PITTSBURGH — Coming off what could be considered the most prolific offensive season in the history of the program, Pitt will replace two key parts of the offense going into 2017.
Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and quarterback Max Browne each put in their first full day of work at Pitt’s South Side practice facility in Thursday. At least, on the practice field. The two have gotten to know the program and one another by spending the weeks since Browne has been on campus relentlessly preparing for these days, as the coach and quarterback together install a new offense for the Panthers.
“We spend so much time together just by the nature of the position and the need the position has,” Watson said in his press availability following the team’s first practice. “What you are trying to do as a quarterbacks coach is trying to develop another assistant coach on the field. That position makes, in this game, so many critical decisions for the entire team. We spend a lot of time together and I love them already because they want to be around football, so when they have free time, they spend it with me, which has been pretty cool. It’s been awesome, we have gotten to know each other really well and I really like that room.”
While head coach Pat Narduzzi said on Wednesday that there will be an open competition at the quarterback spot, it’s clear that Browne has a big lead on Thomas MacVittie, Ben DiNucci and Kenny Pickett at this point. With the duties of installing an offense taking up the bulk of the offense’s time on the field, it’s hard to imagine that order being upset early in the spring.
“I think what I’ve grown most appreciative about [Browne] is how humble he is,” Watson said. “He came in here and just really cared. He is very respectful of the team, very respectful of the job Nathan [Peterman] did a year ago, very respectful of everybody in the room. He wants to earn his way. That’s what’s really cool about him. He obviously is a very talented player. I remember him coming out of high school as a very, very talented kid. He is so humble and I think that everybody gravitates to him because of that. We are going to keep building and advancing and every day we are going to press him with more install and see what he’s got.”
While Watson works on building a rapport with Browne, the latter is doing the same with his returning group of receivers, who he had the opportunity to make contested, live-action throws to for the first time on Thursday.
“Today was my first time seeing these guys in live action,” Browne said. “We definitely have weapons, and my job at the quarterback position is to distribute. … I knew all the names, but I never saw anything other than highlights. Aaron [Mathews] and Tre [Tipton] had a great day today. That corps is as solid as it gets. I’m coming from a place with a lot of weapons, and they are right up there. It’s fun to see guys that are big and physical. The ability to win one-on-one battles is crucial, and they definitely showed that ability today.”
With so much going on for Browne to adjust to — a new city, new team, new school, new coaches, new receivers and a new offense — I asked him if it was fair that his own personal improvement might take a bit of a back seat, especially in the early going.
“I think that’s a great point,” he said. “So much is the external factors, getting used to teammates, a new system, even just breaking a huddle, all the little things, that you forget sometimes to work on a specific part quarterback element. Those external factors, hopefully those will slow down as each practice gets under my belt and then I can really hone in on my individual craft towards the end of spring ball.”
Whoever the quarterback will be, he’ll have a new-look offensive line with Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson moving on to the NFL. The biggest change will apparently come at center, which returning starter Alex Officer will vacate in favor of a left guard spot. The team had five players working out at center on Thursday — one for each of the quarterbacks participating.
For now, it seems that Conor Dintino will be the new starter in the middle of the line, with Alex Bookser at the other guard spot, although those two could switch and Officer could potentially still be in the mix if Plan A doesn’t work out.
Behind Dintino, there isn’t a ton of depth with the number of scholarship players that left with years still on the table this offseason. That’s given an opportunity this spring for some walk-ons to get noticed, and Kyle Benbrook, Alex Galiyas and Jimmy Morrissey were involved in the center drills. I’ve heard that Morrissey is a coaching staff favorite, even going back to last season, when he traveled with the team on a couple of occasions.
At tackle, Brian O’Neill lined up on the left and Jaryd Jones-Smith manned the right with Tony Pilato, Bryce Hargrove and Jerry Drake serving as backups.
Defensive end Zack Gilbert was at practice Thursday, and though he did not participate and will not participate throughout the spring, he is still on the team and there remains hope that he can resume his career at some point in the future.