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Pat Narduzzi’s Pitt is harder to figure out than usual, which is saying a lot

Pat Narduzzi

The Panthers took another step back in 2018 ... but won the ACC Coastal anyway.

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Any decent high school prospect can put together a highlight film that makes him look like a star. Any major football program can put together a year-in-review highlight film that makes it seem like they went undefeated. And any head coach can put together a pretty strong achievements list after a while.

Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi can do better than most after his four years in charge.

Here they are in 2015, beating three bowl teams to improve from six to eight wins in his first season. In 2016, beating eventual national champion Clemson in Death Valley, on Chris Blewitt’s last-second field goal. In 2016, riding comeback kid James Conner and quarterback Nathan Peterman to a No. 4 ranking in Off. S&P+. In 2017, beating No. 2 Miami in freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett’s first career start. In 2018, coming back from 11 points down to beat Duke, then riding that momentum to four straight wins and a first-ever ACC Coastal title.

Top-five wins ... division title ... that’s a hell of a coaching job right there! Narduzzi is building something ferocious in the Steel City! About that:

Per S&P+, Pitt has actually regressed in three of its four seasons under Narduzzi. The 2016 team took a decent step to 23rd overall, but the Panthers fell to 47th and 61st in the next two seasons. They were 4-7 when Miami came to town in 2017, and 2018 comes with a “Well, somebody had to win this horrid division” asterisk.

To be sure, Pitt’s good fortune has changed of late. For years, the Panthers were an “almost” program. They were oh, so close to a breakthrough in Dave Wannstedt’s final seasons, but they lost three games by a total of 11 points in 2009, then went 1-3 in one-possession games in 2010. Then, in three years under Paul Chryst, they went 5-10 in such games, 1-5 in what should have been an excellent 2014.

Under Narduzzi, the close-game gods have been a hair kinder: Pitt’s 12-13 in one-possession finishes. And they perfectly timed a month’s worth of solid play in 2018, which allowed them to scoop up the Coastal crown that no one else wanted. But outside of that month, they went 3-7 last fall.

Pitt continues to rack up achievements while watching its foundation crumble. Four years in, I can’t even give a decent answer to the question, “Is Narduzzi doing a good job?” I can’t really tell what is in store.

I also can’t really figure out what to think about Pitt in 2019, as the Panthers’ strengths and weaknesses could completely flip. In 2018, Pitt rode a dominant run game (11th in Rushing S&P+) to compensate for a bad passing game (103rd in Passing S&P+). The defense benefited from an aggressive, occasionally play-making front while giving up too many gashes in the back.

In 2019, the Panthers return Pickett for a second full season of starting and bring back just about every wide receiver, too. Their secondary is loaded with experience as well.

They also lose just about all of their best players. Running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall combined for 2,357 yards and 21 touchdowns. They’re gone, as are four starters on the offensive line, two of last year’s top three defensive linemen, and three of last year’s top four linebackers.

So the strengths get weaker, the weaknesses get stronger, and the Panthers become even blurrier than normal.

I am rather confident, however, in saying another Coastal crown is going to be difficult. Per S&P+, Miami, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and UNC are projected to improve, Tech by quite a bit. On paper, Miami and Virginia were already better than the Panthers last year, and they could take further steps forward while Pitt is projected to stand still. Granted, they both have to come to Heinz Field this fall, but the road to a repeat is going to be tricky.

 Offense

Pickett has most certainly made his moments count. He was 18-for-29 and steady enough to guide the Panthers ahead of imploding Miami in the last game of 2017, and he was brilliant in three of the four games during Pitt’s title-clinching streak last fall.

Against Duke, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest, he completed 64 percent of his passes at 16.5 yards per completion, with six touchdowns, no picks, and a passer rating of 187.4. That’s between Kyler Murray-ish and Will Grier-ish. Receivers Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench combined for 26 yards per catch and five touchdowns in these three games.

In last year’s other 11 games, he completed 57 percent of his passes at just 9.4 yards per completion, with six touchdowns, six interceptions, and a ghastly 104.6 passer rating, worse than that of Miami’s N’Kosi Perry. Mack and Ffrench: 15 yards per catch, two touchdowns.

Pickett, Mack, and Ffrench return, and that’s good. But how good are they? The upside is obvious, but there’s been no semblance of consistency.

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Pittsburgh vs Stanford Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports Kenny Pickett

In an attempt to coax a bit more out of the offense in general, Narduzzi brought in a wise old hand: former UMass head coach Mark Whipple, who replaces Shawn Watson as offensive coordinator.

Once regarded as a pro-style innovator as head coach at Brown and UMass in the 1990s, Whip served as quarterbacks coach for the Steelers and Browns, coaxing a 3,300-yard season out of Miami’s Jacory Harris in 2009 as well. In his second stint as UMass’ head man, he never got the defense or run game where he wanted it, but the Minutemen could pass.

Despite dealing with QB injuries, UMass produced 3,577 passing yards and a 153.9 passer rating (16th in FBS) last fall. Whipple might not have a lot left in the tank as a head coach, but until proven otherwise, he’s still a QB whisperer. I like this move, and considering what star WR Andy Isabella did for UMass last year, Ffrench and Mack should like it, too.

