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September 29, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi opens up about freshman Damar Hamlin

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi doesn’t like to talk about injuries or personnel choices, but he was more candid than usual when asked Thursday about freshman cornerback Damar Hamlin.
Hamlin had been injured and hasn’t played yet this season, but he continues to “progress nicely.” (Narduzzi’s words.)
“Which means, he’s not as hurt as he was,” the coach said.
Narduzzi wasn’t definitive on whether or not he will burn Hamlin’s redshirt at some point, but he doesn’t seem eager to get him in the lineup. (Which probably means he will play Saturday against Marshall.)
Here is Narduzzi’s response:
“He’s still a freshman. He’s a good player. He’s smart. He’s got great football intelligence.
“He’s athletic. He’s got the loosest hips I’ve seen. But that doesn’t mean he can go out and play and help us right now. I don’t want to put the pressure on a freshman to be the savior, either.
“There’s a lot of football to be played. I want to take care of Damar Hamllin.
“Would you like to redshirt him? Yes. Do you need him? We’ll see how we continue to make or not make plays on defense. It will be based on that.”

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September 27, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi opens up (a little) about injuries, clock management

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi is usually guarded about injury information, but he slipped a bit Monday when he said freshman cornerback Damar Hamlin is “progressing nicely” from an unidentified injury (although Hamlin had hernia surgery in the off-season).
He also said senior linebacker Mike Caprara (lower body injury) is expected to return this week.
Hamlin and Caprara were participating in practice early Tuesday morning (during the 30-minute media viewing window).
Does that mean Hamlin could be an answer to Pitt’s serious pass defense problems? If Pitt is counting on a freshman to patch the holes in its secondary, this could turn into a bad season.
But Hamlin is talented, and comes from a Central Catholic program that has earned a lot of respect from Pitt’s coaching staff.
In one breath, Narduzzi talked Monday about “one or two” personnel changes; in another, he said coaches need to make sure players presently in the lineup are getting better.
If Hamlin is healthy, he should play. But I have to confess, reporters aren’t permitted to watch the important moments of practice, so speculating on how Hamlin would handle college wide receivers is a mere guessing game.
Based on potential and his play at a quality high school program (you know he’s been coached well), he might turn into the team’s best cornerback, possibly by the start of next season (if not by the end of this one).
And he doesn’t have to start the game Saturday at Heinz Field against Marshall. Insert him in the second quarter, for example, and see what happens.
But it’s not easy for a freshman, part of the reason Pitt has used only four. And defensive tackle Amir Watts, running back Chawntez Moss and wide receivers Aaron Mathews and Maurice Ffrench have played only in reserve roles.
Defensive line coach Tom Sims speaks about freshmen from personal experience. He played as a freshman at Western Michigan before transferring to Pitt.
“I started, but I didn’t play the first six games,” he said. “It can happen.”
But not easily, he said.
“Think about it. This is the biggest step you take. When you go from high school football to college football at a Power 5 level, that’s the biggest step you take.
“When you go from Power 5 football to the NFL, you just play good college players every week. But you go from playing against kids from gym class and 135-pound offensive centers to all of a sudden, you got a grown man with a wife who’s going to be a first-round draft pick; you line up across from him and Watts was at the prom two months ago.
“It’s a difference.”
Well said, coach.

I’ll give Narduzzi credit for something else he said Monday: He actually brought up possible mismanagement of the clock in the North Carolina game that no one had mentioned (at least not to me).
With 3:06 left in the first half, Pitt had the ball at its 27 with a 19-13 lead. It didn’t seem like the time to shut down the offense because Narduzzi knew he needed plenty of points to win the game. But he did wonder about it later.
Using nothing but running plays by five different players, Pitt moved to its 46 where Quadree Henderson lost a fumble with 43 seconds left. Using two timeouts and a 15-yard pass interference penalty against cornerback Avonte Maddox, North Carolina ended up kicking a field goal on the last play of the half.
“Maybe we should have just kneeled it down and went in (to the locker room),” Narduzzi said.
No, coach, there was too much time left. You never get back wasted minutes.

