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October 15, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi appears relaxed as game day approaches

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At his final media briefing of the week, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi appeared relaxed while sitting in a soft chair in his office. He talked about Georgia Tech’s triple option, but he also answered questions that had nothing to do with the game Saturday in Atlanta.
Some highlights:
James Conner
Narduzzi used different words, but pretty much repeated what he said Wednesday night on his radio show about Conner’s possible return this season from knee surgery.
“He’s getting ready to roll,” Narduzzi said. “We play it day by day. You never know.”
Conner is moving well, the coach said, even offering this unsolicited comment: “James is squatting pretty good.”
Narduzzi was coy (no surprise) when asked if he and Conner previously have discussed a possible return sometime in the next six weeks.
“We discuss little things every day,” he said.
I’m guessing Conner sits out the entire season, but like the coach said, you never know. On Narduzzi’s weekly injury report released Thursday, Conner’s name remains in the out-for-the-season category.
Jaryd Jones-Smith
Another knee injury victim, Jones-Smith could be ready for a possible bowl game, the coach said. But that’s not in the plans.
“He wouldn’t play in the bowl game, but he probably could,” Narduzzi said of the sophomore who would have started at right offensive tackle. He injured the knee about three months ago.
Allen Edwards
A transfer from Dean (Mass.) Community College, Edwards probably will be redshirted this season and have two years of eligibility at defensive end, starting in 2016. But Narduzzi said he has been tempted to activate Edwards because of his special athleticism at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds.
“It’s just a mental thing,” the coach said. “Athletically, he’s a freak. He’s going to be a really good player for us the next two years. So is (defensive end and Tennessee transfer) Dewayne Hendrix.”
Narduzzi said Edwards displayed his rare physical gifts at practice this week.
“Bis (6-6, 300-pound offensive tackle Adam Bisnowaty) went to chop him on a pass set and he just jumped right over top of him. I said, `Whoa. You don’t see many guys do that.’
“Another year and he’s going to be so much better. You’re better off playing with a lesser athlete that knows what he’s doing than a great athlete who might stick it to you.”
Reggie Mitchell
The former starter at free safety, Mitchell has an injured foot and hasn’t played other than on special teams in the Virginia Tech game since the opener.
“I don’t think it’s more serious than what we thought,” Narduzzi said. “But maybe (we are) more precautious. I’ll leave it at that.”
Mitchell and wide receivers Tre Tipton (leg) and Chris Wuestner (abdomen) won’t play Saturday. Defensive end Zach Poker (foot) is out for the season, Narduzzi said. Linebacker Nicholas Grigsby (neck) is questionable.
Jordan Whitehead
Narduzzi said there remains a package in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s file for Pitt’s freshman strong safety. They’re just waiting for the right time to use it.
“I would think later on, we’ll pull it out,” Narduzzi said. (Note to self: Ask Chaney about it next week.)
Narduzzi said Chaney was joking when he said Whitehead needs to intercept a pass before he gets to play on offense. “But it’s a good point, too.”
Florida quarterback Will Grier
In light of Grier’s one-year suspension for using a banned, over-the-counter supplement, Narduzzi said Pitt diligently monitors such things in the players’ locker room.
“We address the situation, because you never know,” he said. “Sometimes, these guys go to GNC. It’s a legal vitamin, but it’s not legal by the NCAA. So you don’t ever know.”
He said trainers use a scanner that when placed in front of a locker can identify an illegal supplement.
“It’s amazing the technology you have. We make sure we check on our kids and make sure we know what they’re taking.”

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October 15, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Sounds like I missed a good time with the coach at Cupka’s

