the day before Saturday’s scrimmage, the second of the summer.
“Trying to keep them off the ground and get after it (Saturday),” he said.
Couple notes:
— Redshirt freshman running back Qadree Ollison has returned to practice after missing a few days with a hand injury.
Coaches were careful to limit Ollison’s contact while he had stitches protecting his wound, but it may not have been necessary.
“At times, we put a yellow jersey on him; we’re not supposed to hit him,” Narduzzi said. “He’s trying to hit us. It’s a good thing. He’s not afraid of contact.”
Chris James is “a little bit dinged,” according to the coach, but the injury is not considered serious.
Meanwhile, Narduzzi said junior Rachid Ibrahim and freshman Darrin Hall have practiced well. Hall, in fact, has had “a great camp,” the coach said.
— What about center Artie Rowell, who hasn’t practiced all week?
“I don’t know,” Narduzzi said. “We’re going to be careful with everybody. Just be smart. I want him on game day.”
— Also on the injury front, Narduzzi said he has a sore back after staying in Sutherland Hall with his players the past two weeks. He also said he banged his elbow against a wall (no other details, sorry).
“I had to see the trainer,” he said. “I’m kind of limited, but you can’t tell.”
He seemed relieved that Friday will be his final night away from home as the student body starts to move onto campus.
“I have one more night in the dorm,” he said.

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August 20, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi says most injuries are minor (even when Render’s arm is in a sling)

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi has emphasized almost every day for the first two weeks of training camp that every injury – other than offensive tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith’s season-ending knee injury – is minor in scope and barely worth mentioning.
Such is the case, he said, with senior defensive tackle Darryl Render, who showed up Thursday morning with his left arm in a sling.
“It’s a day-to-day thing,” Narduzzi said. “Darryl will be fine.”
For the record, Narduzzi said he considers Render, Tyrique Jarrett and K.K. Mosley-Smith as “starters” at defensive tackle, even though only two will play at a time.
Running back Chris James was not wearing the boot he had on his left leg earlier this week and was dressed in full gear.
Narduzzi also talked about using practice time Thursday to prepare for the Youngstown State opener Sept. 5. Next week, coaches will devote some time to Georgia Tech’s option run game, even though that game is Oct. 17.
“We will start to introduce our Rocks (scout team) to offense and defense,” Narduzzi said.
He has some familiarity with YSU coach Bo Pelini, the former coach at Nebraska who also was a Narduzzi rival when both played high school football in Youngstown. Plus, Narduzzi coached with and against YSU offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery, who (apropos to nothing) tutored Ben Roethlisberger at Miami (Ohio).
“I kind of have an idea what he likes to do,” he said.
In other news, Pitt had five former players named to the Football Writers Association of America’s 75th anniversary All-America team: Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Larry Fitzgerald, Hugh Green and Bill Fralic.
Only Nebraska (six) has more. Ohio State also has five.

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August 19, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Chaney removes all current doubt (if there ever was any): Voytik is Pitt’s starting quarterback