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September 23, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Watch, but don’t bet: Pitt 38, North Carolina 37

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Considering the high hopes Pitt carried into this season, it’s fair to wonder what two losses among the first four games would mean to the team’s mental outlook.
That might become a concern for Pitt fans sometime early Saturday evening.
The game against North Carolina on Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C., is the second of the four toughest games on the schedule (Oklahoma State, Miami and Clemson are the others). Pitt nearly stole a victory at Oklahoma State last Saturday, but now it must turn around and encounter the defending ACC Coastal Division champion Tar Heels seven days later. Who made this schedule?
On paper, it looks like a difficult assignment for Pitt, and looks aren’t deceiving. North Carolina has three of the finest offensive players in the ACC:
— Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who has yet to throw an interception in 91 attempts this season.
— Running back Elijah Hood, who is averaging 6.2 yards per carry (1.7 more than James Conner).
— Wide receiver/punt returner Ryan Switzer, a West Virginia native and a senior who has returned seven punts for touchdowns in his career. That’s an ACC record and one short of the NCAA standard held by Texas Tech’s Wes Welker (2000-2003) and Oklahoma’s Antonio Perkins (2001-2004).
But I’m leaning toward Pitt (or, at least, taking the seven points).
Pitt will contain Hood, and I like the way the pass rush, stirred by the inventive minds of coach Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, is starting to create havoc. Ejuan Price is fourth in the nation in sacks (an average of 1.5, with a total of 4.5).
Pitt needs to score a bunch, however, so the passing game must improve to make this prediction become a reality:
Pitt 38, North Carolina 37.

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September 21, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Powell: Nothing special about returns

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It’s true that Oklahoma State kicker Matt Ammendola recorded touchbacks on five of his seven kickoffs last week. But that doesn’t mean Pitt special teams coach Andre Powell will take his unit off the hook for what he considered a sub-par performance.
“It wasn’t anything (the opponent) did,” he said. “It was all us. We didn’t block them.”
Quadree Henderson, who leads the nation in return average (40.8 yards), gained only 31 on his two returns. That broke a personal streak of four consecutive games with a return longer than 80 yards.
“For whatever reason, we didn’t use fundamentals,” Powell said. “We had three penalties and had a number of mental errors. You shouldn’t ever have a mental error because we are so simple. We don’t try to trick people.”
Powell’s players get a challenge on the other side of the kickoffs Saturday at North Carolina. The Tar Heels’ T.J. Logan is second in the ACC behind Henderson with an average of 30.9 yards.
Henderson and Logan, both wide receivers, are third and fourth in the nation in all-purpose yards (192-188.3) behind running back Christian McCaffrey of Stanford (225) and Donnel Pumphrey of San Diego State (222).

A couple of statistical nuggets drawn from the pages of Pitt’s weekly release:
— In the five seasons before coach Pat Narduzzi arrived, Pitt had only three defensive touchdowns. Narduzzi’s teams have four in the past eight games.
— Pitt is tied for second in the FBS for the number of graduates on the current roster (11). West Virginia, Georgia Southern, Illinois, Northwestern and Temple also have 11 behind leader Virginia (15). Penn State is 13th with eight.
Pitt’s graduates (all of them starters or contributors): Adam Bisnowaty, Bam Bradley, Mike Caprara, Dontez Ford, John Guy, Ryan Lewis, Reggie Mitchell, Scott Orndoff, Nathan Peterman, Ejuan Price and Manny Stocker.

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September 16, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s Mathews keeps his focus where Narduzzi wants it

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s plea to his players to focus on Oklahoma State and forget about most everything else apparently reached freshman wide receiver Aaron Mathews loud and clear.
Mathews is so single-minded in his approach to Saturday’s game in Stillwater, Okla., that he didn’t even know that his friend, neighbor and former Clairton teammate Tyler Boyd is coming to town. Mathews was surprised when reporters gave him the news this week.
Boyd, a rookie wide receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals, returns to Heinz Field on Sunday for a game against the Steelers, a day after Pitt visits Oklahoma State.
“I didn’t even know (the teams) played this week,” Mathews said.
Mathews, one of only three Pitt freshmen to participate in a game this season, said Boyd’s story motivates him.
“It just tells me it’s possible,” Mathews said. “He lives literally down the street from me and he’s at the ultimate goal – the NFL. It lets me know it can be done.”
Mathews, who will be preparing for Pitt’s game next week at North Carolina and won’t get to see much of Steelers/Bengals on Sunday, said he’s rooting for the Steelers with one condition.
“l want the Steelers to win, but I want (Boyd) to have a good game,” Mathews said. “He can catch two touchdown passes, but overall the Steelers have to have more points.”

Mathews wasn’t overwhelmed by his first collegiate action last Saturday against Penn State. He played some snaps, but was not targeted in the passing game. The only other freshmen to play so far for Pitt are defensive tackle Amir Watts and running back Chawntez Moss.
“I just ran in the game and did what I had to do,” he said. “There were no thoughts about it. I just couldn’t stand there and be happy about it.
“It wasn’t too tough. I’m an athletic guy. I think I only lined up wrong once.”
Mathews, who committed to Penn State before flipping to Pitt, said the victory “felt good.”
“But it felt even better because it was against Penn State, especially because I was at one point committed there in high school. But overall a win is a win.”

Mathews could see his playing time increase due to the loss of senior wide receiver Dontez Ford with a broken collarbone. Ford is the third regular to suffer a season-ending injury, joining linebacker Elijah Zeise (high ankle sprain) and defensive end Dewayne Hendrix (foot).
Is there enough depth to handle those losses?
At the star outside linebacker position, coaches will use Seun Idowu as a probable starter, backed up by senior Bam Bradley.
At end, Rori Blair, who had a big sack against Penn State, is starting in place of Hendrix, with the athletically gifted junior college transfer Allen Edwards in reserve.

Prediction: This isn’t the same Oklahoma State team that was 10-0 and scored 70 points against Texas Tech last season before losing its final three games. But the quarterback is the same.
Mason Rudolph was sixth among Power 5 quarterbacks last year with 59 completions of 20+ yards. That’s an average of 4.5 per game. Not bad.
Is Pitt’s secondary up to the challenge?
Eventually, Oklahoma State’s speed will be too much for Pitt whose players must contend with a home crowd that sits only a couple of arms’ length from the visitor’s bench.
Oklahoma State 39, Pitt 31. In another words, give the six points.

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September 9, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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There is life after Pitt/Penn State, but it will be tougher for the loser

