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.