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I guess a bit of news erupted from the post-practice media scrum at Pitt early Wednesday afternoon:
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Chad Voytik is the starting quarterback. Huh? Didn’t everyone know that?
Apparently not, because backup Nathan Peterman has a history with Chaney at Tennessee, and you know how everyone loves a quarterback controversy. Plus, Peterman is having a good camp, and gives Pitt someone it hasn’t had in a long time — a backup quarterback coaches can actually trust.
But no controversy existed as of Wednesday, and I doubt one will develop at all this season, unless Voytik struggles after several games.
Here’s what Chaney said:
“Here’s the deal. Chad is the incumbent starting quarterback and remains the starting quarterback at Pitt. Right now, there are three other people (Peterman, Adam Bertke and Ben DiNucci) in my room who are fighting their butts off to take his job. And next year, there will be an incumbent starting quarterback and everybody will be trying to take his job.
“Nothing is going to change. There is competition in that room and we’ll continue on. As we sit here today, Chad is still the starting quarterback at Pitt. There you go.”
I’ll have more on the quarterback situation at Pitt in my story that will appear on Triblive.com Wednesday night or Thursday morning.
Before Chaney spoke, the most notable event at Pitt practice (Day No. 11) was not James Conner and Tyler Boyd and defensive ends Shakir Soto and Ejuan Price trading jerseys in an attempt to … well, I’m not sure what the intent was.
Before all the typical tackling, field-goal kicking and punt return drills that make up the bulk of the 30-minute open period, coach Pat Narduzzi was asked if any wide receivers were separating themselves in the competition to backup Boyd and Dontez Ford.
A bit surprisingly, he mentioned two freshmen.
“The one guy you constantly notice … Tre Tipton, him and Quadree Henderson, both, have got a chance,” Narduzzi said. “They haven’t hit the wall after 10 practices so far … which is really impressive at this point.
“They’ve done a nice job and they’ve shown that they have a chance to play for us this year.”
What does that mean?
Narduzzi’s remarks are significant because camp has hit the halfway mark, and Tipton and Henderson have shown they can handle the playbook installations and physicality. That doesn’t mean they are immune to struggles later this week or next, but it also indicates a stiff competition is developing.
Chaney said Pitt probably will dress seven or eight wide receivers on game day. But how many of those will be actual targets? I’m guessing no more than five or six. (Don’t forget about the tight ends and Pitt’s intended use of Conner in the passing game). If Tipton and Henderson continue to progress, that only leaves one or two significant spots for the older wide receivers.
On the injury front, Narduzzi said he will continue to be cautious with center Artie Rowell (recovering from knee surgery) and backup running back Chris James (left leg).
“Artie, he’s a good football player and has great knowledge of the game, smart up front,” Narduzzi said. “So he knows what he’s doing. I’m not going to press him back.”

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August 18, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt enters 10th day of training camp a little “banged-up”

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Pitt entered its 10th day of summer training camp Tuesday morning — about 12 hours after concluding the first of the two-a-days Monday night — and there were several players wearing the orange jerseys that indicate injuries.
Coach Pat Narduzzi told reporters that none of the injuries are serious enough to extend into the regular season, which is only 18 days ahead.
“Par for the course,” he said. “You are always a little banged-up at this point. A lot of guys are working through it.”
Among the injured are senior center Artie Rowell, who is recovering from knee surgery that ended his 2014 season after two games. Backup running back Chris James also wore a boot on his left leg.
“Chris tweaked something (Monday) night,” Narduzzi said, declining to elaborate on any of the injuries.
Monday, offensive right tackle Alex Bookser and outside linebacker Nicholas Grigsby were limited.
Leave it to Narduzzi to find some hope in the situation, pointing to the opportunity Grigsby’s injury handed to walk-on linebacker Matt Steinbeck, a North Allegheny graduate who transferred from Bucknell. He had a pick six in the scrimmage Saturday.
“(Grigsby) was practicing good,” Narduzzi said. “He tweaked something. I’ve seen enough for a couple days. Let’s not let it get worse.
“You hold (Grigsby) out a little bit, you get to see more of what the other guys do.”
Same goes for converted tight end Brian O’Neill at tackle, freshman Darrin Hall at running back and guards Carson Baker and Mike Herndon. Right guard Alex Officer presumably will fill in for Rowell at center, although reporters are typically not permitted to watch 11-on-11 drills.

Monday marked the first of Pitt’s four two-a-day sessions. The number of those are dwindling at programs around the country, with increased concern about injuries. In fact, Narduzzi remembers when teams held three-a-days.
“Sometimes, it’s just wearing the guys out,” he said, “but there’s a lot of teaching to do, too.”

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August 18, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Shady Side’s Havern notices a difference at Pitt

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I had an interesting conversation Monday with Shady Side Academy football coach and former Pitt quarterback Dave Havern, and I’m sorry to say I forgot to ask him about the Havern-to-Harry-Orzulak passing combination of 1968 or the Havern-to-Joel Klimek connection of 1971.
Maybe next time, but Havern did have some insights into the latest change in the Pitt coaching staff. For the record, Pat Narduzzi is the 12th new coach at Pitt since Johnny Majors in 1973 (counting Majors twice).
Havern has two of his former players at Pitt (safety Reggie Mitchell and nickel back Dennis Briggs), and he is a frequent visitor to practice. So, his voice resonates with some authority.
“No knock on coach (Paul Chryst), but these guys are serious dudes,” Havern said. “I like what I’ve seen so far.”
That said, Havern credits Chryst for leaving the program in good shape.
“Coach Chryst did a good job of stabilizing the program,” he said. “I think Pat found it a little more stocked than Paul did.”
But Havern said there is a difference with Narduzzi.
“There is a little more intensity.”
By the way, Havern had a few choice comments for my story on Briggs and Pitt’s defensive backfield. And for your viewing pleasure (I hope) …

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August 14, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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What would training camp be without a few position battles?

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is no different than any coach in how he views training camp position battles:
No job is safe.
“If you are a backup, you are competing,” he said.
But when asked about specific and significant battles Friday morning before the first full-padded practice of the summer, he pointed to defensive end, boundary (strong) safety and wide receiver.
At end, Narduzzi needs at least a one-game replacement for Rori Blair (suspended for the opener), and Shakir Soto and senior Ejuan Price look like the early favorites at the bookend spots. Don’t count out JC transfer Allen Edwards, who hasn’t disappointed Narduzzi as a pass rusher. Redshirt freshman James Folston, who moved from middle linebacker, is also learning the position.
Strong safeties Jevonte Pitts and Patrick Amara are competing neck-and-neck, with freshman Jordan Whitehead not far behind. I’d give Pitts the early edge, but Amara has plenty of time to catch up after missing most of the spring with an injury. And I believe coaches will find some role for Whitehead in the secondary — even if it’s only as a key backup.
Wide receiver is also unsettled, but I keep thinking Elijah Zeise and Zach Challingsworth have a good chance to garner playing time, either opposite starter Dontez Ford or behind him. Junior college transfer Rafael Araujo-Lopes has been temporarily set back by an injury.
Meanwhile, Narduzzi — for the second time this week — made sure he mentioned Mike Caprara when he referenced outside linebackers. Caprara is in a fight with Bam Bradley, but coaches will find a way to use Caprara, whether he’s a starter or not. The junior from Woodland Hills is always around the ball.
Sophomore middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis is in a similar situation — behind a veteran (Matt Galambos), but too good to leave off the field for an extended period.
By the way, freshman outside linebackers Anthony McKee and Saleem Brightwell are opening some eyes among coaches. Enough for them to play a little this season? That will be determined in the next two weeks of camp.
When asked about the running backs behind James Conner, Narduzzi mentioned Rachid Ibrahim, Chris James and freshman Darrin Hall.
“We like to travel with four tailbacks,” he said. “We have four right now I could see being on that bus every week.”
Of Hall, he said, “He hasn’t backed down a bit.”
After practice, running backs coach Andre Powell said of Hall: “Yesterday, he looked like he might be a guy who can play a lot for us this year. Today, he looked like, I don’t know.”
Powell added that Hall’s work ethic and willingness to learn will serve him well.

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August 13, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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The morning after the first padded practice (just shells) of the summer, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi talked Thursday about the fine line between going hard in drills and staying safe from injury.
It’s a key point because Pitt’s depth is improving, but still isn’t up the standards Narduzzi helped build at Michigan State. Imagine what serious injuries to Pitt’s two stars – James Conner and Tyler Boyd – would mean to the players’ stated goal of winning an ACC championship.
“It’s hard as a defender to run through and knock the (stuffing) out of somebody if you have to stay up off the ground and you don’t want to knock guys into (a player’s) knees,” he said. “You have to be careful. You have to get good teaching done without beating the heck out of your players. We are trying to get them to play fast, and also be safe.
“There is a fine line there.”
Narduzzi said it’s an advantage for his players to practice next to the Steelers “because, I think, our kids learn how to practice like pros.”
“Most people don’t understand how the pros practice. You have a 54-man roster, you can’t get guys hurt, million-dollar players.
“Our guys aren’t million-dollar players yet. We have a lot of them who will be.”

One injury/illness note: Senior defensive tackle Darryl Render remains on the field in full gear, despite a minor stomach ailment. But he defers many first-team reps to K.K. Mosley-Smith and Tyrique Jarrett.
Narduzzi probably will rotate those three players at the two defensive tackle positions all season.
A by-the-way note: Scouts from the Carolina Panthers and New York Jets attended practice Thursday morning.

