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.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. Obviously, this development drops that number to 83. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)