Narduzzi, Panthers want more success in 2016

Pat N

It’s so important to find the right pieces when it comes to building anything. Granted, there are pieces that look good but are the pieces the right fit is the question?

Such is the story of the Pitt Panthers football team who have spent almost 6 years trying to find a Head Coach who would be the right fit for their football team. I honestly felt like they had the right fit with Dave Wannstedt, who still has the longest tenure of a Pitt Coach in the last 10 years. Wannstedt (2005-2010) coached the Panthers for 6 seasons with a record 42-31, including a 9-win season, a 10-win season and a share of the Big East Conference. Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough for Panthers AD Steve Pederson as he relieved Wannstedt of his duties.

Enter Mike Haywood, who instantly made news as the first African-American Head Coach in the school’s history as he was hired as Wannstedt’s successor in December of 2010. But unfortunately he did not have a chance to show what he could do with the football team as he was terminated Dec 31st of that year due to off-the-field issues.

So then the Panthers then hired Todd Graham, who was known for building an excellent offense-no matter how weird and hyped up (High Octane) that it was. In 2011, he led Pitt to a 6-6 season, good enough to get them to a Bowl game. But alas, he didn’t coach it, because he was on his way to Arizona State after just one season.

So in 2012, the Panthers hired former Wisconsin assistant Paul Chryst, who was their last Head Coach of the Big East Football Era and their first as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Chryst did what he could with the talent that he had, and in 3 seasons was only able to lead Pitt to a 19-19 record and 3 Bowl appearances. (although he did have All-American DT Aaron Donald) It didn’t take Eisenstein to figure out that it was only a matter of time before his Alma matter called him for a Head Coaching position, and on Dec 7th, 2014, Chryst left Pitt to become the coach of Wisconsin.

So on December 23 2014, the Panthers then found former Michigan St. Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi, a native of Youngstown, Pa to become the Panthers 4th Head Coach in the last 6 years and in one season, he led the Panthers to their first Top 25 ranking and best record (8-5) since 2010, and their first legitimate bowl appearance (Armed Forces Bowl) since 2009. It was also their finest performance in the ACC (6-2, 2nd place in the Coastal Division) since they joined the conference in 2013. And remember, he did this without the services of All-American RB James Conner, who missed the rest of 2015 due to injury and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

So the question is, how did Narduzzi do what Chryst and Graham could not??

Here’s my take: Being that he was a pretty good defensive coach for a pretty good Michigan State team, you can pretty much bet that Narduzzi wasn’t hired for his looks-or the fact that he was from Youngstown. The man won several Assistant of the Year awards, including the Broyles Award-given to the nation’s best assistant coach. The Panthers desperately needed help with their defense, and they hired Narduzzi to fix it-and he worked wonders.

Narduzzi produced a defensive stud in All-American Freshman S Jordan Whitehead who was named the ACC’s Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year by the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association (ACSMA) He was also an offensive weapon as he scored 2 touchdowns.

Narduzzi also got the best out of Senior DE Ejuan Price, who produced a career-high 11.5 sacks (including 5 vs. Louisville, one off the national record) and also got 5 sacks apiece from LBs Matt Galambos & Mike Caprara.

On offense, Narduzzi didn’t fix much-because it wasn’t broken. But he did make a few adjustments: After Conner was injured in the first game of the season, he sent RB Quadree Ollison into the game-and he ran for 207 yards and a TD-the most rushing yards in a season opener by a freshman in school history and the fifth most by a Pitt freshman overall. Ollison finished the season rushing for 1,121 yards and 11 TDs and won the ACC’s offensive Rookie of the Year. Narduzzi also was very bold at the QB position as he replaced starter Chad Voytik with Nate Peterman and the Redshirt Senior didn’t disappoint as he passed for 2,287 yards and 20 TDs.

Narduzzi’s popularity has also soared to the national level as he spent this past Monday at ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Conn., for the annual ACC Coaches “Car Wash” and made appearances on various ESPN platforms throughout the day.

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So far, Narduzzi looks like the perfect fit for Pitt. Now what can he do for an encore?

In 2016, Pitt needs to make a stronger statement in the ACC, which means contending for the Coastal Division title-and a shot at the ACC Championship. At the ACC Media Day, the Panthers were projected to finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division this season. Defending Costal Division Champ North Carolina was picked to repeat and Miami was picked to finish second. There are other media outlets that project the Panthers to finish no lower than 4th place in the division.

One thing the Panthers have in their favor is this: They beat last year’s 6th place projection by finishing 2nd in the Coastal Division, so that can serve as motivation to beat those 3rd place projections this season. But as I’ve said about the Pittsburgh Pirates this season, the Panthers have work to do and here are what I think are Pitt’s benefits and their concerns entering the 2016 season.

Benefits-Narduzzi is bringing back returns 52 lettermen and 18 starters from last season’s team which basically means that the team is basically unchanged. On offense, Peterman returns at QB, although Ollison is there at RB, the Panthers will get a huge boost with the return of Conner. The Senior RB is fully healed and is labeled cancer-free. He and Ollison can produce a pretty dangerous 1-2 RB combo. Redshirt senior Adam Bisnowaty and senior Dorian Johnson leads a veteran offensive line that has successfully paved the way for Conner, Ollison and others. At TE, Sr Scott Orndorf was an impression with 5 TDs in 2015 and with the departure of JP Holtz, he has a chance to be The Man.

On defense, the entire unit is just about back as All-American Whitehead leads the way at safety. Jr Avante Maddox (3 Interception in 2015) also made an impression at CB, and Price will lead an aggressive pass rush that hopes to terrorize QB even more in 2016. P Ryan Winslow and K Chris Blewitt hope to keep it going after successful 2015 campaigns as well.

In addition to several players on Watch Award Lists, Pitt football seniors Price and OL Dorian Johnson were named to the 2016 All-ACC Preseason Football Team.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that they also added new uniforms with the Pitt ‘Script’ logo. That’ll add to the hype-and the expectations.

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Concerns-To be honest, there’s only one that stands out for the Panthers, and that’s at the wide receiver position. All-American WR Tyler Boyd left after his junior season for the NFL Draft and was a 2nd Round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals. He finished his career at Pitt with 248 receptions, 3,308 yards          and 21 TDs. He was basically Pitt’s best WR not named Larry Fitzgerald. In 2015, Boyd caught 91 passes for 926 yards and 6 TDs. It’s an understatement that he will be missed. We wish Tyler the best, but who’s the Next Man Up at WR?

Junior Dontez Ford is the leading candidate as he truly stepped it up in 2015, catching 26 receptions for 505 yards and two touchdowns, good for 19.4 yards per catch. He started 9 games and was known for being the deep threat and #2 man behind Boyd. Can he make it as a #1 man? He’ll get every opportunity. After him? Well, that’s where it gets really concerning. Junior Zach Challingsworth (171 yards, TD in 2015) was the #3 man at WR. He had career highs with three catches for 57 yards and a 13-yard touchdown in Pitt’s 31-13 win at Duke. They also added another Clairton WR in freshman Aaron Mathews who stands 6-4, 195. He’ll also have every opportunity to make an impression during camp.

As I take a look at Pitt’s schedule, it is certainly one of their toughest that they’ve had in years. They open with home games vs. Villanova and Penn State-which is huge because it renews a rivalry that ended in 2000, after a non-conference game vs. Big 12 foe Oklahoma State, they open ACC Conference play at North Carolina, then after a non-conference game vs. Marshall, they host Virginia Tech, then travel to Clemson for only the 2nd time in school history and they finish at home vs. Duke and rival Syracuse.

With that being said, I feel that if Pitt can stay healthy and if Narduzzi can once again get the best out of their great offense and their improving defense, and if they don’t blow any games…. I predict that the Panthers will finish 2nd in the Coastal Division for the second straight season, with a 9-4 record. Which means that expectations will be even higher for 2017. But relax, we haven’t gotten that far yet.

Narduzzi left a mark in 2015, now it’s time to make a deeper one in 2016, which I think he will, which will prove that he’s the perfect fit.

Please e-mail Ray at ray@urbanmediatoday.com

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