Just days away from opening fall practice, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi issued disciplinary action for four Panthers Friday, as announced by the school’s athletic website.
Junior safety Jordan Whitehead and senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis have been suspended for the first three games of the season, including marquee nonconference matchups against Penn State and Oklahoma State.
Starting right guard Alex Bookser was suspended for the season opener against Youngstown State, stemming from a DUI arrest in May, and senior defensive end Rori Blair has been dismissed from the team for “conduct detrimental to the program.”
This continues a recent rash of disciplinary problems for the Panthers since the start of the year, and most notably, on the defensive side of the football. Projected starting defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni was dismissed from the program in the spring for unspecified reasons.
Whitehead’s suspension is the most significant. A second-team All-ACC selection last year, he is arguably the team’s best returning tackler and has appeared on several preseason watch lists. His early season absence creates more problems for defensive coordinator Josh Conklin and a unit that surrendered 35 points a game in 2016.
Conklin is already tasked with replacing three defensive backs from last year’s team, and senior corner Avonte Maddox is the most experienced returner in the secondary with Whitehead out to start the season.
Junior safety Dennis Briggs and junior corner Phillipie Motley played in reserve roles last year but combined for only 27 tackles. Both were listed atop Narduzzi’s pre-training camp depth chart.
Pitt ranked nearly dead last in the country in passing yards allowed (333.2) a year ago, and the Panthers gave up 24 plays of 40 yards or more, seventh-most in the country.
Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Penn State’s Trace McSorley will look to exploit the young secondary in weeks two and three. The duo ranked among the nation’s top passing leaders in 2016, and both are generating Heisman-like buzz entering the season.
Only Colorado’s Sefo Liufau (131.4) had a higher passer rating on deep balls thrown than Rudolph (125.7) according to Pro Football Focus, and McSorley had 23 passing plays of 40-plus yards.
Wirginis was expected to compete with emerging sophomore Saleem Brightwell at the middle linebacker position, and his absence means freshman Chase Pine will see more reps in training camp.
For Blair, his repeated incidents off the field were his undoing. He did not travel with the team to last year’s Pinstripe Bowl and was previously suspended in 2015 following a DUI arrest. He was clocked going 117 miles per hour on the parkway while driving under the influence of marijuana.
The defensive line must replace NFL draftees Ejuan Price and Shakir Soto—17.5 combined sacks in 2016—and Blair was among the team’s top returners on the edge having registered 10 sacks in his career.
Overall defensively, seven of the nine players to record at least 4.5 tackles for a loss are gone from the 2016 squad.
Narduzzi is committed to building a program of accountability, and Friday’s disciplinary actions reinforce that pledge. In the meantime, he and the rest of the staff will be responsible for quickly coaching up a green defense.
The Panthers will have to avoid giving up big plays in 2017 if they expect to take another step forward, and the job just got a whole lot tougher.