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Fans, talk show hosts and writers — but no Pitt players — have spent the week talking about the renewal of the Pitt/Penn State rivalry. Three questions seem most important:
— How will the crowd at Heinz Field be divided?
— Will there really be 70,000 people there?
— How many games does the loser need to win the rest of the season to erase the disappointment of losing Saturday?
Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes has said he expects the crowd to be decidedly pro-Pitt. “This is our house,” he has said.
But Penn State people already have been spotted around town, and it’s only Friday morning while I write this. I even got a call from my brother in North Carolina (a Penn State grad) who wanted to know if there will be white-out at Heinz Field. What? He said there have been hints on the Internet. He also predicted 31-9, Penn State.
Penn State fans have bought up several Pitt season-ticket packages (full and partial) and will either throw away the other tickets or sell them for whatever they can get. How many fans? I’m guessing a 65-35 split in favor of Pitt.
There is the potential (if everyone who bought a ticket shows up) to approach 70,000 people, which could break the all-time attendance record for a Pittsburgh sporting event — 68,918 set Oct. 29, 1938, when a 5-0 Pitt team beat Fordham, 24-13, at Pitt Stadium.
Warning: The euphoria from that day quickly disappeared when Pitt lost to Carnegie Tech the next week, 20-10, and later lost to Duke, 7-0.
The more important question today involves what happens Saturday and the rest of the season.
I’m regarding this game as almost a must-win for both teams.
After Saturday, Pitt and Penn State both play four games against teams that received votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll this week. There’s been a lot of talk about Pitt’s tough schedule. But what about Penn State? Its schedule is more difficult.
The Nittany Lions play No. 4 Ohio State, No. 12 Michigan State and No. 16 Iowa at home, and No. 5 Michigan at the Big House.
Pitt plays No. 2 Clemson, No. 22 Oklahoma State, No. 25 Miami and North Carolina, which was ranked last week, but only received enough points this week (23) to reach No. 31 (ahead of No. 34 Pitt, with seven). All those games are on the road.
Penn State is unranked and a five-point underdog in this game, by the way.
What if Penn State loses? It would need an upset of one of those ranked teams just to reach 8-4, assuming it doesn’t stumble at, say, Indiana.
What if Pitt loses? Given that Penn State is better than Marshall, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke and Syracuse (a fair assumption, in my opinion), this is only the fifth-toughest game on Pitt’s schedule.
If Pitt loses those four road games and Saturday to Penn State, the Panthers would have to be 7-0 against the rest of the schedule (including a bowl opponent) just to match Pat Narduzzi’s 8-5 record last year.
The point: There is more to Pitt’s season than what happens Saturday. Some lunatic Pitt fans will tell you they would accept a 5-7 finish if one of the 5 was a victory against Penn State. That’s crazy talk.
To those people I would say this: When Pitt broke its huddle before practice in training camp, players didn’t shout “Beat Penn State.” They shouted “ACC champs.”
There is life for Pitt after Penn State. A hard life, but life in any case.

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September 3, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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How does this sound? 42-10, Pitt (whatever the score, it can’t be close)

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Nothing will be decided about this year’s Pitt football team when it opens the season Saturday against Villanova.
If it wins big, some people will be impressed, but others will yawn and note that Villanova, the No. 22 team in the FCS preseason rankings, isn’t a worthy foe. After all, Pitt beat Delaware, 62-0, to open the 2014 season and the only end results were a 5-7 record the rest of the season, followed by another coach search.
If it’s a close game and Pitt wins, most people will consider it a loss and start preparing for another minor bowl bid.
A loss could be devastating. (I’ll wait for it to actually happen before listing all the ramifications.)
That said, I can’t envision Pitt losing to Villanova. I can see the offensive line leading the way for two or three running backs — James Conner, Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison, perhaps — who will approach or exceed 100 yards each.
But Pitt not only must win; it must win big. Dominate. Send the crowd home early, if necessary. Show the rest of the country that ACC title contention is a possibility (although many national pundits already believe that to be so).
Small victories are no longer good enough in this new era of Pitt football.
If Villanova is within a touchdown by the end of the third quarter, something went wrong.
Pitt 42, Villanova 10. If you want to be a champion in a Power 5 conference and you insist on playing FCS teams, it can be no other way.

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August 30, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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A good sign: Narduzzi can be selective with his freshmen

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When Pat Narduzzi put only four first-year freshmen on his depth chart Monday, it was another sign of progress for the Pitt football program.
The roster is loaded with enough juniors and seniors — 31 are on the so-called two-deep — that Narduzzi doesn’t need to rely on many freshmen. That’s an indication of an experienced team that might minimize mistakes, prepare with more urgency and make the correct split-second decision that may turn into a big play. It also indicates players are sticking with the program, not bailing when things go wrong. Dare we say it? Program stability.
Actually, there are five freshmen, counting backup kicker Alex Kessman, a walkon from Clarkston, Mich. Wide receiver Aaron Mathews and running back Chawntez Moss will get opportunities to make plays on offense; defensive tackles Amir Watts and Keyshon Camp will provide necessary depth on the line, one clear area of weakness.
Narduzzi made a point Monday to say that he may end up using more freshmen, if situations dictate. The coach didn’t mention any names, but Central Catholic grad Damar Hamlin, a cornerback, is one candidate, if his undisclosed injury heals in due time.
Meanwhile, fifth-year senior Ryan Lewis will start at one cornerback spot, backed up by Phillipie Motley. Avonte Maddox, hobbled himself near the end of camp, is the other starter, with redshirt freshman Dane Jackson the first reserve.
Lewis is one of 11 fifth-year seniors on the depth chart. There are eight seniors who never have redshirted and are in their fourth seasons. Counting 16 fourth-year juniors, that’s 35 players who are at least four years removed from high school.

The Big Ten has stopped scheduling FCS schools, but Narduzzi, a former Big Ten assistant coach, said it’s important not to ignore them. If only to keep alive scholarship opportunities for players whose talent level is just below FBS standards.
“First of all, it’s a great payday for an in-state school to come into Heinz Field and play,” said Narduzzi, whose Pitt team will welcome FCS No. 22 Villanova in the season opener Saturday.
“If we stop playing these teams they start to go away, and that’s not what we want. These programs need to make money, too; they play the game, too.”
Of course, it’s also dangerous to play FCS schools. In recent years, Pitt has lost to Youngstown State and allowed 29 points (to Maine), 24 (to Old Dominion) and 37 (to YSU) in unimpressive victories against FCS schools.
Personally, I could do without them. Most fans find them uninteresting and less than revealing. The way Pitt struggles against the FCS, they also can be embarrassing.

— Monday was another busy day of talking and scribbling about Pitt football. I spent 20 minutes with my pal and college football genius Josh Taylor on TribLive Radio, live tweeted Narduzzi’s news conference and added two more links to the Pitt page on TribLive.com.

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August 26, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi knows first-hand: Captains matter

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Coach Pat Narduzzi announced Pitt’s three co-captains Friday at the annual Kickoff Luncheon at the Westin Convention Center. Offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty, defensive end Ejuan Price and running back James Conner were given the honor after a vote of their teammates.
Narduzzi said 70 percent of the team’s votes — each player named two players — went to those three.
If you think the titles are merely ceremonial and don’t hold much meaning, let Narduzzi tell a story that might change your mind.
No surprise, but Narduzzi was a captain in high school at Youngstown Ursuline and at Rhode Island under coach Bob Griffin.
During one season — he said he couldn’t remember the year but he was there from 1987-89 — he felt the need to go to Griffin with a problem.
“I was frustrated with the guys we had,” he said.
Narduzzi noticed some players were staying out late on Thursday nights, two days before the game. “It’s not important to them,” he said he told Griffin.
So at the next team meeting, Griffin asked anyone who was “out having a good time” to stand up.
“About nine guys stood up, most of them starters,” Narduzzi said.
When they sat down, Griffin asked their backups to stand up. By that point, Griffin’s message was clear.
“Those were the guys who started the next day,” Narduzzi said.
“I hope our (Pitt) co-captains don’t have to go through this. To be a great leader sometimes you have to do the tough things. You are responsible for your teammates. Captains are the most important part of your team.”
Bisnowaty was proud of the honor because “your teammates decide, your friends, your brothers. That means a lot.”
Price, a sixth-year senior who missed 2 1/2 seasons with injuries, said he was named captain “pretty much by default … putting in the most time. It caught me off-guard.”
He said he had moments of doubt during his periods of inactivity, but he credited teammates for keeping him focused. Now, he’s entering his second season as a starter after being named All-ACC first team last year.
“Being around my guys and the type of bond we have just as friends, not even as teammates, kept me going,” he said.
Price said he voted for Bisnowaty, who declined to reveal his votes. But Bisnowaty thanked everyone associated with the program, including “coach (Chris) LaSala and coach Junk (Bob Junko), who got me here.” LaSala is Pitt’s assistant athletic director/football operations and Junko is director of player development.

Training camp ended Friday with a light rehearsal scrimmage at Heinz Field. Over the past three weeks, no one missed Narduzzi’s 10:30 p.m. curfew, he said.
“We had a couple out in the parking lot as late as they could talking to their mom or girl friend,” he said. “They said mom. I said, `C’mon.’ ”

Pitt and Penn State jointly announced a corporate sponsor and a nickname for the four-game series between the teams starting Sept. 10 and running through 2019.
It will be called the Keystone Classic presented by Peoples Natural Gas.
In their separate news releases, neither school mentioned anything about extending the series beyond 2019. But in his remarks at the luncheon, Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher called the game “the marquee sporting event of the year and, hopefully, for many years to come.”

Narduzzi is doing his best to keep his team focused on the opener Sept. 3 against Villanova, but fans aren’t helping.
He said if he signed 1,000 autographs Thursday night at Fanfest, 998 of the fans said, “Coach, you have to kill that team. And it wasn’t Villanova.”

And how about this from senior defensive tackle Shakir Soto as he introduced guard Dorian Johnson at the luncheon:
“He almost made a mistake and went to that school in the central part of the state, but he smartened up.”

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August 23, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Don’t count out Pitt’s freshmen defensive tackles

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There are several reasons college teams resist depending on freshmen.
No. 1, most freshmen aren’t ready to contribute to a successful college program. The dividing line between high school and college football is much thicker than it is for basketball.
No. 2, a team that can redshirt most of its freshmen stands to eventually have good groups of fourth-year juniors and fifth-year seniors (similar to what Pitt has this season). It’s a formula used successfully for years by 2015 College Football Playoff semifinalist Michigan State. And you know where Pat Narduzzi learned how to build a Power 5 program.
Early in former coach Paul Chryst’s Pitt tenure, he was forced to use several freshmen due to roster deficiencies.
The same situation is developing this season at defensive tackle. Pitt may have to force freshmen Amir Watts and Keyshon Camp into its rotation.
Tyrique Jarrett and Shakir Soto look like serviceable (at least) starters, but little-used players Jeremiah Taleni, Shane Roy and former offensive lineman Mike Herndon comprise most of the veteran depth. The loss of junior Justin Moody to a cervical spine condition was an unexpected hit to the depth chart.
Watts and Camp were impressive in the scrimmage Saturday, according to Narduzzi.
“Sometimes, the freshmen are the ones who get exposed, but those two guys stepped their game up in Heinz Field and really did a nice job. They need to.”

Narduzzi came up with a new way to hold back information from the prying media Monday when he was asked if center Alex Officer and right guard Alex Bookser remained on the first team and if there is any resolution to the competition at backup running back.
“I can’t remember,” he said.
Of course, he was kidding. He just wants to keep information inside the locker room. Apparently, what happens on the South Side stays on the South Side.

Narduzzi and his coaches didn’t release much information about the scrimmage. The most significant remark came from running backs coach Andre Powell, who said of James Conner, “He really cut it loose. We are really encouraged by what we saw.”

Also, word leaked out that wide receiver Jester Weah made a diving catch that he said wasn’t his best. He also told reporters that he didn’t play football until his sophomore year of high school because his mother thought the game was too violent.

One more: Linebackers coach Rob Harley said freshman linebacker Kaezon Pugh returned an interception for a touchdown. But he didn’t reveal the names of the six linebackers who will play the most this season.
So, I’ll guess: Matt Galambos, Mike Caprara, Bam Bradley, Elijah Zeise, Seun Idowu and Quintin Wirginis. That doesn’t mean redshirt freshmen Saleem Brightwell and Anthony McKee should be ignored. It just means Pitt has a nice group of linebackers. Enough to win the ACC Coastal? That’s why they’ll play the season.

Part of my busy day Monday — the start of the third and final week of Pitt training camp — was about 20 minutes on TribLive Radio with Josh Taylor. Enjoy …

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