Prior to becoming Pitt’s head coach, Pat Narduzzi built his reputation as one of the best defensive coordinators in college football.
During his eight year tenure at Michigan State, Narduzzi was a Broyles Award winner, which is given to the top assistant coach in college football and from 2011-14, Narduzzi’s squad was the only defense to rank in the Top 10 in total defense and rushing defense.
For the most part the Spartans were successful by riding the backs of their defensive units and there seemed to be a belief that Narduzzi would wave a magic wand and immediately have that same sort of success at Pitt.
Unfortunately, unless you’re coaching at a program like Alabama or Clemson where you’re able to pull in classes full of four- and five-star recruits, it takes time and–more importantly–it takes a few good recruiting classes. Some may view it as an excuse but the reality is that a coach like Narduzzi needed to be able to bring in his type of recruits that would fit his defensive scheme.
Now in his fourth year, Narduzzi is finally coaching a defense full of his own players and the optimism for the defense is as high as it’s been since some of Dave Wannstedt’s teams.
Pitt is returning nine starters from last year’s defense that in the last five games only allowed more than 20 points once. The secondary is trying to replace two starters but with the young talent that’s waiting in the wings, that shouldn’t be a problem.
“I think we have some quality depth back there, there’s going to be a war back there,” said Narduzzi. “Right now, Damar Hamlin is playing at a high level. Right now, if I had to pick my number one game, Damar Hamlin. You guys saw him out there for two years on the other line. Right now, he’s playing at another level and playing fast and doing the little things right.”
On paper, the strength of the 2018 Pitt team appears to be on the defensive line. With veterans like Rashad Weaver, Keyshon Camp, Dewayne Hendrix, Amir Watts, Shane Roy, Patrick Jones, Rashad Wheeler, James Folston and new blood with John Morgan, Devin Danielson, David Green, Jaylen Twyman and Deslin Alexandre, the Panthers up front are not only talented, but deep.
“I think compared to a year ago, I think you’re looking up to five maybe even six defensive tackles that are really in the mix and four defensive ends,” said defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. “John Morgan is really standing out as a freshman defensive end so that might give us a fifth. Keyshon Camp is moving like a d-end so we’re going to swing him a little bit in case something were to happen and Deslin has experience at both inside and outside.”
One player that’s drawing rave reviews so far is a relative newcomer. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman was a highly rated recruit two years ago from Washington D.C. and is showing coaches that he deserves to be in the rotation for playing time this year.
“If you’ve really looked at him, you can really tell how he’s changed his body. I forget what the numbers are but his body fat percentages went way down and his strength numbers have gone way up. He’s just able to produce more power and is able to sustain longer out there on the field. Now it’s just about putting the little things together as a technician. I’m excited to see where he can go through the course of this year,” said Partridge.
“The competition is on and that’s the fun thing. I just told the guys, we have great competition and I don’t know who’s going to start because we have up to six d-tackles that have a chance to play winning football and we’ll see who it ends up being.”
The Panther coaches aren’t the only ones excited about the potential of this year’s defense.
“It’s very exciting. There’s competition at so many positions right now from d-tackle to d-end. People are getting switched from the first group to the second group and from the second group to the first,” said defensive end Rashad Weaver. “We’re all just really working and the potential isn’t really potential anymore it’s there because people are showing it. It’s a competition 24/7 on the field and off.”
“The depth that we have right now is ridiculous,” said Oluwaseun Idowu. “Before a game, you might scout a couple of players and think of a couple of guys you might have to worry about but when you have to worry about four, five, six guys coming through the line at any moment, you have one-on-one, someone is bound to win. It’s exciting to see that we have so many guys that can make a play at any time, it’s not just one guy that teams have to focus on.”
To hear more from Partridge, Weaver and Idowu, listen to their interviews from today below.
LB Oluwaseun Idowu
DE Rashad Weaver
Assistant Head Coach Charlie Partridge