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.

Assistants: Polian on defensive depth; Lyght on Love; and Lea on the rover

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Three Irish assistants were available to the media following Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice Wednesday. Each of special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea commented on something or other of note. Together there just might be enough substance to justify your time here today.

At the bottom of this post is a video with most of the below quotes and many more from yesterday’s session.

POLIAN ON DEFENSIVE DEPTH AFFECTING SPECIAL TEAMS
The most unique aspect of the special teams coordinator, at least when compared to his offensive and defensive counterparts, is the fact that his charges include nearly the entire breadth of the roster. Aside from the quarterbacks, the starting offensive line and the defensive tackles, just about every player could find himself on a kickoff coverage or return unit.

More often than not, defensive players—accustomed to seeking out contact, rather than attempting to avoid it—fill out most of those spots. That may not be the case with this Irish rendition, and not necessarily by choice.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be in some other spots with depth at linebacker and depth at safety,” Polian said. “So where are we going to make up those bodies, and they’re going to have to come from offense. Those guys have made very positive impressions.”

Polian specifically mentioned junior running back Dexter Williams, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore running back Tony Jones, as well as sophomore safety Jalen Elliott, as having excelled thus far. When he came to Jones, Polian added phrases such as “real excited” and “fantastic,” echoing sentiments Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly espoused earlier this week.

Along with that personnel shift, Polian wants to increase the intensity with which players approach the third unit. Often seen as auxiliary duty, inferior to position group work, special teams should not include a dialed back attitude.

“The biggest change has to be the urgency with which we attack special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times of the game.”

The Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman wrote a longer discussion of Polian’s comments, including how he will look to supplement junior receivers Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders at punt return.

“We’ll have a gong show and say who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look,” Polian said. “We’ll start firing balls at them and if you drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys.”

Please, WatchND and Fighting Irish Media, please record all of that. The possibilities for hilarity would extend further only if Jarron Jones or Lou Nix were still around to insist on taking a turn.

LYGHT ON LOVE
Sophomore cornerback Julian Love saw plenty of action in 12 games last season, finishing with 45 tackles and one each of an interception, fumble forced and fumble recovered. Nonetheless, Lyght sees room for Love to improve.

“The thing for him and his development, when he’s uncomfortable … he has to rely more on his fundamentals and his technique and be proficient with his execution of his technique and those fundamentals,” Lyght said.

Love started eight games at cornerback last season, the most career starts at the position on the Irish roster. Thus, despite being only a sophomore, he is already in a position to lead.

“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover,” Lyght said. “We want him to get better in his man-to-man techniques and in his leadership role. He is a young player but he is going to play a lot for us.”

Love will play, and likely start, at the boundary cornerback position. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley lays out in an elongated look at all five cornerbacks in the mix, the days of left/right cornerback duties are in the past.

“In the college game, it is a boundary/field game,” Lyght said. “It’s not like the NFL where the hashmarks are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game…

“If you get the guys comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game, get a better feel for the route combinations, and be able to execute at a higher level playing that way.”

A quick layman’s translation: The hashmarks in college football are much wider than in the NFL. Thus, when the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

LEA ON THE ROVER
How about another take at explaining the heralded rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme? Let’s here Lea’s quick summary:

“We have a lot of bodies, so we’re really trying to identify who the right fit is,” he said. “The beauty of that position is it is a hybrid, so there are times you want a bigger-body linebacker type, there are times where you want more of a nickel type.”

Lea also took a moment to extensively praise the leadership of both senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.


Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.