This was basically a three-man receiving corps last year, and one of the three (Rafael Araujo-Lopes) is gone, so it would really help if someone like senior Tre Tipton, sophomore Shocky Jacques-Louis, or sophomore Dontavius Butler-Jenkins stepped up.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports Taysir Mack

UMass ran the ball just 51 percent of the time on standard downs (112th in FBS) and 30 percent on passing downs (95th), each well below the national average and miles away from Pitt’s own tendencies (70 percent and 43 percent, respectively). But considering the run personnel Pitt loses, this might be the time for a drastic stylistic change.

Ollison and Hall were really good. Despite an unreliable passing game and run-heavy tendencies, they each made the most of the running lanes they found, combining for a 47 percent success rate and 26 carries of 20-plus yards.

Granted, their replacements produced similar numbers on a smaller scale — over 61 carries, A.J. Davis, V’Lique Carter, and Mychale Salahuddin combined for a 56 percent success rate and three carries of 20-plus yards.

Throw in four-star sophomore Todd Sibley Jr., and you’ve perhaps got more than enough talent in the backfield. But the experience level drops significantly, both at RB and on the line. Center Jimmy Morrissey has started 23 games for the Panthers; all other returnees have combined for nine starts, and five of those were at another school (Michigan transfer Nolan Ulizio was a part-timer for the Wolverines in 2017).

 Defense

Just because you fielded good defenses as a coordinator doesn’t mean that’ll carry over when you become a head coach. Plenty of former defensive coordinators have become known more for offense as head coaches (Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, for instance).

It’s still jarring, though, to see Pitt’s defensive numbers. In Narduzzi’s last four seasons as Michigan State’s coordinator, he and boss Mark Dantonio fielded defenses that ranked ninth, second, third, and 14th in Def. S&P+. In his first four seasons at Pitt, the Panthers have ranked 35th, 75th, 48th, and 53rd. That’s not horrible, but instead of growing stronger as Narduzzi’s recruits have filled the two deep, Pitt’s defense has basically stayed the same, even after Randy Bates took over as coordinator last season.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports Rashad Weaver

Attrition could mean sketchy depth in 2019. Pitt could theoretically field a starting lineup of all juniors and seniors with almost nothing but unproven freshmen and sophomores as backups. A run of injury, especially in the front seven, could lead to total collapse.

That starting 11 could still be pretty good, though. End Rashad Weaver (14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, four pass breakups) returns, and while Dewayne Hendrix is gone, junior Patrick Jones II could be ready for more responsibility. Three of last year’s top four tackles are also back, led by senior Amir Watts. The linebacking corps is pretty unproven, but the line should do the LBs some favors.

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports Dane Jackson

Last year’s secondary was all-or-nothing — 32nd in completion rate allowed, 90th in passing marginal explosiveness — which is certainly more exciting than simply being average. And in cornerback Dane Jackson (four TFLs, 14 breakups, four forced fumbles), the most all-or-nothing piece returns. So do safeties Damar Hamlin and Jazzee Stocker. If any youngster breaks into the starting lineup, though, it’ll probably be sophomore Paris Ford, a local and former blue-chipper whose career started slowly but still has plenty of time to pick up.

 Special Teams

Pitt’s been consistent, if nothing else, in special teams: the Panthers have ranked between 60th and 82nd in all of Narduzzi’s seasons. Place-kicker Alex Kessman improved by quite a bit as a sophomore and ranked 10th in field goal efficiency, but the rest of the unit lagged. Punting was a disaster with freshman Kirk Christodoulou (112th in punt efficiency), and the return game was even more all-or-nothing than the secondary — Araujo-Lopes (gone) and Ffrench (back) combined for three return scores but each ranked outside of the top 70 in punt and kick return efficiency.

If Christodoulou improves like Kessman did as a sophomore, this unit will improve, too.

2019 outlook 2019 Schedule & Projection Factors Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability 31-Aug Virginia 41 -1.6 46% 7-Sep Ohio 82 8.2 68% 14-Sep at Penn State 14 -17.1 16% 21-Sep UCF 27 -5.4 38% 28-Sep Delaware NR 25.9 93% 5-Oct at Duke 65 -1.6 46% 18-Oct at Syracuse 56 -3.3 42% 26-Oct Miami 19 -7.6 33% 2-Nov at Georgia Tech 89 4.7 61% 14-Nov North Carolina 61 3.1 57% 23-Nov at Virginia Tech 30 -9.3 30% 30-Nov Boston College 72 5.6 63% Projected S&P+ Rk 59 Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 65 / 53 Projected wins 5.9 Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.4 (36) 2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 51 2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / 7.6 2018 TO Luck/Game -2.0 Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (64%, 64%) 2018 Second-order wins (difference) 6.8 (0.2)

From the Whipple-led passing game, to the young running backs, to Weaver and Jones in the pass rush, to Jackson and company in the secondary, Pitt has about as much upside as it’s had under Narduzzi.

But having a high ceiling hasn’t been the issue in recent years — consistency has been. And at first glance, there’s no reason to assume that will be suddenly fixed.

Just a little bit of extra efficiency could go a long way, though. While Pitt is projected 6-6 and just 59th in S&P+, eight games are projected within a touchdown or less. That Miami, UCF, and Virginia come to Heinz Field puts those games within winning range, but games at Georgia Tech and Duke are extremely losable.

A Pitt that finds more consistency in the passing game and avoids too many front-seven injuries could make a run at eight or nine wins.

Of course, a Pitt that doesn’t could lose eight or nine.

 Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.


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