In the final days of Pitt’s nearly summer-long prep for Virginia, Kenny Pickett made an interesting observation about his first-year quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.
“When you see the confidence (Mark Whipple) has and the swag he walks around with, it affects everybody,” Pitt’s junior quarterback said. “If you can catch as many guys as you can with it, it can go a long way. You can turn a player completely around and you see him do some great things.”
Yes, players can have swag and many of them do, including many of those who inhabit the Pitt locker room.
Some coaches, too, but Whipple, the 62-year-old, white-haired, Brown graduate?
Come to think of it, yes. He doesn’t stroll or saunter when he walks on and off Pitt’s practice fields. His is a quick, purposeful stride that indicates a man with things to do, places to go, people — and goals — to meet.
And no one connected to the Pitt football team, with the exception of coach Pat Narduzzi, has a more important job than Whipple. All he’s trying to do is resurrect the Pitt passing game, a key element in the defense of Pitt’s ACC Coastal championship.
The first test of Whipple’s acumen will kick off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field when Pitt opens Narduzzi’s fifth season against Coastal foe Virginia.
Pitt takes a three-game losing streak — tied for the longest in Narduzzi’s previous four seasons — into the game against Coastal favorite.
In those games, Pickett wasn’t given ample time to operate the passing game, then directed by deposed offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. Pickett was sacked 10 times and lost an average of 8 yards each time. No wonder he has completed only 29 of his past 67 attempts without a touchdown pass.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” he said, probably dreading the question, but still delivering a polite response. “I did a good job of putting it behind me and getting to work. I’m really focused on Virginia.”
Likewise, getting picked to drop from first to fourth in the Coastal doesn’t bother Pickett at all.
“It doesn’t register,” he said. “When we walk out there, we’re going to think we’re the best. That’s my motto that I’ve had since I started playing football and I want to infect the whole team with that motto.
“The whole team has that chip now. I feel like when we go out there Saturday, we’ll have some swag with us.”
That has been the theme of training camp. Right or wrong, players are confident in each others’ abilities.
Junior center and co-captain Jimmy Morrissey likewise is not bothered by some of the team’s perceived shortcomings, such as the lack of experience on the line. He reminds anyone who asks that senior right tackle Nolan Ulizio, the transfer from Michigan, has lined up in front of more than 100,000 people at the Big House and Beaver Stadium. And junior left guard Bryce Hargrove started the last three games of 2018 for Pitt.
The only first-time starters are left tackle Carter Warren and right guard Gabe Houy. And Morrissey is their shepherd.
“I told them the same thing I was told when I got my first start from (former Pitt offensive lineman) Alex Officer,” he said. “Games are always easier than practices, if you go hard in practice. If you prepared, you’re fine.”
Morrissey said the camaraderie among linemates and Pickett — they go out to dinner together at least once a week — is an important element in team bonding.
“We’re all close in age,” Morrissey said. “This room is a lot tighter than it was when I was (younger). It’s not really separated by seniors vs. juniors and sophomores. We’re all just one big group. We hang out a lot more off the field.
“It’s just making sure we’re all on the same page, being friends and comfortable with each other because if one guy messes up, we all mess up. It makes us all look bad.”
Inside the locker room or on the field, Morrissey welcomes any challenge. He is steadfast in his belief that opening the season against a difficult opponent is preferable than hosting the cupcakes Pitt has played to start previous seasons.
“I’m really happy playing UVA right off the bat,” he said. “I enjoy playing their defense (the odd-man, 3-4 front).
“They have a good team. The past two times I’ve had a lot of fun playing them. Good competition. It’s nice to start off the season with a very important game.”