The college football season has begun, which means that Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi was in a great mood at his first official press conference of the 2019 season.
For nearly thirty minutes, Narduzzi answered questions from the local media that ranged from this year’s Pitt team not getting enough respect, concerns about his offensive line, how good can both the defensive line and secondary be and the impact new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple will have on the offense.
Here are the four things that stood out to me after attending the press conference.
1. TIGHT END WILL NOT BE IGNORED IN 2019
The tight end position was basically a third offensive tackle for Pitt in 2018 but that won’t be the case this year. After being a big part of the Panthers offense in previous seasons, the position was ignored last season under Shawn Watson’s scheme. This is probably one of the reasons the team has had trouble recruiting the position over the last couple of years. Players want to be involved in the team’s passing game and that hasn’t been happening at Pitt but Narduzzi says that will be changing.
“Why is that? Number one, because I think — I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about it, but I don’t think we have a tight end committed to us right now, and I think after they watch us being able to at least throw the ball to the tight end, there’s going to be some tight ends that say ‘can I come? Can I come?’ I truly believe that, so I’m in no rush to just take a guy to take a guy. But I think they’ll be a lot more productive,” said Narduzzi.
“I think in the run game and the pass game, we’ll just see more out of those guys. I think Grant Carrigan has made some major improvements. He’s faster, he’s smoother, he’s going to be tougher. Will Gragg, his body has changed. I think he came here about 225 pounds, and I think he’s 250. He looks the part now. And Nakia, again, another one of those grad transfers we talked about with Nolan and Kylan, I think he’s a special player, as well. He runs well, he’s smooth, he’s smart.”
Gragg led the Pitt tight ends last year with 5 catches for 31 yards. I’m pretty confident that Pitt’s tight end reception leader will have a lot more than that in 2019.
2. THE DISRESPECT CARD WILL BE USED AS MOTIVATION
As you can imagine, Narduzzi was asked about being picked to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal despite being defending champions and returning a number of starters. Narduzzi gave the company answer about not being concerned about it and how they were picked to finish fifth last season and ended up being champions.
“I think we were picked fifth a year ago, so I wish we were picked sixth really — push us down. Again, it all just comes down to respect. I think it comes down to how you finish your season, and we didn’t finish maybe as strong as Virginia did, and good for them. I’m not worried about what the preseason rankings look like, I’m worried about what the postseason rankings looking like,” said Narduzzi.
That’s what he’s saying to the media and people outside of the Pitt football offices. Covering Narduzzi for his first four seasons, I can assure you that the disrespect Pitt is receiving, is something that has been discussed and will continue to be brought up on the practice field and in team meetings leading up to the August 31 season opener versus Virginia.
While Narduzzi might not worry (at least publicly) about the rankings and lack of national respect, the leader of his defense had a different response than this head coach.
“I’m tired of being the underdog,” said defensive end Rashad Weaver. “We’re the top dog, we won the Coastal last season so in my opinion, we’re the best team in the Coastal because we won it last year. Every game, we’re coming in as the top dog and they need to beat us and we’re coming out to prove that. I take that as disrespect.”
3. YOUNG DOESN’T MEAN NOT TALENTED
If you take a poll of Pitt fans and asked them the one position that concerns them most, a majority would bring up the offensive line. Considering the losses to graduation of Mike Herndon, Stefano Millin, Connor Dintino and Alex Bookser, that looks to be valid reason for some concern. Plus, aside from center Jimmy Morrissey, the group of players that will be counted on to start have virtually no playing experience. That might worry some people but not Narduzzi.
“I’m excited about our offensive line. Nobody was excited about them a year ago. Everybody was like, ‘that’s a weakness,” We had all these new guys. Really when you look at Mike Herndon starting new and Connor Dintino and you’ve got this new guy coming in from Kent State, like who’s this guy. I’ve got a lot of faith in what our offense does. I’ve got a lot of faith in Coach Borbely, who I think does an excellent job developing those guys. I think we’re probably taller, more athletic. You watch those guys, when you look down there, watch those guys work out in practice and just watch them move around in those ABC and teach periods, they are a good-looking group. They lack a little experience, but we’ve all lacked experience at one point. That doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. So I’m excited about that group, and I expect them to be good,” said Narduzzi.
The thing that stands out to me about the group of players trying to become Pitt’s starting offensive line and backups five is that a majority of them were highly recruited coming out of high school. Players such as Jake Kradel, Blake Zubovic, Jerry Drake, Carter Warren, Nolan Ulizio and Carson Van Lynn had nice set of offers from other programs so they have talent. The question now is how quick can this talent translate to getting it done on the field. Considering the teacher they have with Borbely and the new offensive scheme by Whipple, I don’t believe there will be much drop off from the 2018 offensive line.
4. CAN’T WIN WITH JUST DEFENSE
Everyone knows that Narduzzi is a defensive guy and wants his team to be led by his defensive unit and a strong running game. Despite winning the Coastal Division, he realized that his offensive scheme wasn’t good enough which led to the firing of Shawn Watson. His passing game was sub-par and needs major improvement if Pitt is going to be a perennial power in the ACC. Narduzzi wasn’t bashful talking about
“We want to obviously score more touchdowns. We want to score. We want to be more explosive. We need to evolve,” said Narduzzi. “I don’t like to be one-dimensional. I think all the great offenses are ones that you’re about — and Clemson is one of them — you’re worried about the run and the pass. We’ve got to threaten people through the air as well as the run, and we’re going to threaten you on the ground, I can promise you that. But we’ve got to start to threaten people in the passing game, and we will.”