August 7, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola
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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.