Pat Narduzzi challenges Pitt players to step up against Penn State
Pat Narduzzi appeared to be in a good mood Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours before Pitt kicks off against Penn State on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
An interesting look for the Pitt coach, considering Penn State might be the toughest opponent on his schedule this season.
“I’m kind of excited,” he said. “We’ve had three really, really good days (of practice), probably the three best days we had this year so far. That shows you the kids are growing up a little bit.”
Narduzzi is eager to see how his players handle a large burden of responsibility while playing in front of 110,000.
Everyone has a tough job — from quarterback Kenny Pickett to punter/holder Kirk Christodoulou. But five players of interest are freshman running back Vincent Davis, tight ends Will Gragg and Nakia Griffin-Stewart and linebackers Elias Reynolds and Chase Pine (depending on who gets the most snaps in the middle).
In the space of only a few months, Davis has earned the trust of Narduzzi and running backs coach Andre Powell, two men who aren’t easily swayed by mere talent.
“You’re going to start to see the two Davis guys go first (in the running back rotation),” Narduzzi said of Vincent and A.J., a junior. “But we’re going to find out who’s making plays.
“If (Todd) Sibley comes in and starts to run it like crazy, we’ll go with him. V’Lique (Carter)? Who knows? We’re going to play the hot hand. Sometimes, one guy has his mind a little bit cleaner than the other guy.”
Vincent Davis didn’t play against Virginia in an important conference game until the final two meaningless snaps. But he gained 50 yards on 12 carries a week later in a nonconference game against Ohio.
How will he react in a packed stadium? Will Narduzzi and Powell trust him as a pass blocker?
“There’s pressure every game. I don’t worry about Vince,” Narduzzi said. “He’s made plays in games. Once the first play is over with, it’s just like playing anywhere else.”
Meanwhile, if Pickett has time to consider options, the tight ends could become important components. So far, Gragg and Griffin-Stewart have totaled 10 receptions, which is the precise number gathered by three tight ends through 14 games last season.
Yet, Narduzzi isn’t easily satisfied.
“You caught the ball. You fell down,” he said. “How about people bouncing off a tight end? That’s what it’s supposed to be when you watch those great tight ends. So, if you want to be a great one, you have to make something happen with your feet. All of a sudden, they start to get some YAC (yards after catch).
“It starts with (offensive coordinator Mark) Whipple. But when your opportunities come up, you have to make plays. They dropped a couple, but they made catches last week. That was a nice surprise.”
Later in his chat with reporters, Narduzzi seemed to enjoy keeping the identity of his starting middle linebacker a secret: Reynolds or Pine. Reynolds started the opener, but Pine got the call last week. Both played extensively against Ohio.
“They (Penn State coaches) don’t know, and you don’t know,” Narduzzi said, laughing.
He said Pine, who also is a backup at money (outside) linebacker, graded out well in the Ohio game, with one disclaimer.
“Wish it was better,” the coach said. “He was OK. If he’s going to start Saturday, you have to play better. (We) challenged him.”
Pine used to be the backup at outside linebacker, but Kylan Johnson is playing so well Pine can move to the middle.
“We’re trying to get our three best backers on the field,” Narduzzi said.
While Narduzzi is challenging his players to step up against Penn State, the Nittany Lions have some players who might be on the spot, too.
Running back Ricky Slade is replacing Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders, former Penn State backs who were first- and second-round NFL Draft choices.
Meanwhile, quarterback Sean Clifford has stepped into the role of Trace McSorley in victories against Pitt the past two seasons.
“The Slade kid is a good football player,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll find out how he plays in a big game just like we’ll find out how Vince (Davis) plays.
“Same thing with Sean Clifford. We’ll find out.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .