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Gorman: Pitt puts priority on fixing pass defense

Kevin Gorman
| Wednesday, March 15, 2017, 8:39 p.m.

Pat Narduzzi is pumped about the start of spring drills for his Pitt football team, calling it a “fresh start” and “open season.”

No one needs a fresh start more than Pitt's defense after opponents treated the Panthers like it was open season for their passing games.

Pitt ranked next-to-last nationally in pass defense last fall, allowing 343.1 yards and 35.6 points a game.

That doesn't sit well with the head coach, who made his mark as defensive coordinator of four consecutive top-10 defenses at Michigan State.

There's no question Narduzzi wants to work on making major improvements to Pitt's defense this spring.

“Everything's an emphasis. Scoring points is an emphasis. Keeping people off the scoreboard is an emphasis,” Narduzzi said. “As a defensive guy, I'd say there's a little bit more emphasis there. I want our players to play at a high level. Anytime there's one side of the ball the head coach is from that side, you look at that and want to get it fixed.”

But he isn't losing any sleep over it.

Narduzzi knows a dominant defense isn't built overnight. He tells me to go back and check on Michigan State's defensive rankings from 2007-09, his first three seasons as defensive coordinator under Mark Dantonio. The Spartans slipped from 37th in '07 to 59th in '08 to 87th in '09, when they allowed 354 yards and 22.3 points a game.

“They probably wanted to fire me back then, like, ‘Get this guy out of here,' ” Narduzzi said. “It takes time to develop. You can't make a good cake from scratch on your first try. It takes time for guys to figure it out. It's not easy. It's reactive football on defense, and you better be good at reacting. ...

“There's knowledge, athletic ability and fit out there. When I watch a lot of plays, we were in position to make plays — and you've got to make them.”

Too often, Pitt's secondary didn't.

Narduzzi notes the Panthers faced three of the nation's top quarterbacks in Clemson's Deshaun Watson (580 yards, three touchdowns), North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky (453 yards, five TDs) and Miami's Brad Kaaya (356 yards, four TDs), not to mention four of the top 12 NFL prospects at receiver and three of the top 10 at tight end.

But Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph (540 yards), Virginia Tech's Jerod Evans (406) and Syracuse's Zack Mahoney (441) also exploited Pitt's pass coverage, which stayed in a press-quarters coverage that left the cornerbacks exposed.

“I like our secondary,” Narduzzi said. “I like Avonte Maddox. I like Phillipie Motley. I like Jordan Whitehead ­— our three returning guys — and I like Dane Jackson. I'm excited about those guys. And, you know what? I should be. They're good football players. But you know what? If you're going to play a bunch of first-round draft choices at receiver, guess what? Good luck to you.”

Pitt needs more than just luck. It needs to improve its pass rush, to prevent quarterbacks from standing in the pocket and picking the Panthers apart.

Pitt needs to improve its coverage, and young corners like Therran Coleman, Damar Hamlin and Henry Miller and safeties Bricen Garner and Jay Stocker will get opportunities this spring.

Narduzzi knows this much: There's no magic solution. He doesn't have All-Americans Darqueze Dennard or Kurtis Drummond like he did at Michigan State.

Narduzzi even joked on signing day that he wished Pitt had won the recruiting battle for WPIAL defensive backs Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson, who Narduzzi landed for the Spartans.

“You can't push an easy-fix button,” Narduzzi said.

Nor does Narduzzi want to focus all of his attention on a defense that allowed 30 points or more 10 times, 40-plus four times, 50-plus twice and 61 to Syracuse, and gave up 300-plus passing yards seven times. That task belongs to defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, who added a new defensive line coach in Charlie Partridge, and secondary coach Renaldo Hill.

“If I wanted the identity to be that, I'd just go coach defense and not worry about being a head coach,” Narduzzi said. “But I want to be a head coach.

“I worry more about what our guys are doing on Carson Street and on Fifth and Forbes. That will give you more sleepless nights than anything, offense or defense. The goal is to win, and I don't care what we have to do to do it.”

Narduzzi knows now is the time to fix Pitt's problems in the secondary. Next season, the Panthers won't be getting a pass on giving up big pass plays.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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