One day while Pat Narduzzi was in his office preparing for the start of training camp, his phone buzzed.
It was Pitt senior defensive tackle Amir Watts. He needed help.
“He’s Facetiming me, and he’s only 40 yards away,” Pitt’s coach said Friday.
Narduzzi gets dozens of calls every day from his players, but this one was from a senior who has earned respect from teammates and coaches.
Narduzzi immediately rushed into the defensive staff room.
The call sounded urgent, and, in Watts’ mind, it was because he wants to make his senior season special. He also wants Narduzzi to know what is on the seniors’ minds.
“I go in,” Narduzzi said, “and they’re talking about ideas and things they want to be (this season). That really hasn’t happened in (Narduzzi’s) five years. These kids are taking ownership of who they are.”
Narduzzi kicked off his fifth year as Pitt’s coach Friday, the first day of practice in preparation for the Aug. 31 opener against Virginia. Watts’ senior class numbers 15 players, nine of whom have known no other coach, and they want to make their mark.
Later on Friday, Watts reluctantly revealed why he needed to speak to his coach that day.
“We’re putting together a way to give the defense more juice,” Watts said. “I don’t want to say. But for turnovers, forced fumbles, interceptions, any of that third down, money down (splash plays), we got a little surprise for the fans. A way to get the defense riled up after the turnover when we come back to the sideline.”
Watts said he wants to keep the details secret. Yet, when he was asked if it’s similar to Miami’s turnover chain, he said yes, adding, “But it’s better. It gives us a little incentive to want it more.”
Pitt forced 18 turnovers last season, and 15 were created by players returning this season.
Pitt’s senior class has seen good times and bad. There are 19 players remaining from the 2015 and ‘16 recruiting classes — Narduzzi’s first two — and many were freshmen when the Panthers upset eventual national champion Clemson in ‘16. They also were around for 5-7 in ‘17 and the ACC Coastal championship last season.
“It’s the first class that witnessed the turnaround of this program,” Watts said. “We always had an edge to this class because a lot of us played younger.”
At that time, they talked about what they planned to do as seniors.
“It’s really happening,” Watts said, almost amazed the years have gone by so quickly.
Throughout his career, Narduzzi always has asked his players to take ownership of the team, forge an identity.
“Every year, I want the offense, defense and special teams to have a blueprint of what they want to be,” he said. “When I was a defensive coordinator, we would tell the defense, ‘You have to do this, and you have to do this, and you have to do this.’ And sometimes it was in one ear and out the other.”
This year’s seniors are different, Narduzzi said.
“It’s good to see the enthusiasm. In the past, it was, ‘You guys have to get that blueprint done. Have you done it yet? What are you waiting for?’ But these guys have been on top of it. They know what they were lacking a year ago, offensively and defensively.”
Senior wide receiver Tre Tipton said he is more focused because he realizes “this could be my last year of playing football.”
The togetherness good teams need is there, too, senior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench said.
“We even do homework together. It’s that type of love and friendship we all have,” he said. “We always take care of one another.”
Rob Harley is one of six key staff members who have been at Pitt with Narduzzi for all five years, earning that distinction with strength coach Dave Andrews, running backs/special teams coach Andre Powell, tight ends coach Tim Salem, assistant athletic director Chris LaSala and director of player development Bob Junko.
“They are so ingrained in coach Narduzzi’s culture, what the standard is, there’s no confusion,” Harley said of the players. “When people truly know what we want as a culture, only good things can come from that.
“We’re at kind of a unique time we’ve never been in (at Pitt) right now. That speaks to the experience. There are no surprises. It’s their time to show what they have.”