After Pitt’s 14-13 loss to Stanford in the Sun Bowl, coach Pat Narduzzi was unclear about his belief in offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.
His thoughts finally came into focus Friday.
Four days after he said his confidence in Watson was “high,” Narduzzi fired Watson after two seasons at Pitt. Also let go was wide receivers coach. Kevin Sherman, who had been at Pitt for the past four seasons.
The firing of Watson, who was also quarterbacks coach and play caller, shouldn’t be a surprise. Narduzzi also said after the Sun Bowl, “We have to call a better game.”
Narduzzi will enter next season — his fifth at Pitt — with his fourth offensive coordinator. Watson replaced Matt Canada, who left for LSU after one season. Canada was hired when Jim Chaney left for Georgia after less than a year on the job.
After Sherman’s departure, only three assistants remain from the staff Narduzzi hired when he was named Pitt’s coach in 2014 — running backs and special teams coach Andre Powell, tight ends coach Tim Salem and linebackers coach Rob Harley.
Watson and Sherman led units that struggled for most of the season. Watson worked directly with sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett, who did not develop this season as Narduzzi had hoped.
Pickett finished 10th in the ACC in yards per game (140.6) and passing efficiency (120.3). He was 94th and 90th in the nation in those categories while throwing only 12 touchdown passes in 14 games.
What’s worse, Pitt’s passing game failed to provide balance to an offense that could have been exceptional. For the first time in school history, Pitt had two 1,000-yard running backs — Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall — in the same season.
But Pitt couldn’t take advantage of opposing defenses’ need to cover the run game. The Panthers averaged only 141.8 passing yards per game, 120th of 129 FBS teams and 13th in the 14-team ACC.
Overall, Pitt was 97th in the nation and 11th in the conference in total offense (369.7). The Panthers’ top pass catchers, Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Maurice Ffrench, caught only 37 and 35 passes, respectively.
After clinching the ACC Coastal championship in the 11th game of the season at Wake Forest, Pitt scored a total of 26 points in the final three games — losses to Miami, Clemson and Stanford to finish with a 7-7 record. It was the second consecutive nonwinning season under Narduzzi’s watch.
“I want to thank Shawn and Kevin for their efforts and dedication to our program,” Narduzzi said in a statement. “Certainly we wish them and their families the very best in their future endeavors.”
Watson joined the Pitt staff after the 2016 season, replacing Canada, whose offense set a school record for points per game (42.3). Canada also tutored quarterback Nathan Peterman, who led the ACC in passing efficiency (161.2) in 2016. Under Canada, Pitt was the only Power 5 school to score at least 28 points in every regular-season game.
Canada subsequently left LSU after one year and was interim coach at Maryland this season.
If Narduzzi wants to re-hire Canada, he may have competition. Canada and another out-of-work offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, recently interviewed for the vacancy at Tennessee. Sarkisian, a former USC and Washington head coach, has been offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons for the past two seasons.
Tee Martin, another coach with college play-calling experience, also is looking for work. USC fired Martin as its offensive coordinator after taking away his play-calling duties in October. Martin worked with former Pitt quarterback Max Browne at USC.
Martin, a former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, is regarded as a good recruiter who brought 21 top-100 players to USC, including Tennessee Titans cornerback Adoree Jackson and Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. He had been at USC since 2012, the last three as offensive coordinator.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.