PITTSBURGH — As Pitt’s training camp winds down, many of the team’s position battles have been settled, with head coach Pat Narduzzi announcing on Tuesday starters at quarterback, defensive end, offensive line, among others.
One of the battles that has raged on into the final week of training camp has been at the cornerback position, where the Panthers have a log jam of talent that hasn’t been able to separate itself.
“We’ve got four, five, six good corners right now,” Narduzzi said. “They’re still battling. It’s probably going to be the guy that’s most consistent.”
The inside track on one spot will probably go to returning starter Dane Jackson, now a redshirt junior. His two interceptions and nine pass break-ups in 2017 pace all of Pitt’s returning defensive players.
After that, there’s redshirt senior Phillipie Motley, who has four starts over the last two seasons and was having a fantastic training camp in 2017 before an injury delayed the start of his season.
Both Damarri Mathis and Jason Pinnock saw extensive playing time as true freshmen last year, and Paris Ford is expected to contribute all over the field in his first action after redshirting in 2017.
While Narduzzi declined to name a starter or a group of starters on Tuesday, he did highlight the player he thinks has had the most impact thus far, and that name may come as a surprise.
“I have to say right now, if I had to name a corner, it’s Phillipie Motley,” Narduzzi revealed. “He’s playing his tails off. We’re talking about, to win a championship, your seniors got to play the best football they ever have. No. 32 is doing that right now. He’s playing his tails off, making plays. I’m excited for him and for the rest of that group.”
That’s not to say that the rest of the group has done poorly. If anything, their play is what has prevented Narduzzi from making a decision.
“They’re pegging away,” he said. “Paris Ford has done a great job. Damar Mathis. Pinnock. Good players there. It’s like, god, you only get to play two.”
From Motley’s perspective, it’s been a long journey to get back to place where he can again draw accolades. He followed up a strong spring practice in 2017 with an equally solid training camp and was probably in line to beat out Jackson for the starting spot opposite Avonte Maddox before he was injured.
When he eventually returned from injury, he was far from 100 percent and didn’t end up having the kind of season he felt he was capable of.
“I felt like I was having a good camp up to that point,” Motley said. “It was a long road back. It wasn’t easy. Obviously, when I came back, I wasn’t all myself. Just getting back into playing football again really felt good.”
Now back into the groove, Motley appreciated his coach’s praise, but isn’t super concerned with his standing on the depth chart.
“We know it’s not going to be just one or two of us out there,” he said. “We’re just pushing each other to get better. … We’re definitely trying to put the weight of how the defense goes on us.”
With nine of the 11 starters on the defense returning from a year ago, the vacant corner spot is one of two areas (along with strong safety) that the Panthers have to fill. If Motley and the rest of that gang can perform up to — or even above — the level of Maddox, who has been working as the Philadelphia Eagles’ nickel cornerback this preseason, it would go a long way toward Pitt’s defense finally reaching its full potential under Narduzzi.