Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi starts over with his players in 5th spring
From the day he stood up at his first news conference, rocking back and forth with nervous energy while laying out his plan for Pitt football, Pat Narduzzi has left his imprint on the program.
Players, assistant coaches and staff members from the equipment room to the recruiting office have come and gone in the ensuing four years. Armed with the blessings of Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and athletic director Heather Lyke and a contract extension through 2024, Narduzzi has shaped the program largely to his liking.
Now, while preparing for his fifth season that gets started Wednesday with the first day of spring drills, Narduzzi is in charge of a defending champion. Pitt won the ACC Coastal Division and played in its first conference title game last year.
But it’s almost like he’s starting over.
Every player who signed letters of intent with former coach Paul Chryst exhausted their eligibility. Fifteen seniors who made significant contributions have left. Every team must reload annually, but Narduzzi is doing it with a roster totally of his choosing.
Here’s what to expect this spring:
No one expects Kenny Pickett to lose his starting job, but Pitt needs more from this position in big games than the 274 passing yards, zero touchdowns and 43.3 completion percentage he compiled against Miami, Clemson and Stanford last season.
Narduzzi fired offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and hired Mark Whipple because the passing game had stalled. Whipple comes in with no preconceived ideas and will give backups Jeff George Jr., Nick Patti and even freshman Davis Beville long looks.
But it’s still Pickett’s huddle.
There are plenty of backs eager to replace 1,000-yard runners Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. None with much experience, however.
Junior A.J. Davis, who has 42 carries and 147 yards on his two-season resume, will get the first opportunity, but Pitt needs at least two. Sophomore Todd Sibley Jr. will be in the mix while redshirt freshman Mychale Salahuddin recovers from a lower-body injury. How much freshmen Vincent Davis and Daniel Carter will factor into the mix when they arrive this summer will be determined after coaches evaluate Davis, Sibley and Salahuddin this spring.
New WR coach Chris Beatty has a big job ahead of him, but he’ll lean heavily on Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench. Both have room to grow, but both had their moments last season, gaining a total of 1,072 yards with seven touchdowns (six by Ffrench, the senior). They will be pushed by Aaron Mathews, Shocky Jacques-Louis, Tre Tipton, Dontavious Butler-Jenkins and Michael Smith.
Mathews does the dirty work — blocking downfield — that coaches appreciate. A talented athlete with a good head on his shoulders, Tipton enters the senior season of an injury-plagued career.
Replacing four starters is not ideal, but there are plenty of able, if inexperienced, bodies. The leader is junior center Jimmy Morrissey, a two-year starter coming off a foot injury that kept him out of the last three games of 2018.
Bryce Hargrove has an edge at guard after he took over for Connor Dintino, who replaced Morrissey. Brandon Ford and Chase Brown, who came from Lackawanna College last year, are other guard candidates.
Narduzzi fished the graduate transfer market again and came up with tackle Nolan Ulizio, formerly of Michigan. Gabe Houy, Jerry Drake Jr. and Carter Warren hope to give line coach Dave Borbely options. If Carson Van Lynn is not needed at tight end, he also will help.
Watson ignored the position because no one stepped forward to make an impact. Whipple might have a different philosophy, especially if Will Gragg, a transfer from Arkansas who caught only five passes for Pitt last season, makes a good first impression.
Junior Patrick Jones plays with a mean streak, and classmate Rashad Weaver led the team with 6½ sacks. There was some buzz around John Morgan last year when he was a freshman, so he’s worth keeping an eye on this spring.
The idea here is to build depth because it’s such a grueling position. Pitt has achieved that with Amir Watts, Keyshon Camp, Jaylen Twyman, Rashad Wheeler and Devin Danielson.
Seniors Seun Idowu, Quintin Wirginis and Elijah Zeise will be difficult to replace because they are tough and smart. But linebackers coach Rob Harley has kept backups Elias Reynolds, Chase Pine, Saleem Brightwell and Cam Bright busy. Reynolds started seven games after Wirginis was lost with a knee injury. Look for safety Phil Campbell to get a look at outside linebacker.
Lots of experience here, with senior Dane Jackson returning for his second full season as a starter. On the other side, junior Jason Pinnock, 6-foot, 195 pounds, has the size Narduzzi likes in his corners and he also picked off two passes.
In reserve are Damarri Mathis, who played in every game, and Marquis Williams, who made an impact as a freshman (at least on the practice field).
After senior Damar Hamlin, who led the team in tackles, coaches have choices. Paris Ford, a highly regarded recruit two years ago, has bounced between safety and corner and now has a chance to make his mark. But Jazzee Stocker, Bricen Garner and Therran Coleman have been around the program longer.
Everyone returns, and it’s a good group, too, with kicker Alex Kessman (24 career field goals), punter Kirk Christodoulou (19 punts inside the 20-yard line), junior snapper Cal Adomitois and sophomore holder Jake Scarton.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .