It’s easy to forget that Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi is still pretty new at his job.
Narduzzi is 51 — hardly young for a head coach these days — and both his personality and his demeanor suggest someone that knows what he’s doing. His seven years as a defensive coordinator at Michigan State have served him well in that regard.
His interactions with players, other coaches and the media all suggest someone that has been there and done that at this level.
But there is more to a head coach’s job than looking and acting the part. The job of a major-college head coach is akin to one of a CEO, and in that area, Narduzzi is still a relative neophyte.
That came to the forefront this week.
On Thursday, in his final media briefing before Pitt visited Syracuse, Narduzzi gave a detailed and fairly passionate reasoning for his decision not to play true freshman safety Paris Ford, one of the most highly rated recruits in his 2017 class.
“If I get to use him, I want to use him all the time,” Narduzzi said at the time. “He could be a punt returner right now. But, you want to seem him play one time a game and then he doesn’t know what he’s doing the other time? I want to get him out there. It’s not good for the kid. I’d be selfish if I did that, I think. If it was my son, you don’t want to waste a kid’s redshirt for a few plays a game.”
That contrasted to the handling of Damar Hamlin in 2016, when Hamlin, less than 100 percent healthy at the time, was allowed to play for the first time in Week 8 and ended up playing in just three games before being shut down for the year due to his injuries.
On Saturday, Narduzzi faced a similar conundrum when he replaced Ben DiNucci with Kenny Pickett at quarterback when DiNucci’s helmet was dislodged.
The first time it happened, Pitt called a timeout in order to preserve Pickett’s redshirt. That decision at the time was understandable. Pickett was designated as DiNucci’s backup. The only other quarterback on the roster, Thomas MacVittie, had a headset on and a clipboard in his hand and there was no chance of him being ready to take the field in the less than 25 seconds the Panthers had in between plays.
When Narduzzi was given another chance to make the decision, with two seconds left on the clock, he sent Pickett in anyway. Pickett completed a 13-yard pass when the Panthers needed 85 and the final gun sounded.
I don’t know what the odds of Pitt converting on an 85-yard hook-and-ladder play are, but I’m guessing they were pretty small. The Panthers could have just let the clock run out and taken the loss.
In Narduzzi’s own words, it’s not a good thing for Pickett and his career to play one snap and then head back to the bench, and Narduzzi made it clear afterwards that DiNucci will start this Saturday against NC State.
The ironic thing is that if Narduzzi had allowed Pickett to take a snap earlier in the game, he would have had another timeout to work with at the end of the game, which could have given the Panthers another 25 seconds to work with on the final drive.
Maybe Pickett will be a first-round NFL draft pick in two more years. It’s probably equally likely that he’ll flame out entirely and transfer to an FCS school. If either of those things happens, Narduzzi’s decision on Saturday won’t have made a difference. In the middle, it could end up making a huge difference.
The decision on whether a player is going to redshirt or not is an executive-level one in the college football world. In Narduzzi’s years as a defensive coordinator, he used the players he was given to work with.
As a head coach, he’s making those decisions now. It’s one of the few areas he’s encountered in this process where he looks exactly like the new head coach that he is.