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August 7, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Breaking down the Pitt roster, position-by-position

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After months of job interviews, news conferences, speeches, recruiting and just generally selling the program, Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi is ready to take the label he likes best — coach — onto the practice field for summer camp.
It’s his first time in charge, but not his first time. Narduzzi has been a big part of someone’s camp since the early 1980s at Youngstown Ursuline High School. Since then, he played or coached at seven schools before he was hired at Pitt on Dec. 26.
My first impression of Narduzzi has played out accurately. He’s a guy who knows the right way to run a program, and he’s not afraid to tell the people who matter. For the first time in many years at Pitt, the upper administration has been receptive to its head coach
That’s a good start, but you have to remember the football is pointed on both ends, and no one knows how it will bounce when it hits the ground. The offense is good, but the defense needs considerable seasoning.
Narduzzi’s job is to keep the ball off the ground when his offense has it, and to get it on the ground when the other guy owns it.
That’s not easy, but if it was, I doubt he would have accepted the job.
Here is a quick glance at how each position will look when practice begins at 9:55 a.m. Monday:
QUARTERBACK
What football fan doesn’t love a good quarterback controversy? But only those who missed the second half of last season should expect one at Pitt.
After the loss to Virginia at midseason, Chad Voytik completed 63.8 percent of his passes, with only two interceptions in 144 attempts (seven games). He threw a touchdown pass in 11 of 13 games overall and ran for three more scores.
He had a good summer, working with his receivers on an almost daily basis, and learning the right way to lead — in and out of the huddle — at Peyton Manning’s camp in Louisiana.
Tennessee graduate transfer Nate Peterman is an experienced backup – he started two games for the Volunteers last season – and that’s something Pitt hasn’t had on its roster in a long time.
Narduzzi knows the importance of depth at every position – whether he’ll eventually need it or not.
RUNNING BACK
James Conner gets in line with a long list of 1,000-yard rushers at Pitt. The school has had one in all but two seasons since 2007.
Asking him to duplicate his 1,765-yard effort of last season is asking too much. Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will show more faith in Voytik than Paul Chryst did, so the passing game will be more important this season.
But Conner has two traits – strength and desire – that will set him apart from most of the nation’s running backs. There’s also a nice stable of talented reserves – Chris James, Rachid Ibrahim, Qadree Ollison and freshman Darrin Hall – to help ease some of the pressure on Pitt’s marquee back.
The screen pass is back in the Pitt offense, too, and Chaney will work hard to get Conner’s 240 pounds in open space as often as possible.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END
Losing Tyler Boyd, who will serve a one-game suspension for a DUI, disrupts the structure and discipline Narduzzi demands from his program. But Boyd will grow from it, I believe, and he will be ready mentally and physically for the NFL next year. He’s a good person who made a mistake that does not define him.
Boyd’s absence will allow one of the young wide receivers to seize an opportunity. My money’s on Dontez Ford, a Syracuse transfer and Sto-Rox graduate. Also, keep an eye on redshirt freshman Elijah Zeise – I know the coaches are.
Hard to believe tight end J.P. Holtz is a senior, but he never redshirted after leaving Shaler, and he has been among the most dependable players on the Pitt team.
Here’s a stat for you: One of every eight receptions by Holtz (7 of 57) has ended in a touchdown. Junior Scott Orndoff is similarly productive, but on a smaller scale: One in every three catches (3 of 10) is a score.
You know what that means: Pitt hasn’t thrown enough to the tight end.
OFFENSIVE LINE
Finally, Pitt coaches don’t have to shut their eyes and hope when inserting a backup lineman into the starting lineup.
Right tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith’s season-ending knee injury is an unfortunate break for the promising sophomore tackle, but line coach John Peterson has an option at guard if redshirt freshman right guard Alex Bookser moves outside.
Peterson can shift center Alex Officer to guard and bring back senior center Artie Rowell, who missed most of last season with a knee injury and is recovered. Plus, there’s junior center Gabe Roberts in reserve.
Left guard Dorian Johnson also has experience at tackle.
Junior left tackle Adam Bisnowaty has started 18 games the past two seasons, and will join Rowell as the respected, older gentlemen of the line.
Chryst and former line coach Jim Hueber insisted on building depth on the line. That was their parting gift to Pitt.
DEFENSIVE LINE
It’s a good sign when a younger player challenges a senior for playing time. Junior tackle Tyrique Jarrett is pushing senior K.K. Mosley-Smith, and Jarrett could end up being the starter. At the other tackle, senior Darryl Render is up to 300 pounds and is entering his fourth season as a regular contributor. Those three have the potential to build a formidable wall in the middle of the defense, no matter which pair is in the game together.
End is a question mark because there aren’t enough bodies, but senior Ejuan Price is back from a chest muscle injury. That’s a big help.
Keeping him healthy is important, however, at least in the opener when Rori Blair will be unavailable due to his DUI arrest. Blair led the team in sacks as a freshmen (5 ½) last season.
LINEBACKER
Brothers Nicholas Grigsby and Bam Bradley look like the bookend linebackers who will surround experienced junior middle linebacker Matt Galambos.
Grigsby has the speed to come off the edge and beat tackles who will be nearly 100 pounds heavier, but more than a second slower in many cases. Bradley likes contact.
Together, they combined for five sacks last season (not enough), but they each started only one game. Increased playing time could make them one of the most feared pass-rushing linebacker combinations in the ACC. Is that too much praise? Not if you consider their superior athleticism.
Galambos has started 12 games in the past two seasons, and will make many of the calls after earning defensive coordinator Josh Conklin’s trust in the off-season. Junior Mike Caprara is only 6-foot, 230 pounds, but he has a sharp mind, is always around the football and can play inside or outside.
SECONDARY
More than one coach have commented on the impressive off-season of senior cornerback Lafayette Pitts, down 17 pounds to 195. Pitts has started 38 games, with only three interceptions, but he could match that in his final season.
Sophomore cornerback Avonte Maddox is only 5-9, 170, but he plays with a defiant streak, and he isn’t afraid to mix it up with the bigger guys trying to embarrass him.
There is a bit of depth at safety, with Pitts’ cousin Jevonte challenging Pat Amara for playing time. Amara, a sophomore, missed most of the spring with a medical condition. Don’t forget about freshman Jordan Whitehead, who will play a significant role in the secondary, either at corner, safety or nickel back.
SPECIAL TEAMS
Narduzzi should have no worries about his kicking game, with the return of junior kicker Chris Blewitt and sophomore punter Ryan Winslow. Blewitt missed only five of 21 field-goal attempts last season, and he is 12 of 16 for his career from 40 yards or longer.
Winslow averaged 40.1 yards last season.

