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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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September 9, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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The loss of Conner is only one of Pitt’s problems

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I’ve waited a few days to weigh in on the latest drama involving the Pitt football program because I wasn’t sure — and still am not sure — how the loss of running back James Conner will play out.
First and foremost, you feel bad for Conner, one of the hardest workers on the team, a fine gentleman and a good example for young people. He prepared for this season as hard as any athlete I’ve seen in my 16 years of beat work (11 with the Steelers) to the point that he didn’t even have a piece of cake on his birthday.
But, for Pitt, it could be worse.
Pitt has other running backs who look like they will be productive. No one knows if it’s realistic to expect Qadree Ollison to do the same thing to Virginia Tech that he did to Youngstown State, but at least he now has a resume. Chris James played well as a freshman, and looks to be recovered from whatever injury pushed him to the sideline Saturday.
Pitt could have other serious problems, including the potential loss of free safety Reggie Mitchell, who missed the entire second half against YSU with an undisclosed injury. With his athletic ability and sharp mind, Mitchell is nearly as important to the defense as Conner is to the offense.
Narduzzi said Mitchell’s availability against Akron on Saturday night will be a game-time decision. To me, that sounds like a no, but I have an open mind on the subject.
The other problem that cropped up — and Bob Cohn, John Harris and I talked about them all from 1-2 p.m. Wednesday on the College Locker Room show on Trib Live Radio — is the lack of complements at wide receiver.
I’ve written plenty of words — probably too many — on the inexperienced backups behind All-ACC wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who returns this week from a one-game suspension. Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik completed only nine passes for 72 yards. That’s 8 yards per catch — not enough for Pitt to defeat a real team.
No one caught more than two passes.
You would think Voytik would have one of his best games against an FCS opponent. Instead, he threw for only 72 against YSU — a career low.
Voytik’s biggest problem was Boyd’s absence, so it’s only fair to withhold judgment until after the Akron game. Voytik has the control to the video machine in his hands more than he does a football, so no need to worry about a lack of preparation on his part.
But if I was a Pitt fan, I’d be worried about my team. The defense and passing game need work and now there’s no Conner.
I’ll predict Pitt 31, Akron 20. Watch, but don’t bet on Pitt, an 18 1/2-point favorite.

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September 4, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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On eve of new Pitt season, Donald lines up in support of Narduzzi

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He was recruited and coached by Dave Wannstedt, teased by Michael Haywood and played for Todd Graham and Paul Chryst.
If anyone knows the recent history of Pitt and its football coaches, it’s former All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Now entering his second season with the St. Louis Rams, Donald keeps a close watch on what’s happening at Pitt. He was an honorary coach, along with Larry Fitzgerald, at this year’s spring game. Plus, he’s only a text message away for many current players looking to tap into some of his experience and knowledge.
Donald, who was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014, was asked recently about Pitt’s opener Saturday against Youngstown State. He wasn’t quick to spout blind praise for his former teammates. But he does like what coach Pat Narduzzi has done in his first eight months on the job.
“Those first games are hard. So, I don’t know what to think,” Donald said.
“I can tell you this: I like that coach. I really like that coach. I really, really like what he’s been doing. We’ve talked a few times and I’ve talked to some people, and he definitely seems like the type of guy I would have loved to play for. So, no matter what, they’re going in a real good direction.”

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September 3, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Final thoughts before opening day

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In his final media briefing before the opener Saturday at Heinz Field against Youngstown State, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi gave little solid insight into how he plans to handle his personnel. So, I guess I’ll just have to guess.
Actually, I think I know what he’s thinking.
Injuries (officially undisclosed) to senior center Artie Rowell and junior offensive left tackle Adam Bisnowaty , an All-ACC preseason pick, threaten to alter the configuration of the line, possibly putting two redshirt freshmen in the starting lineup.
Narduzzi said Brian O’Neill and Alex Bookser will be prepared, but without Rowell and Bisnowaty, Pitt will not field its best offensive line.
Narduzzi doesn’t like to talk about injuries. He has told me that opposing teams try to target a player’s injured body part, perhaps even stepping forcefully on somebody’s sore foot when the official isn’t looking. Todd Graham told me the same thing.
Narduzzi claims Bisnowaty and Rowell can play, if necessary, but he probably wants to see if he can get by without them. Let’s say Pitt jumps out to a big lead. What better opportunity to give his injured players, including defensive tackle Darryl Render, another week to rest?
On the other hand, what if YSU’s formidable (by FCS standards) defensive line is having its way with Pitt’s young linemen? It’s not a bad idea to keep Rowell and Bisnowaty in pads and helmets, just in case.
On defense, freshman safety Jordan Whitehead won’t be in the starting lineup, according to what Narduzzi told us Thursday, but he will play. He may be the first defensive back off the bench, replacing Patrick Amara in passing-down situations.
Whitehead will be one of four freshmen on the field, Narduzzi said. Wide receivers Quadree Henderson and Tre Tipton and running back Darrin Hall also won’t wear a redshirt this season.
Narduzzi said Hall’s ball-carrying opportunities may be limited. “No. 24’s pretty good,” he said. (If I have to identify No. 24, you just haven’t been paying attention.)
Also, junior Mike Caprara will start at money (weakside) linebacker after last year’s coaching staff largely ignored him. Caprara, 6-foot, 230 pounds, has worked exceptionally hard for this opportunity. Playing linebacker at his size can’t be easy, but he clearly has earned the coaches’ trust. Coaches, by the way, who didn’t recruit him. Good work, Mike.
That said, Bam Bradley also will play the money position. In fact, Narduzzi said he will use a lot of bodies on a day when temperatures will rise into the mid-80s.
Prediction: Pitt 31, Youngstown State 20

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