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I had no good reason for missing the “Pat Narduzzi Show” radio show Wednesday night at Cupka’s.
My work was done for the day (except for this blog), the food is good (especially the stuffed hot peppers) and Richie, Bill Hillgrove and the coach always attract a nice crowd of people (met old friend and ex-Trib pal Joe Bendel and his daughter there one night).
But I decided to catch the last 40 minutes on the car radio on 93.7 The Fan, and I almost missed a few interesting tidbits. No breaking news, but stuff that is of interest to Pitt fans.
Near the end of the show, a member of the audience asked Narduzzi for a health update on injured running back James Conner, who has missed almost the entire season with an MCL tear in his right knee.
Narduzzi said Conner has been moving around a bit at the training complex while working with Pitt’s trainers. (True. I watched Conner working out with other injured players Wednesday morning, and I noted that he was kicking his surgically repaired right knee as high as the other one. Whatever that means.)
Two days after Conner injured the knee in the opener against Youngstown State on Sept. 5, Narduzzi said Conner was lost for the season, and that seemed to be the end of the story. Conner, of course, did his homework and noted that several football players with MCL injuries have been able to return six to eight weeks after surgery. He told people close to him that he wanted to return this season and intended to do so. By the way, Conner’s surgery was five weeks and a day prior to Wednesday, Oct. 14.
But Narduzzi said at the time that he was more concerned about Conner’s future than one season. He said he has advised his star running back and his family that he should sit out the entire season and make sure the knee is completely healed.
Yet, Narduzzi opened the door just a crack for Conner’s return sometime in the next six weeks by saying, “You never know whether he’ll be back or not.”
Narduzzi’s point is that if Conner wants to return and can’t be talked out of it, nothing can stop him. Prior to Wednesday, Narduzzi said he wouldn’t stand in the way of someone’s dream, if that’s what he wanted.
I still believe Conner will take Narduzzi’s advice and stay away from the game until 2016, but let’s check back after the next, oh, three games.
Notre Dame? National TV? Heroic, Willis Reed-like comeback?
Doubtful, but I’ve learned never to say never.
By the way, Narduzzi had a good line earlier in the day on the ACC coaches’ conference call. Talking about Conner’s absence, he said, “We don’t have a back who is BYOB — Bring Your Own Blocker.”
The other interesting morsel was Narduzzi’s response to a caller who wanted to know about his commitment to Pitt in the face of possible future job offers.
Narduzzi was adamant and sounded completely sincere in his response that he loves the city and the people at Pitt, and has no intentions of going anywhere. He didn’t get into details, but I can tell you that Pitt has given him plenty of support, emotionally and financially (and I’m talking about much more than his salary).
Narduzzi is building what he hopes will be a solid program with staying power, and he doesn’t seem to be a job hopper. He noted that he spent 11 seasons with coach Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati and Michigan State before accepting the Pitt job (not his first offer). From my dealings with the man, he is nothing if not loyal.
Then, he added this kicker: “My wife would kill me if I told her we were moving.”
I’m sold.
A couple more items:
— Wide receiver Tyler Boyd spoke to assembled reporters Wednesday, and he noted that he expects double and triple coverage from Georgia Tech on Saturday. Virginia chased him all over the field with more than one defender last week, leaving tight ends J.P. Holtz and Scott Orndoff open for a couple of game-changing big plays.
“They are going to try and bracket me,” Boyd said of Georgia Tech. “I don’t think they have a player they believe in who can shadow a particular receiver.”
— It’s a big weekend for area college teams, and I’m not just talking about Pitt/Georgia Tech. Penn State and West Virginia play the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams Ohio State and Baylor. College football writers Bob Cohn, John Harris and myself broke it down Wednesday on TribLive Radio. It’s worth a click.
— Speaking of Georgia Tech, Pitt defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, one of the smartest coaches I’ve run across, had some interesting observations on how his unit will attack The Ramblin’ Wreck’s triple option.

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October 9, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Saturday prediction: Pitt 26, Virginia 21

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All signs point to a Pitt victory Saturday against Virginia at Heinz Field, and defense is the reason.
The new-look (but not really new) defense is making big plays — sacks, interceptions, a fumble recovery and even a blocked punt.
By the way, the latter is no surprise. Pitt has had at least one blocked kick (total: 46) every year since 2000, led by former safety Andrew Taglianetti’s six blocks from 2008-20011. In fact, Pitt had eight in 2008.
Actually, the 17 sacks and five turnovers also shouldn’t shock anyone, considering coach Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin have built their reputations on big plays. In fact, the five turnovers in four games is a light in Narduzzi’s eyes. His Michigan State unit had 34 last year (2.6 per game).
Of course, that team finished No. 5 in the final Associated Press rankings. This year’s Pitt team (3-1) is unranked, with a lot to prove.
For the fifth game of the season, Pitt has a lot on the line Saturday. The Panthers can improve to 2-0 in the ACC for the first time, not to mention the trivial pursuit of going 2-0 against Virginia teams.
The schedule gets tougher over the final five games — North Carolina, Notre Dame, Duke, Louisville and Miami — so building a cushion now is crucial.
Virginia has played a tough schedule. The ‘Hoos lost, 34-16, at No. 20 UCLA, at home to No. 15 Notre Dame, 34-27, when the Irish scored the game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds left and 56-14 to No. 25 Boise State in Charlottesville.
Even William & Mary of the FCS scored 29 points in a game Virginia won by only six. William & Mary is 2-2 and lost to Delaware. Remember Delaware last year? Pitt 62, Delaware 0.
Virginia linebackers coach Mike Archer said coaches warned their team about the dangers of taking William & Mary lightly. “Young kids today don’t listen,” he said.
All of a sudden, Virginia found itself clinging to a 35-29 lead with William & Mary on the Cavaliers’ 30-yard line. Virginia won, but Archer said, “We have eight games left. We can win eight games. We can lose eight games.”
This is the type of team Pitt can beat, must beat. But it won’t be easy. With Pitt, it never is
Pitt 26, Virginia 21.

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October 1, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi invites media into Pitt staff meeting (no, not really)

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I have to give Pat Narduzzi his due. The guy really knows how to make me laugh (well, at least chuckle a little).
During our weekly briefing with the Pitt coach Thursday (this time in his office where I grabbed the biggest, softest chair), Narduzzi indicated — he didn’t promise — that Qadree Ollison will start at running back at Virginia Tech.
That’s not the funny part.
Narduzzi said he didn’t know for sure about running back because he was going into a meeting with his coaches later in the day where they would decide who starts, who sits, who stays home and who gets a seat on the plane.
The funny part? I’m getting to it.
Then, he said, “You guys would love to be in that meeting.”
OK. It’s not your classic knee slapper, but it points out — in a light-hearted way — the line of demarcation between coach and media. Yes, sitting silently in the room while coaches discuss the roster is a reporter’s fantasy.
I’ll put it on my bucket list.
Narduzzi has good reason for leaning toward Ollison as his starter Saturday. He revealed four hours later that freshman running back Darrin Hall won’t play against the Hokies. Apparently, Hall suffered a leg injury at some point this week, and coaches weren’t prepared to rule him out until late Thursday afternoon. Hall started against Iowa, but only gained 38 yards on 14 carries.
He is expected to return next week for the Virginia game. Meanwhile, Ollison and sophomore Chris James , who has recently recovered from a concussion, will shoulder the entire workload at running back.
Not long ago — actually, only a little more than a month — Pitt had remarkable depth at running back. Now, James Conner (knee), Rachid Ibrahim (Achilles) and Hall are out; the first two for the rest of the season.
Thursday also marked the first injury report I have received from a Pitt coach in at least three years.
Each ACC team is required to share injury information with its opponent that week, and the coaches are encouraged (though, it’s not enforced) to include the media in the release. Former coach Paul Chryst chose not to share.
The rest of the injury report included the information — so far, unreported — that freshman offensive lineman Alex Paulina of Canon-McMillan is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Paulina was being redshirted, anyway.
Listed as probable are free safety Reggie Mitchell (foot) and defensive end Ejuan Price (quad). Narduzzi said Mitchell will play special teams, but Terrish Webb will start in the spot Mitchell occupied for the entirety of spring drills and summer training camp before getting hurt in the opener.
Webb has played well, the coach said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.

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September 24, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi gives honest assessment of his team

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi doesn’t always reveal his innermost thoughts. Maddeningly, he’ll conceal even the tiniest, most insignificant scrap of information about his team when talking to reporters. (Which is what most coaches do, by the way.)
But when he wants to send a message, he’s refreshingly honest.
Wednesday was one of those times.
Narduzzi can sound encouraging even while offering criticism — it’s a gift most of us wish we had — so he was honest while chatting with reporters about how certain members of his team can improve.
Most likely, it was nothing he hadn’t already told his team directly or through his coaching staff. But it was still instructive for those covering the team to hear it from the head coach.
For example:
The interior offensive line needs to be quicker off the ball and more physical, he said. He even named right guard Alex Officer by name. He pointed out how center Artie Rowell can improve — while introducing him during a live broadcast of his radio show.
You think Tyler Boyd was immune? Wrong.
Boyd deserves to get the ball, Narduzzi said, but if he wants to be a great NFL receiver, he needs to improve his run blocking.
Quarterback Nate Peterman missed a wide-open Boyd in the end zone the play before throwing an interception against Iowa. But he played a “very, very solid game,” and “spearheaded” the offensive attack.
Chad Voytik is the team’s fierest competitor, but he’s still going to the bench in favor of Peterman.
In his postgame remarks Saturday in Iowa City, Narduzzi said punter Ryan Winslow mishit an important fourth-quarter punt.
Pitt is far from perfect, and no one knows that better than its highly observant coach. He’ll defend his players against all outside offenders, but he won’t let them get away with sub-standard play.

By the way, episode 4 of the College Locker Room show on TribLive Radio, with Bob Cohn, John Harris, Josh Taylor and myself hit the ‘Net Wednesday. Take a listen.

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September 19, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Good reading on a Saturday morning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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Interesting reading Saturday morning in the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette.
Four-page broad sheet, including stories on Pitt/Iowa and Iowa State/Toledo, picks (my favorite) and a story by Marc Morehouse on Pitt/Iowa being moved to prime time on the Big Ten Network.
The story has an interesting qoute from BTN senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner:
“If you look at Iowa’s home schedule in the past and it really hasn’t had games of that nature, intersectional games of that nature on its schedule,” Rudner told the Gazette. “When you have an ACC opponent come to town and it’s not otherwise selected by ESPN or ABC, then it becomes available.”
Score another one for Pitt’s move to the ACC. Maybe it was the obvious choice, but you have to give former AD Steve Pederson credit for helping to make it happen.
Saturday night’s game marks the first time the lights (now permanent at a cost of $350,000) have been turned on at Kinnick since Iowa played Penn State in 2012.
The Gazette’s “Pick ‘Ems” column is great, featuring references to the Pirates’ Manny Sanguillen, the Penguins’ Darius Kasparaitis, Brad Pitt, the Cedar Rapids Kernels (minor-league baseball team) and all six writers predicting a Hawkeyes victory by an average score of 25.8-17.6.
I have to agree: Iowa 31, Pitt 24
Why?
Maybe I’d feel differently if James Conner was healthy, a presence that would put points on Pitt’s side of the scoreboard and keep Iowa’s offense off the field.
Or, if this game kicked off at noon, there might be a different outcome. There is something about a night game at Kinnick that’s going to drive about 70,000 Hawkeyes fans delirious, and I wonder how Pitt will be able to handle that atmosphere.
If Pitt wins, seniors Darryl Render, Lafayette Pitts, Artie Rowell, J.P. Holtz, K.K. Mosley-Smith, Nicholas Grigsby and Ejuan Price will be a big part of it. Their leadership ability can’t be minimized in a emotional game such as this one.
Two more tidbits:
— If you have the time and the right cable system, there are 29 college football games on TV Saturday, according to the Gazette.
— Pitt hasn’t won here since 1931. (Of course, that’s in a sample size of three games.)

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September 17, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi not ready to (publicly) name a starting quarterback

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi acted surprised Thursday when someone asked if he had decided on a starting quarterback for the Iowa game Saturday night.
“Are you serious. You didn’t just ask that?” he said.
Of course, the issue must come up when reporters have access to the head coach. But Narduzzi said he hadn’t watched video from Thursday’s practice, so he wasn’t ready to make an informed decision between Nate Peterman and Chad Voytik. He said it will be a game-time decision, but he’ll probably decide before that. I’ll leave my phone on, but I don’t expect a call.
I respect Narduzzi and understand he doesn’t want to tip his hand. After all, I think Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is a regular reader of this blog.
Narduzzi wants to be fair to the player who is not chosen to start, but I truly believe he has been leaning toward Peterman since last Saturday night immediately after the Akron game. No one has told me that. It’s just an observation.
Peterman handled the offense with poise and confidence, despite constant rainfall throughout the Akron game. Voytik did nothing to lose the job, and in fact he has one more attempt and one more completion than Peterman in the first two games.
But Peterman is averaging 14.9 yards per completion; Voytik 6.9. That’s a product of the play-calling for each quarterback, but it appears offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was eager to see Peterman throw the ball downfield.
Peterman didn’t disappoint anyone.
Both quarterbacks will play in Iowa, but the one who finishes the game will be the one who plays the best.

James Conner’s desire to return at some point this season from MCL surgery has been a topic of discussion, and Narduzzi has softened a bit on his stance that his star running back is out for the season.
When I asked Narduzzi if he would stand in Conner’s way if doctors cleared him and his family was in agreement, he gave a good answer.
“I’m not going to shut down a kid’s dream,” he said.
But it’s clear he believes it’s best that Conner sit out the season, and I believe that’s how the scenario will resolve itself.
“That’s a family decision,” he said. “I hope the family will take into consideration what I feel is best for him. If the doctors and the trainers say 100 percent and Mom and Dad and everyone want to go, I wouldn’t be opposed.
“It’s whether he wants to have five or six games under his belt when he could have 12 or 13 (next year).”
Sounds like a not-so-veiled plea for Conner to return to Pitt next season.

One final item: Narduzzi awarded a scholarship to snapper Pat Quirin, who has been a walkon for the past three-plus seasons since graduating from Central Catholic.
“It’s always better when it’s earned and Pat earned it,” Narduzzi said. “He’s about as perfect a short (placement) snapper as you can be.”

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September 16, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Busy week at Pitt, and we’re not just talking about the quarterbacks

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There was so much going on at Pitt this week — with the changing shape of the quarterback position, the adjustment at running back caused by James Conner’s injury and ensuing rehab and the first Power 5 game of coach Pat Narduzzi’s tenure upcoming Saturday at Iowa — few noticed an equally important issue.
Narduzzi still isn’t sure about his offensive line.
It looks like junior Adam Bisnowaty, who’s had a slow start to his season due to injury, is healthy enough to return to his accustomed position at left tackle. That’s a big help.
But Narduzzi continues to tinker with the rest of the line. Apparently, he likes former right tackle Alex Bookser better as a guard, and he still has high hopes for former tight end Brian O’Neill as a tackle.
So, there’s been a bit of experimenting, with coaches moving Bookser to right guard, replacing Alex Officer, and O’Neill replacing Bookser at right tackle. Bookser and O’Neill are both redshirt freshmen, but that doesn’t seem to bother Narduzzi.
Will that be how things look Saturday at Iowa? Only Narduzzi and line coach John Peterson know for sure.
But the best bit of news is the presence of veterans Bisnowaty, left guard Dorian Johnson and center Artie Rowell. Three-fifths of the line is solid and experienced; Narduzzi will keep trying to find the right combination for the other two-fifths.
Meanwhile, for more on the state of the Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia programs, feel free to listen to the Wednesday, Sept. 16, edition of the College Football Locker Room on Trib Live Radio.

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September 10, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi confident Bisnowaty, James will play against Akron

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Pitt loose ends as we head into the end of the week and the second game of the season:
Coach Pat Narduzzi seems confident — at least he did Wednesday — that offensive right tackle Adam Bisnowaty and backup running back Chris James will be ready to go. Both are hobbled by injuries and did not play the entire game Saturday.
In fact, he said on the ACC coaches conference call: “Bis will be ready to go.”
Of James, he said, “James will go. I can tell you that right now.”
Still, Narduzzi wanted a bit more insurance at running back so he moved senior Jameel Poteat from linebacker to help back up Qadree Ollison, James and freshman Darrin Hall. Poteat, who missed most of training camp with an undisclosed injury, is a transfer from Stony Brook (N.Y.) where he played running back.
Narduzzi also said he will give Nathan Peterman more work Saturday as starting quarterback Chad Voytik’s backup.
Asked if that throws off his rhythm, Voytik did not dispute the suggestion. “It hard to say. But I respect his decision. I just want to make the most of my time. If Nate coming in is best for the team, so be it. I’m all for it.
“I’m not sure what their plan is. I’m not in that discussion.”

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