5 questions surrounding Pitt football as training camp opens
Believe it or not, even Clemson and Alabama have questions at the outset of training camp.
No team is immune.
So, imagine what’s going through Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s head as he looks through the big window in his office at the football fields next to the South Side railroad tracks.
Narduzzi opens defense of the ACC Coastal championship Friday with the first of 14 practices during training camp. The stakes are raised immediately this year, with Pitt facing conference foe Virginia in the opener Aug. 31 at Heinz Field. The Cavaliers are favored to win the Coastal, according to a poll of reporters covering the ACC.
Can Pitt become the first team to win back-to-back Coastal titles since Virginia Tech in 2010-11? That’s a good question. Here are some others:
1. Can Narduzzi take next step?
The goal, of course, is to win the ACC championship game, but reaching it two years in a row and putting up a better fight than 42-10 should be the initial objective.
Narduzzi already has won eight games (twice) and the division in his first four years. It’s Year 5. He has been at Pitt longer than any coach since Dave Wannstedt. Double-digit victories for the first time at Pitt since 2009 isn’t too much for Pitt fans to expect.
But that would mean losing only to Penn State and Miami, making the Virginia opener crucial. Or, losing three in the regular season and winning a bowl game for the first time since 2013.
All of that will be difficult, but given the roster and the state of the program, not impossible.
2. Can O-line protect Pickett?
Pitt lost four senior starters from last year’s offensive line. But the best lineman, junior center Jimmy Morrissey, returns. Three years ago, Morrissey was a walk-on, hoping someone would notice him. Fortunately, someone did.
Today, he carries huge responsibility in terms of leadership and making sure everyone knows the blocking schemes. He also needs to use his 305 pounds to help shield the quarterback and open holes for running backs.
• Junior left guard Bryce Hargrove started the final three games last season, and has a modicum of seasoning.
• Right guard Chase Brown’s only experience came in junior college.
• Sophomore tackle Carter Warren, who mans the all-important left spot, has taken zero snaps.
• Gabe Houy (Upper St. Clair), another sophomore tackle, lines up on the right. He started the Albany game last year, but played in only five others.
No job is secure, however, with Carson Van Lynn, a converted tight end, Jerry Drake Jr. and Blake Zubovic (Belle Vernon) part of the mix at tackle. At guard, line coach Dave Borbely moved Rashad Wheeler (Central Catholic) from defense for a reason. Wheeler can’t be ignored. Brandon Ford (Upper St. Clair) will have a say, too.
The personnel decisions made by Borbely this month will be the most important of camp.
3. Who steps up at RB?
The loss of 1,000-yard rushers Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall might be the biggest reason Pitt is picked to finish fourth in the Coastal.
But Narduzzi has prepared for their departure. He has five backs with good high school pedigree, led by junior A.J. Davis, who ran for 134 yards last season.
Sophomore V’Lique Carter amassed 137 yards against Duke, but a total of 65 in six other games. Sophomore Todd Sibley Jr. and redshirt freshman Mychale Salahuddin have injuries in their past, but they will offer immediate competition for Davis, the presumed starter.
Daniel Carter and Vincent Davis are talented, but they must advance beyond freshman expectations to impress running backs coach Andre Powell.
4. Will Ffrench become big playmaker?
Maurice Ffrench has the speed and instincts to hit home runs in the return game. But he and/or Taysir Mack need to become a big threats in the passing game.
Here’s a stat to ponder: In Tyler Boyd’s final season at Pitt, he caught 91 passes. In the three subsequent seasons, leading pass catchers Jester Weah and Rafael Araujo-Lopes collected a total of 116.
To take the next step, Pitt needs a big-time receiver.
5. Does experience on defense equal success?
Six starters return on defense, and that’s important. It means Narduzzi, who was hired for his ability to coach defense, has spent the past four years recruiting and designing the unit to his liking.
The secondary brings back senior free safety Damar Hamlin (Central Catholic) and cornerbacks Dane Jackson (Quaker Valley) and junior Jason Pinnock. In the spring, Narduzzi named Paris Ford (Steel Valley) his starting strong safety, but this is Ford’s third season and he has only nine games and five tackles on his resume.
Ford, his teammates and coaches have plenty to prove this season.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .