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PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s 2016 season will be remembered by a pair of signature wins — beating Penn State at home in the resumption of a storied rivalry and a victory over eventual National Champions Clemson at Death Valley.
That’s enough to call almost any college football season a success, and the program and its fans should obviously take pride in those accomplishments.
But Pitt’s stated goal coming into 2016 was to win an ACC Championship, and the first step of that is to win the Coastal Division. In that regard, Pitt’s pair of signature wins didn’t help them at all. Penn State is a non-conference opponent. Clemson plays in the Atlantic Division.
In the Coastal Division, Pitt finished 5-3 — just one game behind Virginia Tech. Just one win could have made the difference between a feel-good season and an out-and-out success.
As Pitt’s focus turns to 2017, when looking for that one more win, the single most glaring area to upgrade has to be cornerback. Pitt’s pass defense finished next-to-last in all of the FBS with 333.2 yards allowed per game. That’s 127th in the country and it includes a game against option-heavy Georgia Tech, the only thing saving the Panthers from the ultimate in mediocrity.
“We know that last year was not a good year for us,” Philippe Motley said this spring. “We were in position a lot, but we didn’t finish. We put a heavy emphasis on not just being in position, but finishing and making plays.”
In their quest for improvement, the Panthers won’t be making wholesale changes. Defensive coordinator Josh Conklin and defensive backs coach Renaldo Hill both return, as will starting cornerback Avonte Maddox and safety Jordan Whitehead.
At the other corner spot, there’s a competition, but it’s of mostly familiar faces. Because of Maddox’s elbow injury in 2016, Dane Jackson and Motley got plenty of playing time, and thanks to Damar Hamlin’s continued injury issues, those two seem to be poised to battle for a starting job this fall.
When the players drafted the Blue and Gold teams for last Saturday’s spring game, Maddox, Motley and starting receivers Quadree Henderson and Jester Weah were all on the Gold side. In order to set up a fair game and get an important evaluation, head coach Pat Narduzzi traded Motley to Blue.
“I just looked at the strengths and weaknesses and made the trade,” he said.
Narduzzi went on to add that some areas, like the offensive line and the linebacking corps suffers from the split-squad nature of the game. Players that haven’t lined up next to each other all spring are made to communicate and share assignments. But on the outside, the conditions of the spring game pretty closely resemble what happens in a regular-season contest.
“It’s a game-like situation,” Jackson said. “Obviously, they’re our teammates. But at the end of the day, it’s all about competition. We go out there, fly around and try to make some plays.”
Gold ended up soundly defeating Blue, 23-14, but if there was a silver lining for the Blue squad, it was the way Jackson and Motley handled Weah by holding him to one catch. Weah is 6-foot-5 with world-class speed and amongst Pitt’s wide receivers is the toughest matchup for opposing corners.
“We have what I think is one of the top receivers in the country with the way he’s practiced this spring,” Narduzzi said. “His hands are stronger, he’s running fast, he’s making plays. He’s doing it all. I think every corner would like to matchup against him every snap just to see where they are.”
“It’s always fun to go against Jester because you know he’s a great receiver,” Motley added. “He’s very big and he’s very fast and strong. You know when you’re going against him, you have to have your best game on. I think that definitely helps us because there’s not too many people that are his size with his build and his strength and if you’re competing against him every day, it’s just going to make you — and him — even better.”
The trend of defensive backs trying to challenge themselves against the team’s top receiver is certainly something that Weah’s become aware of this spring.
“Every time whenever we go on one-on-ones, I always see whoever trying to point me out and go against me,” Weah said. “They made a big jump from last season. They’re all mentally sound, trying to stop us receivers from making plays.”
So the coaching staff got the matchup they wanted to see in the Blue/Gold game. But did it look a successful as the stats indicate? Blue coach Rob Harley thinks so.
“I think they were executing with their technique, to be honest with you,” he said. “They were getting hands on, keeping their eyes where they’re supposed to be. They’re contesting routes, contesting throws. They’re not letting guys get inside on them and they’re taking away guys’ strengths.”
Harley said he didn’t match up a single corner against Weah, letting each play their side and both feel that they performed well.
“I would say pretty solid,” Jackson said. “We made some plays good out there. … Every single day I’m just trying to get even more better, find that comfort zone out there, execute the defense and find even more knowledge.”
“I think that I’ve improved a lot,” Motley added. “There’s still a long way to go. There’s still all summer and all of camp. But I feel that I’ve put in the work and I’ve shown what I can do. I just have to stay consistent with it. I just have to keep moving forward.”
From the other side of the field, Maddox said he saw more of the same improvement he’s been seeing all spring out of the two younger corners.
“They’re coming to me and they ask questions,” he said. “It’s one thing for me to come to them, but when they’re coming to you, that’s a good thing. Every day, I’m telling them something new, teaching them something new. All the knowledge I have, I want to give it to them. Ain’t no point in leaving it with me.”
With spring practice closing, the team now will have the summer to work out individually before camp starts in August. The progress that was made in the spring has the defensive backs feeling a lot better about themselves that the sour taste 2016 left in their mouths. But there is no time for complacency.
“You never have a spot solidified,” Motley said. “You’re still going to have to go out every day and do your work and keep growing. You can’t have days where it drops off. You have to stay on a steady climb.”