Tim Benz on Pittsburgh Sports Now is presented by Blush Gentlemen’s Club & Sports Bar.
As Pitt football camp is getting underway, how are you feeling about the Panthers today?
Let me rephrase. How are you feeling about them today as opposed to what you thought before those suspensions last week.
Yeah. I’m not as optimistic either. Two weeks ago I used this space to suggest that Pitt was probably a bit underrated in the ACC preseason media poll. And that’s probably still true. Three of the suspended players (Jordan Whitehead, Quintin Wirginis, and Alex Bookser) will be back for the fourth game of the season. That just so happens to be the ACC opener against Georgia Tech.
But if we are to believe that the Pat Narduzzi era is about progress and moving forward from the perceived high water marks of eight win seasons, that may require an upset or two against Oklahoma State and/or Penn State before the conference season starts.
That task just got a lot more difficult. Safety Jordan Whitehead, the guy with the second most solo tackles on the team (and a potential NFL pick) is suspended for the entire pre-conference season. So is Quintin Wirginis, the team’s returning leader in sacks. The second leading returning pass rusher in terms of sacks, Rory Blair, has been kicked off the squad for good. So has Jeremiah Taleni. He’s a player who Narduzzi said “was becoming a star” after the Clemson win a season ago.
And all this isn’t to mention offensive lineman Alex Bookser’s one game suspension for a DUI.
Narduzzi wouldn’t specify what caused the suspensions. But he said they were necessary. “This will be a disciplined program. We’re going to go by details. As soon as you loose your discipline you lose your credibility as a coach and as a program,” said Narduzzi.
To that end, Narduzzi tried to mollify the news of the suspensions. “It’s 3% of your football team that you are worried about. And it’s the other 97% that’s doing the good stuff out there (on the practice field).”
That’s great. But a major problem is that all five of these players were at least juniors. Doesn’t that make it particularly disappointing to Narduzzi?
“It does. It does. You would think they would make better decisions than the younger guys,” Narduzzi admitted. “You guys don’t hear about them (incidents) all. You’ve got other guys pushing the plates for what they did.”
Oh. Well that’s comforting. There are other discipline problems. We just don’t know about them yet.
So now the issue becomes, how does Pitt deal with their absences? Surviving Youngstown State without Bookser shouldn’t (in theory) be a problem. But handling two of the top 25 passing programs of a year ago without four perceived contributors on defense will be as they battle PSU and Oklahoma State.
Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb are out of eligibility. So that means some combination of Jazzee Stocker, Dennis Briggs, and Bricen Garner will have to soak up reps at safety with the suspension of Whitehead. That’s 30 total tackles, one pass break up and no interceptions between three players.
Saleem Brightwell will absorb the snap load for Wirginis. “He came out really playing well in the spring. Really athletic. He can run. Locked in. Focused. He’ll be the guy,” stated Narduzzi. He tallied two sacks, twenty-six tackles, and an interception last year. Chase Pine and Elias Reynolds are both redshirt freshman who may have to help out as well. And all that isn’t to mention the voids created along the defensive line that Blair and Taleni were supposed to fill with players such as Ejuan Price, Tyrique Jarrett, Shakir Soto moving on.
Every year in college football turnover creates many questions for any roster. Pitt already had its fair share when it came to players and the coaching staff. It didn’t need more due to off the field shenanigans. While their ACC standing may not be impacted by the lack of self control, day one of training camp and the overall outlook of the first three weeks of the regular season just took a significantly less optimistic tone.
Last year Pitt beat Penn State and another top tier program in Clemson. That could describe Oklahoma State this year. And Penn State should be just as good or better, especially at home. Equating those mountain climbs has just become a lot more daunting, let alone a hope for higher peaks as Panther fans were seeking.