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Pitt

Five areas Pitt needs to address in final scrimmage

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, 6:57 p.m.

There will be no lights, TV cameras or sideline reporters bothering Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi at halftime.

But what happens Saturday on the South Side practice fields will set the tone for the final days of camp and the start of the season Sept. 1 against the Great Danes of Albany.

Coaches must settle position battles, and players in those battles need to separate themselves. Above all, keep the trainers on the sideline.

Here are five areas that need addressed:

1. Crash course for Mack

If a solid connection forms between quarterback Kenny Pickett and wide receiver Taysir Mack, it could be the most important development of the summer.

Mack has the requisite size (6-foot-2, 195 pounds), speed and ability to separate from defensive backs that will attract the attention of opposing coaches.

But is he ready?

It’s great the NCAA declared Mack eligible after his transfer from Indiana, but what took so long? Yes, he’s been at practice since the first day, but no one knew for sure if he could play this season. Getting others ready was the priority.

Narduzzi doesn’t seem to be worried, but if he had any concern, do you think he’d show it in front of reporters?

Saturday’s scrimmage and the final days of camp next week are more important to Mack than they are to most of his teammates.

2. Set the lineup

Of course, competition for playing time never goes away, but it’s time for coaches to pick starters at Money linebacker (Elijah Zeise or Saleem Brightwell), cornerback (Jason Pinnock or Paris Ford) and strong safety (Dennis Briggs or Phil Campbell III).

After two weeks, coaches surely have a good idea who will start at those positions, but the hope is the scrimmage will solidify those thoughts.

Zeise, a senior, continues to impress coaches with his ability to transfer what he learns in the classroom onto the field. And coaches value knowing where to be as much — maybe more — than the athletic ability to get there. Plus, he looks the part at 6-2, 240.

Brightwell, a junior, has played linebacker since the first day he put on pads. He’s a natural. Tough call.

The emergence of Pinnock allows coaches to ease Ford into the lineup and also let him use his considerable talents on both sides of the ball. If Ford’s playing every snap at cornerback, he might not be as effective on the jet sweeps.

Briggs, a co-captain last season, will be difficult to keep off the field for his knowledge and the example he sets as much as anything. But coaches are comfortable with Campbell, even though he’s only a sophomore.

3. Get in, get out, stay healthy

When Narduzzi meets with reporters Tuesday to answer questions about the scrimmage, he will be asked what most pleased him. If the team avoids significant injuries, that will be his answer.

Pitt appears to have solid starters at most positions and some depth at linebacker. But the backups on the offensive line are inexperienced. Give the starters enough work to keep them in sync with each other and their teammates, but don’t press your luck, coach.

4. Another set of legs

Sophomore running back A.J. Davis is also worth watching. It’s important to take some of the workload off seniors Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison to keep them fresh. If things go right, the game Nov. 24 in Miami — three months from now — will be the most important of the season.

5. Raising a ruckus in the opposing backfield

Pitt had only 23 sacks last season, which is substandard for a team seeking to win a championship. Only Georgia Tech and Syracuse had fewer in the ACC.

Look for a big season from sophomore end Rashad Weaver (6-5, 260). But for Pitt to have a truly fearsome pass rush, senior end Dewayne Hendrix on the other side needs to more than double his total number of sacks (three) from last season.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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