Pat Narduzzi

Offseason Q&A: Pitt

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Another season, another head coach for the Pitt Panthers. In what seems like a revolving door atop the Panthers program since Dave Wannstedt was shown the door from his alma mater, Pitt has tapped former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to run the show, one of the best hires of the offseason.

For Pitt fans, the fit is a perfect one, with Narduzzi’s aggressive, in-your-face defense and refreshing energy a perfect counterpoint for Chryst. And Narduzzi also inherits a team that’s among the most talented on Notre Dame’s schedule, adding another intriguing element to a game that very quietly is one of the most difficult on Notre Dame’s schedule.

Getting us up to speed on the Panthers is our friend Anson Whaley of Cardiac Hill. He was kind enough to answer some questions as we look at November’s first Saturday, when the Irish travel to the Steel City.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Another year, another move at head coach. But in Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, it looks like Pitt hired the best candidate on the market, and someone who feels pitch perfect for the program.

Are we still in the honeymoon period? What’s been your early reaction to Narduzzi, the staff he’s built and his first spring?

Definitely still in the honeymoon period and that will probably last for at least the entire first year, to be honest. Pitt fans have been starved for a guy like Narduzzi to come along for quite some time and I expect that even if the team stumbles this season, that he will still have a lot of fans behind him. The early reaction to him has been overwhelmingly positive. A few people will tell you that it’s even been too positive since it seems like he’s being anointed as the team’s savior without having coached a single game. Overall, though, he’s done a lot of things right.

His first big test came with the hiring of assistants and nearly all had not only prior experience in the same position in which they were hired, but many were viewed as good recruiters and had been in big programs in some capacity. It’s also early in the recruiting season, but Narduzzi has won fans over with his aggressive style. He and his staff are all over Twitter and really seem to ‘get’ the whole recruiting thing. That’s a far cry from the last head coach, Paul Chryst, who not only seemed to want to distance himself from the recruiting game, but also lacked a staff of dynamic assistants.

Pitt’s class has started off pretty slowly thus far, but Narduzzi and his staff are displaying a go-getter mentality that’s been refreshing. One thing I keep coming back to is that Narduzzi has openly admitted to enjoying the recruiting process – I’m not sure Chryst ever felt that way and while he certainly did some good things (such as building up a very weak offensive line), you just don’t get the sense that recruiting is his thing.

Narduzzi also brought back the spring game, which Chryst didn’t even bother with last year. Chryst’s mentality was essentially that it’s more important to get an extra practice in, but so much of spring games is simply the opportunity to market your program. Some schools might not particularly need that, but Pitt is starved for any publicity it can get in an area dominated by the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins. To not hold the game and give your program a chance to sell tickets, push the football program, etc., was a mistake. Pitt held the event in a small venue this year and while the attendance wasn’t huge, there was a noticeable buzz from the fans afterward.

Narduzzi’s personality has also won him some praise. He is making the rounds at Pitt alumni events throughout the state and reports at every stop have been overwhelmingly positive. Fans have been quick to point out that he comes off as sincere and enthusiastic. Former head coach Todd Graham came off as having a dynamic personality, but there wasn’t the talk of him coming off as a sincere guy. Chryst came off as having the sincerity and down-to-earth personality, but lacking Graham’s attitude. Narduzzi seems to be the perfect mix of both and is winning a lot of people over with that style.

The true test won’t come until later but so far, Narduzzi has made quite the impression.

 

There’s some star power taking the field in the dynamic duo of James Connor and Tyler Boyd. The juniors are All-American caliber players and will certainly be a handful for any opponent.

How good are these two? (Leaving the recent news about Boyd’s legal troubles out of it for now…)

Point blank, both are among the best at their positions. Conner received a lot of Heisman discussion early last year and Boyd still managed to have a big season after a slow first half. Conner, of course, took the world by storm on his way to a monster season, but Boyd’s year shouldn’t be downplayed considering how small of a role he had in the offense early on. He was held to only one 100-yard game in his first seven contests before averaging 127 yards per game over his last five. If Pitt had any semblance of a passing game the first half of the season, Boyd would have had an even bigger season.

Both are All-American candidates for 2015 and it would be a surprise if either came back after this season. Boyd is routinely mentioned as a first-round draft pick and while running backs are devalued in this day and age, Conner should still be picked near the top of his position. Conner, in particular, is really going to benefit by leaving early since his bruising style of running limits his shelf life even more than the typical back.

 

One of the bigger off-field stories in the last few weeks was Tyler Boyd’s arrest for DUI. How big of a deal is this? And what’s it say when one of the program’s most high profile players gets arrested for making a really boneheaded decision?

The stance from several readers on our website was that it wasn’t a big deal. The problem for me was, as you said, he is one of the team’s leaders. While it could have been worse, several bad decisions were made by Tyler. Underage drinking happens on every campus, so the idea that this is some unforgivable crime would be foolish. But to get behind a wheel after you’ve had even a few drinks at approximately 2:30 in the morning, as the reports suggest, just isn’t a great idea. To do it when you’re seen as a team leader is, frankly, even worse.

It’s not the biggest deal in the world but certainly a noteworthy incident that warrants some sort of suspension. And when you consider that under Dave Wannstedt and Paul Chryst, Pitt had a string of embarrassing off-field events, it’s not the kind of publicity the program wants. It took some steam out of a lot of momentum that had been building since Narduzzi’s hire.

 

Notre Dame fans have seen these mistakes punished in different ways. Draconian season-long suspensions. And seemingly progressive changes, like we saw when Michael Floyd returned after being suspended all spring to play his senior season.

What do you expect Boyd’s punishment to be, especially with Narduzzi’s first accountability test as the team’s head coach? And how important do you think the head coach’s handling of this situation will be to his tenure at Pitt?

The general consensus seems to be that it’s a one-game suspension sort of deal, and I’d be fine with that. But with a new head coach, we don’t really have any idea how Narduzzi will handle this. Does he make it a longer suspension to set an example? Does he not suspend him at all and simply make him work harder in practice since Boyd is so valuable? Since Narduzzi is a new coach, we’re kind of in uncharted territory here.

I would be very surprised if it were a long suspension. What he did wasn’t smart, but most reports seem to indicate that he was pretty aware at the time of being pulled over. Also, by giving Boyd a harsh penalty, you leave less wiggle room for bigger penalties for bigger crimes. Drinking and driving is not a minor issue by any stretch of the imagination, but assuming Boyd had little to drink that night, players have done far worse and received lesser suspensions. All of that said, it’s difficult to speculate too much since we’re still waiting on more details.

Whatever the punishment, Narduzzi’s handling of it is extremely important on a couple of fronts. It not only sets the tone in what we can expect from him in terms of being a disciplinarian, but establishes some sort of benchmark for the future for similar incidents.

(Editor’s note: In the time between this Q&A and it’s publication, Narduzzi addressed Boyd’s punishment, though didn’t declare whether Boyd would sit out any games.)

 

Offensively, Paul Chryst seems to have left the cupboard full for new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who just came from coaching with Bret Bielema — about as good as you can do from continuity purposes.

Chad Voytik returns after a good season. There’s a star at WR and RB, and J.P. Holtz feels like he’s been playing at Pitt since Dave Wannstedt was coaching. Throw in a really experienced offensive line and it sure feels like this could be a terrifying offense to face. Am I crazy?

Not at all. In fact, I think many Pitt fans would be disappointed if the offense wasn’t terrifying. There’s really no reason for that group to not put up a lot of points.

There are some questions to be sure. The offensive line lost their best player in tackle T.J. Clemmings (widely projected as a first-round draft pick until an injury issue popped up) and another starter in Matt Rotheram. The team is also trying to determine who will start opposite Boyd at wide receiver – after Boyd, the leading returning wide receiver is Dontez Ford, who had only three catches last year. If you take the unit as a whole, however, there’s good reason for optimism. Voytik has a year under his belt after being a first-time starter, the offensive line has some quality depth, and there’s real talent at the skill positions. Barring injuries, the offense has a chance to be special.

 

The defense has had to retool, but it brings in the country’s finest defensive mind as a head coach and a Broyles Award finalist as defensive coordinator in Josh Conklin.

What type of style change will Narduzzi and Conklin bring to the Pitt defense? And how did the transition go this spring?

Mostly, I would look for the unit to be more aggressive. One example of that is that Pitt often had its secondary play more off of receivers and I think we’ll see the corners get to be a little more physical at the line. But the bottom line is that Narduzzi and company know that unit has a long way to go.

This is really one of those situations where the players will need to be coached up as there’s not a lot of clear, identifiable talent on defense. The unit had next to no pressure last year from the defensive line after the departure of Aaron Donald. The top two linebackers and 2/3 of the starting linebacking corps, Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez, have both graduated. The secondary was questionable for much of the season and while they get a boost with top recruit Jordan Whitehead at cornerback, there are still many questions surrounding that group that was torched repeatedly on long pass plays.

Reports out of the spring were reasonably favorable but it’s also worth pointing out that the defense will look considerably different in the fall. Pitt adds Whitehead, the true freshman, who wasn’t yet with the team in the spring but could potentially start at corner. The Panthers will add Mark Scarpinato, a defensive lineman transfer from Michigan State. There are also several position battles that will take place and things are far from firm. The transition got underway in the spring but is going to continue right up until the start of the regular season. I’d even expect changes once the games begin since that will be the first time the coaches get to evaluate those guys in actual games from the sidelines.

 

Favorable schedule, 15 returning starters, and the energy that comes with a first-year coaching staff. On paper, you could argue this is the most exciting time in Pitt football since… when, exactly? 2008-2009?

That 2009 team approached the top ten and was having a tremendous season that was eventually derailed by the disappointing 45-44 loss to Cincinnati in the unofficial Big East title game. That was the last time a Pitt team had this kind of optimism that I can remember.

In terms of actual buzz, there’s a lot of excitement around this team. There was certainly some enthusiasm after the hirings of Todd Graham and Paul Chryst, but even that was tempered because of the drastic changes in style on offense each time. Narduzzi not only has some talent to work with, but is also keeping the offensive system pretty similar to what was already in place.

Fans would probably feel a little better if Narduzzi had a year of experience heading into this one but things line up pretty well for the Panthers in 2015 to, if nothing else, break their string of four consecutive 6-6 regular seasons.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.