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August 4, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi got it right in punishing Boyd, Blair

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The significance of the punishment handed down by Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi on wide receiver Tyler Boyd and defensive end Rori Blair goes beyond the playing field.
Both players will be suspended one game — the opener Sept. 5 against Youngstown State — after their DUI citations earlier this year.
Fans and other analysts grading Narduzzi’s first serious test of discipline will fall into three groups:
* Those who believe the punishment was too light.
* Those who deem it appropriate.
* Those who wonder if it would have been lighter if Pitt was playing, for example, Florida State in the opener.
I can’t agree that the punishment is too light.
Both players are first-time offenders, and Boyd already has been put into a rehabilitative program by Allegheny County Judge Robert C. Gallo that potentially could expunge his record. Blair, who also is charged with driving 117 mph near the Fort Pitt Bridge, faces a hearing Aug. 25 in Pittsburgh Municipal Court.
A one-game suspension is just right under the circumstances. It sends the message to other Pitt players that a similar indiscretion will be met with the same punishment. No one wants the shame of sitting out a game. I believe Narduzzi’s action will serve as a deterrent.
That said, a two-game suspension would have been equally appropriate. Drunk driving is dangerous. Boyd and Blair found that out in the most painless manner possible. Lucky for them.
The cynics will insist it’s easy to suspend Boyd and Blair for a game Pitt could win without the help of its 2014 reception and sack leaders. Not so easy, I contend.
Former Pitt coach Paul Chryst suspended six players before his first game in 2012, a loss to Youngstown State. Presumably, Pitt’s depth has evolved to the point that it can withstand suspending two players for a game against an FCS school, but remember:
* Pitt is still looking for a complementary wide receiver to Boyd.
* Defensive end is not a deep position.
Narduzzi must win his opener to validate all the enthusiasm and energy he generated since he was hired Dec. 26. Suspending two important players does not help that cause.
You can presume Boyd and Blair would have played against a better opponent, but such a presumption would be unfair to Narduzzi and, I believe, wrong. He acted within the parameters he was facing, and he acted appropriately.
Feel free to agree or disagree at jdipaola@tribweb.com or @JDiPaola_Trib on Twitter.

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