Pat Narduzzi offers honest appraisal of Pitt’s passing game
Pat Narduzzi looked at his watch to mark the moment. Apparently, he had something important to say before he blew the whistle Wednesday for the fifth day of Pitt’s training camp.
The question posed to Pitt’s coach during his daily media briefing concerned the wide receiver group, perhaps the one area of the team that needs the most improvement from a year ago.
“I sat here last year, a year ago, so I’m going to say, they stink,” Narduzzi said. “At 9:56 (a.m.) on Aug. 7, my oldest daughter’s birthday today, that they stink.”
Harsh? Perhaps, but in his next breath, he added a compliment of sorts.
“We had really good receivers last year. We have really good receivers this year,” he said. “I’m impressed with them. Now we have to get them the ball.
“They’re competing. We’ve got guys that can play, and we’ll see where they are.
“Right now, they aren’t where they need to be. How about that? But last year they were. That didn’t help.”
The point Narduzzi is making is the passing game must improve if the Panthers have any chance of successfully defending their ACC Coastal championship.
Pitt fans know the numbers all too well: A total of 275 yards passing during the three-game, season-ending losing streak, including the almost unbelievable sum of 8 against eventual national champion Clemson.
The slump cost former offensive coordinator Shawn Watson his job and opened the door for Mark Whipple, whose reputation for play-calling and developing passing games straddles pro and college football.
The names at the top of the passing game depth chart haven’t changed much. Kenny Pickett remains the unquestioned starter at quarterback, with two of the three leading receivers from last year — Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack — returning.
“We definitely do (have something to prove),” said Mack, who averaged 22.3 yards per catch last season (second in the nation, but on only 25 receptions). “As a group, we felt we weren’t able to showcase our talents to the full extent because we did rely on the running game. Now, (we are) having a bigger role and ready to step into the limelight and get everything going.
“Dontavius (Butler-Jenkins), Tre Tipton. I can’t wait to see what A-1 (6-foot-4, 220-pound Aaron Mathews) does out there. He’s strong, physical. (Opponents) will be surprised.”
Personally, Mack said, he wants to be a better teammate. A year ago, he missed two weeks of training camp after transferring from Indiana and getting a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately.
“I was the side guy, off to the side,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to play. I had little bumps and bruises (injuries limited him to seven starts). This year, I‘m going to be more a part of the team. That’s big for me because I love these guys. I sit here and work hard for these guys. I can fight for them.
“There are a whole lot of things I can improve on.”
Tipton, a senior from Apollo-Ridge, has been hampered by injuries throughout his Pitt career, but he said he is ready to reverse his fortunes.
“Ever since (Tyler Boyd) left (after the 2015 season), people keep asking us what we’ve got,” Tipton said. “We’ve been practicing hard. We believe anything that comes our way, we’ll be ready for it.”
Of course, so many other pieces must develop for the passing game to thrive. There must be a running game to balance the offense, but there is little experience among the backs. Ditto the offensive line that lost four starters. And there is no tight end threat at the moment.
Tipton said he is getting support in the locker room, which might be the most impactful motivator of all.
“The guys have been pushing me to be better,” he said. “I’ve been working for it. I’ve been praying for it.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .