And In That Corner … The Pittsburgh Panthers, owners of two top-5 upsets the last two seasons

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One of the least-discussed byproducts of Notre Dame’s relationship with the ACC is how much it actually diminishes the Irish interactions with Pittsburgh. The two programs have met 69 times in history, including 11 times from 2001 to 2013 — Notre Dame went 7-4 — but now have not seen each other in three years. It used to be a consistent series, just one undersold in comparison to certain Big Ten or Pac 12 relationships.

As such, an Irish fan can be forgiven for not knowing too much about the Panthers this year. From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brian Batko is here to fix that.

DF: Thanks, Brian, for giving up some of your week to educate Notre Dame fans and, if being honest, myself. I haven’t updated my own version of power rankings yet this week, so let me check in on my ACC chart real quick — I projected Pittsburgh to win 4.33 games this season, with 2.67 of them coming in the first six weeks. I obviously did not think very highly of the Panthers, and by reaching this point at 3-3, they have hardly proven me wrong. Broadly speaking and thinking back to August, what did you expect out of Pat Narduzzi’s fourth season in Pittsburgh?

BB: I expected a team that would be much improved from last year’s disappointing 5-7 outfit, but did not necessarily think it would be obvious in the win-loss column. That’s because Pitt entered 2018 with a remarkably daunting schedule, one rated by ESPN as the toughest non-conference slate in the country, and for good reason. Penn State. Central Florida. Notre Dame. Albany. OK, one of those is not like the others, but in this year particularly, those first three make for an absolute meat grinder outside of ACC play. Inside the league is where the Panthers could make some hay, but losing to North Carolina in Week 4 was a bad, bad look in one of several matchups I viewed as 50-50 games in the preseason.

My preseason outlook posited, “A strong season from [sophomore quarterback Kenny] Pickett could spark a good amount of Pittsburgh hype for 2019 and 2020.” Just looking at Pickett’s stat line, he has done alright this season, but not much better than that with 886 yards, six touchdowns, five interceptions and a 61.3 percent completion rate in six games. What has held him back thus far?

And really, the stat line is deceiving. One of those touchdowns and 58 of those yards came on a garbage time flip pass to wide receiver Maurice Ffrench, who did all the work. Pickett’s 68-yard touchdown pass to Rafael Araujo-Lopes this past weekend was a bubble screen the receiver broke open. Another one went for one yard at the goal line against North Carolina. What I’m trying to say here is that even the success Pickett has had, for the most part, it hasn’t been the result of sharp throws downfield and Pitt getting vertical in the passing game. The book on him all training camp was how good of a decision-maker he’s becoming, and even that has been a work in progress, as evidenced by the picks. It’s tough to say how much of it his is own inexperience being a roadblock in his development, versus an offensive system that wants to run first and hasn’t shown much proclivity to try to stretch the field.

Panthers running back Qadree Ollison has rushed for 596 yards this season while averaging 6.5 yards per carry, leading the only reliable aspect of the Pittsburgh offense. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

The Panthers do have a decent running game, averaging 203.8 yards per game, but Notre Dame allows only 127.8. How devoted is Narduzzi to the running game?

He loves it, and for good reason. It’s tough to argue with a 14-5 mark for the Panthers when they’ve rushed for at least 200 yards under Narduzzi. It would seem that the drop-off from senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall (plus senior fullback George Aston) to Pitt’s next-strongest position group is quite pronounced, so might as well do what works until the opponent takes it away. It stands to reason Notre Dame will be more equipped to do that than Syracuse was, as the Orange did the unthinkable and actually allowed Pitt to mount its game-tying comeback drive solely on the ground (11 rushing attempts until one desperation end-zone pass before a field goal sent it to overtime).

I ask in that fashion because the Irish defense has basically forced opponents to pass this season by rendering the run so ineffective. If it comes to that, possibly in tandem with Notre Dame’s offense opening up a lead, does Pickett have the weapons to get aggressive through the air?

Not so much, no. Ffrench and Araujo-Lopes have had their moments the past couple years, but they’re fairly similar players in terms of mostly working out of the slot given their lack of size. Indiana transfer Taysir Mack is the closest guy the Panthers have to a conventional No. 1, go-up-and-get-it receiver, but he’s been banged up and didn’t play last week against Syracuse. He seems questionable, at best, for Notre Dame, so that again leaves Pittsburgh wanting for big-play pass-catchers. True freshman Shocky Jacques-Louis is one to keep an eye on, but his breakout game hasn’t arrived just yet.

Flipping to the defense, let me ask this in a general fashion out of deference to Narduzzi — Is this a typical Narduzzi defense? Giving up 32.8 points per game (not to mention 428.3 yards) would imply otherwise, but anyone who follows the Irish is too familiar with Narduzzi’s handiwork at Michigan State to assume anything negative about his defense.

Well, it’s been typical for his time at Pitt, which has been the cause of much consternation among the fan base during his tenure, even the years he was winning. The thought was that this might be the year it could finally look something like those vaunted Spartans units with Mark Dantonio as head coach and Narduzzi as defensive coordinator, given that Pitt returned nine starters and a slew of other contributors, many of whom are fifth-year seniors, but it hasn’t worked out that way so far. Maybe that’s a testament to some of the elite offenses it’s seen (Penn State, UCF, Syracuse) but it’s more likely Pitt’s defense just isn’t there. Whether that’s talent or scheme is one of the major questions about this team — and program — but after showing signs of life in the final two games of 2017 (20-14 loss at Virginia Tech, 24-14 upset of Miami) that momentum was squashed early this season.

UPDATE: Since holding this Q&A with Brian, the Panthers defense suffered a significant blow.

To this point, Wirginis has led Pittsburgh with 41 tackles with seven for loss including three sacks. He has also forced two fumbles.

Pittsburgh will be without its best defender Saturday, losing linebacker Quintin Wirginis for the season to a knee injury suffered in practice this week. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Before I continue down the Narduzzi path into the macro, have I missed anything in particular in the micro?

Not really. Pitt has a good kicker named Alex Kessman, who boomed field goals of 45, 54 and 55 yards, all of which were needed to take Syracuse to overtime and eventually win. So, he’s a weapon in his own right, perhaps.

Focusing on Narduzzi, he looks to have lost some momentum. At least, that is the view from a distance. After back-to-back 8-5 seasons, he led the Panthers to a 5-7 record last year and this season could very well match that. His job isn’t in danger yet by any means, but is there any amount of frustration within the program/from Narduzzi?

Pitt does a decent job of hiding that kind of stuff if there is any frustration. You have to imagine that no one within those walls was feeling too hot after blowing a halftime lead to dreadful North Carolina, then getting eviscerated by Central Florida a few weeks after Penn State came into Heinz Field and delivered a beating. The Pitt faithful, at least the ones I have the pleasure to interact with via email, Twitter, etc., are starting to get restless. Second-year athletic director Heather Lyke gave Narduzzi a vote of confidence, so to speak, just last week.

Now in his fourth season leading Pittsburgh, head coach Pat Narduzzi is 24-20, including 8-10 over the last season and a half. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The highlights of his tenure have been two top-5 upsets in the last two years, with Pickett leading the way over then-No .2 Miami last season in his first career start. How did the Panthers pull those off? Is there anything applicable to this weekend to be gleaned from those upsets?

One thing Narduzzi really does seem to bring to the table, especially when you consider those games, is firing up his guys for a stunner. Most of the personnel from the Clemson shock two years ago have moved on, but last season’s Miami upset was essentially the recipe for this team and program to win big showdowns. Get a suffocating and opportunistic performance from your defense and use the running game to lighten the load on Kenny Pickett, who can manage the offense and occasionally bust out a splash play with his legs. One constant with Narduzzi’s defenses over the years is they’re going to be aggressive, for better or for worse, and that’s a sword that Pitt often dies by but, once in a blue moon, can be the difference against a superior squad on paper.

Might Pittsburgh find magic again this weekend? Notre Dame is favored by three touchdowns. What goes through your head when you see that?

It might, but I wouldn’t predict it. The point spread doesn’t surprise me much given that it’s a home game for the Irish, who could be headed for an historic season even by their lofty standards. Pitt faced pretty long odds from Vegas against Penn State and Central Florida this year, too, and I projected both games to be closer than the betting line. Turned out, both were even more lopsided than that, so who knows? The Panthers are consistently inconsistent, so for as much of a Notre Dame walkover as this is in theory, I’ve come to never know what to expect from this program despite being around it more often than my wife this time of year.

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Georgia OL prospect the first commit for new Notre Dame OL coach Joe Rudolph


New Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pulled in his first recruit by continuing to chase a prospect he initially wanted at his last job. Three-star offensive lineman Anthonie Knapp (Roswell High School; Ga.) committed to the Irish on Wednesday afternoon, picking Notre Dame over Rudolph’s former employer, Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

In total, more than half the ACC offered Knapp a scholarship. The Irish offer came only this past weekend with Knapp in South Bend catching up with Rudolph, who was the first Power Five coach to offer a scholarship to Knapp back at Virginia Tech.

“The hospitality and the heritage it kept made the school stand out,” Knapp said to Inside ND Sports in a text message.

At 6-foot-5 and less than 270 pounds, Knapp will need to put on weight at the next level, though that can be said of most high school juniors. He played left tackle last season, but unless the weight piles on quickly and consistently, Knapp will most likely play guard at the next level.

His footwork already looks more fundamentally sound than most high schoolers display, all the more impressive because Knapp could simply rely on overpowering his opponents as most offensive line prospects understandably tend to do. Knapp is content to use his length and footwork to let a pass rusher charge upfield, well past the quarterback.

Strength and mass will come with age and entering a collegiate conditioning program, and Knapp needs both of those, but length is uncoachable and footwork fundamentals hold up early careers as often as lack of strength does.

He is the second offensive lineman in the class, joining four-star offensive guard Peter Jones, also a preps tackle that is expected to move inside in college.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s biggest offensive progressions this spring will be smallest to spot from afar

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When Marcus Freeman was first hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2021, it was widely expected he would retain three-fifths of his offensive coaching staff. Instead, promotions elsewhere awaited two of those coaches, leaving only Tommy Rees as a constant.

Then Rees and one-year returnee Harry Hiestand departed this offseason, meaning Freeman’s entire offensive coaching staff turned over — and the offensive line coach twice — within 15 months of that supposedly being a piece of stability he could lean on as a young first-time head coach. Yet, one thing has not changed about Freeman’s relationship with the offensive coaches: He is trying to stay out of their way.

“Most of the [newcomers] are on the offensive side of the ball, so really I just try to stay out of the way and let those guys meet,” Freeman said last week at the start of the Irish spring practices. “Give them time to be together. They’ve been together a lot and met a lot and really, you have to meet to get everybody on the same page. A lot of that is cohesion, that ability to view these guys as teammates.

“… I’ve been in there a bit, and then we have our staff meetings to make sure everybody understands our culture, understands our expectations. It’s not where it’s a finished product, but it’s definitely progressing to where we want to see it.”

A year ago, the cohesion Freeman was most worried about on the offensive side of the ball was between Rees and a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks. Now, it’s the collaboration between an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive line coach who had never worked together before a month or two ago. Freeman, of course, knew offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for more than a decade, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for seven years and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph since Freeman’s playing days at Ohio State beginning in 2004.

That has been a common theme in Freeman’s hires, tying to former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Mason, current cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive line coach Al Washington.

“There’s nothing more important than experience with somebody,” Freeman said. “I don’t have to wonder what this person is like when I’m not around. … When I can find a quality coach that I know can be the best at his profession, but also I have personal experience with them — I’m not saying we’re friends, but we’ve worked together. Coach Rudolph was at Ohio State when I was a player, but I knew what type of person he was.”

That is the commonality between those three new offensive hires, though a few pieces of similar backgrounds can be found between Parker and Guidugli. At 42 and 40, respectively, they both grew up in the Ohio River Valley and played college football along the same Kentucky-Ohio Interstate corridor. Parker then went straight into coaching while Guidugli knocked around the Canadian Football League and various iterations of short-lived secondary leagues in the United States until he went into coaching in 2010.

At the least, though, their formative years should have shared enough to lay a foundation now, the foundation upon which Freeman is counting on them to build an offense. That progression may be as important as any other made on the offensive side of the ball this spring.

After just one practice, Freeman saw value in a quarterbacks coach who can somewhat ignore the rest of the offense. Rees’s focus was assuredly on the quarterbacks, but Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner & Co. are quite literally all Guidugli needs to concern himself with each day.

“When you take some of that responsibility off their plate, and it’s just coach the quarterbacks and see if they made the right decision because there’s so much that falls on [the quarterback’s] plate that isn’t really his fault,” Freeman said. “I know he gets the praise and he gets the criticism, but my biggest thing, did you make the right decision? That’s so important at the quarterback position.”

Parker thinks there may be more to the gig than the right decision. Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman should have little trouble with any intangibles of acclimating to a new campus and a new roster, even if he did not have to run many huddles with the Demon Deacons, but there will be one tangible shift to his quarterback play that Hartman might need to work on.

“Just in its simplest form, just taking snaps under center,” Parker said this weekend. “As simple as that. Just being able to secure a football under center.”

Parker wants to emphasize that because even as Notre Dame presumably opens up its offense a bit more with a deeper receivers room chasing passes from a stronger-armed quarterback, the Irish offense will still hinge on its veteran offensive line and trio of proven running backs.

Finding that balance can come in August. For now, finding that snap will be Hartman’s focus while Parker, Guidugli, Rudolph and a litany of offensive analysts strive to learn the same shorthand.

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Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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As much criticism as Drew Pyne and Tommy Rees received for Notre Dame’s ground-bound offense last season, much of that approach was due to a reality beyond their control. The former Irish quarterback and offensive coordinator could not run the routes or catch the passes.

Notre Dame had few who could run the routes and among them, it seemed even fewer who could catch Pyne’s passes. Thus, the Irish threw for fewer than 200 yards in six games, not even reaching triple digits in the 35-14 upset of Clemson to start November. They threw 21 or fewer passes four times; raise that to 26 pass attempts and three more games qualify.

Of Notre Dame’s 192 completed passes in the regular season, 35 percent of them landed in the hands of tight end Michael Mayer. Another 22 percent found running backs. Six Irish receivers combined to catch 94 passes for 1,306 yards total last year. Seven receivers across the country caught 94 or more passes on their own in 2022, and three topped that yardage tally.

There simply were not ample options among the receivers for Rees to draw up plays with Pyne targeting them, particularly not after Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins were injured in the preseason, Deion Colzie was hampered in the preseason and Tobias Merriweather’s season would be cut short by a concussion.

The Irish moving running back Chris Tyree to at least a part-time role at receiver this spring will help solve that dearth but not nearly as much as the arrivals of Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith and a trio of early-enrolled freshmen will. With them, Notre Dame has nine receivers on hand this spring, though who exactly leads them is a vague wonder.

Smith has the most collegiate experience with 74 career catches, and his size should place him into the starting lineup, but he is just as new in South Bend as early enrollees Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James all are. Of the three rising juniors on the roster, each had a moment or two of note last season, but Jayden Thomas’s may have been the most consistent, finishing with 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

“That’s the challenge I’ve had for that entire room,” Freeman said of finding a leader in the position group. “Guys that have been here. … I hope Jayden Thomas continues to excel on the field and then in his leadership roles.

“What he’s done in the weight room, I think he’s matured and said, okay, I can play at a higher level when I take care of my body or I’m at a weight I feel really comfortable at.”

Those were mostly generic platitudes, but Thomas’s 2022 stats alone are impressive enough to garner a leading role when dug into a bit. Of his 25 catches, 18 of them gained a first down. Of those 18, eight of them came on third down and another two were on second-and-long. If Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most likely outlet.

That should give him pole position to be the boundary starter heading into 2023, with Colzie and/or Merriweather pressing him forward. Smith’s experience and size should pencil him in as the field starter, leaving the slot the question on the first unit for the next 14 spring practices.

Tyree could emerge there, but he is more likely to be a utility knife type of option, concealing any offensive alignment until the snap. Instead, rising junior Lorenzo Styles may get a chance at the slot. He has the tools if he has the focus.

Styles dropped six passes last season, more than anyone else on the roster and a bothersome number regardless of his final stats, but one that stands out in particular when realizing he caught only 30 passes for 340 yards and a score.

“It became I think mental last year,” Freeman said Wednesday. “Lorenzo Styles is a talented, talented football player, really talented. With him last year, it almost became a mental struggle, even just the basics of catching the ball.”

Last year, those mental struggles were enough to somewhat undo Notre Dame’s offense, because the Irish had no choice but to play Styles through his missteps. Now, whether it be injury or some headspace frustrations that Chuck Knoblauch could relate to, the Irish have some depth at receiver if needed. As the season progresses, that depth will become only stronger with the freshmen rounding into form.

“The young wideouts caught a couple balls, and it’s going to be good to see the progression of all those freshmen,” Freeman said. “They’re all going to be in different places on the road. That’s what I spend a lot of time talking to our team about, we’re all freshmen, you can’t compare your journey to this guy’s journey.”

Wherever those journeys are, they are welcome additions to Notre Dame’s offense. As much as newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker will relish the luxury that is veteran quarterback Sam Hartman, simply having options on the perimeter for Hartman to look for should be an Irish improvement.

Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now

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Marcus Freeman’s second spring as Notre Dame’s head coach has begun. As he pointed out Wednesday, it is quarterback transfer Sam Hartman’s sixth spring practice. Both are still looking around a bit for their proper cues, though Hartman’s hesitance now should be short-lived.

“He’s like a freshman, it’s new,” Freeman said. “I was joking with him, this is his sixth spring ball, but you’re at a new place, a new system, still figuring out where to go, what a drill is called, so you can see him at times just trying to say, ‘Okay, where are we going, what’s the drill, what are we doing, how many plays?’

“But he’s got some natural ability when he throws the ball and when he plays the game of football. You’ll see the leadership traits that he possesses grow because I know he has them. He’s a leader the first time you meet him. You can tell that he really commands respect.”

Freeman mentioned a “quarterback competition” between Hartman and rising junior Tyler Buchner only once, something that will reoccur throughout the next month, though more in name than in reality. Whoever takes the lead at quarterback, and it will be Hartman, will have a new target to get comfortable with in rising senior Chris Tyree.

Tyree spent the first spring practice working at receiver after lining up at running back the vast majority of the last three years. Freeman would not commit to that being a full-time shift for Tyree, but given the Irish depth at running back — led by rising juniors Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs, with rising sophomore Gi’Bran Payne the next in line for the spring while classmate Jadarian Price continues to “progress” from a torn Achilles last summer — Tyree working at receiver for the long-term should make some sense.

“He’s a guy that has multiple skill sets, and we know Chris Tyree is a guy we have to have on the football field,” Freeman said. “The ability to put him at wideout, we know what he can do as a running back, to really be a guy that can do multiple different things.”

Tyree took 100 rushes for 444 yards and three touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 138 yards and two more scores last year. The ball-carrying was a step forward compared to his previous seasons, but he caught 24 passes for 258 yards in 2021. In three games in 2022, Tyree gained more than 20 yards through the air. He was one of the more reliable pass-catchers on Notre Dame’s roster last season, finishing tied for fourth in receptions, one behind Jayden Thomas’s 25 catches and just six behind Lorenzo Styles, the leading returning receiver.

“You’re seeing more of that in college football and in the NFL,” Freeman said. “Guys that can play multiple different skill positions on offense, so do you treat him as a running back, do you treat him as a wideout? That’s what we have to do, and gain confidence in the quarterbacks in him as a wide receiver.”

Tyree’s shift was the most notable on the field on the first day of spring practices, but a handful of absences also stood out.

Junior linebacker Will Schweitzer, junior safety Justin Walters and junior quarterback Ron Powlus III have taken medical retirements, while junior cornerback Philip Riley, junior offensive lineman Caleb Johnson and junior kicker Josh Bryan are all no longer with the program, presumably each pursuing a transfer following this semester.

With those departures, Notre Dame’s roster now has 87 players on scholarship, two more than the NCAA maximum allowed when the season starts.

In hiring Marty Biagi from Mississippi, Freeman strayed from his usual habit of hiring coaches he has previous experience with. He did, however, have some mutual connections to reach out to about Biagi.

“I remember when we were playing Purdue when I was defensive coordinator (at Notre Dame in 2021), I was sitting in a special teams meeting, and they did some unique things on special teams.

“I still know some people back in West Lafayette from my time there, and he does, too. Somehow his name got brought up, so I was interested in interviewing him last year before I hired [former Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason]. I didn’t know [Biagi] personally, but I had talked to him before, I knew enough about him. It’s important because you need to know when you’re not around, you can trust those guys that you’re working with.”

Defensive backs Cam Hart and Thomas Harper will both be held out of contact for at least the near future as they recover from winter shoulder surgeries, while early-enrolled defensive lineman Devan Houstan Will Likely miss all springtime work due to his own recent shoulder surgery.

Tight ends Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman will not take part this spring due to ACL injuries in the fall.

Freeman expressed some optimism about Price’s timeline, but even that was measured.

“I don’t know if he will be full go, but he has done a lot of running and I see him progressing to more and more actual football practice.”

Given Price is still less than a calendar year from a ruptured Achilles, it is most likely he is limited well into the summer.