Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi does not expect any of his players to miss their season opener against Austin Peay on Saturday.
That’s what he said on Monday during his first weekly press conference, held via Zoom because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But, as we’ve seen with everything else this year, that can all change pretty quickly.
Narduzzi, admittedly, did not even have the results of his team’s first set of COVID-19 tests, which were administered on Sunday. There will be more tests on Wednesday and Friday, giving Pitt’s 105 or so players 315 or so chances to test positive and wreck Narduzzi’s carefully crafted depth chart.
“We don’t expect anybody at this time,” Narduzzi said. “But you know what, there’s a long time to go to game time. … I can tell you whatever I want on Monday. Doesn’t matter, because we haven’t got the results back from a Sunday test. We’ll have another test on Wednesday. As a coach, you hope you get the results back from the one test before you take the next test. The company has 72 hours to get it to you. They’ve been pretty darn good as far as getting them to us when we need to.”
On the whole, Narduzzi thinks his team has done a good job of staying COVID-19 since being among the first group of students brought back to campus in July. Of course, we will have to take Narduzzi’s word for it, as Pitt is not publicly releasing its number of positive tests as a football team. As a school, Pitt has announced a total of 92 positive tests from Aug. 1 to Sept. 3, with 29 of them coming in the final three days reported.
“Our kids have been outstanding, guys,” he said. “My hat goes off to them. We’re playing a season because of them. Our coaches have been great. Our support staff has been outstanding in this office, like we expect, since June 1st. The kids have the harder parts. They’re college kids, roaming around campus.”
The nature of the 2020 season — in which any player can be disqualified from a game in an instant after a positive test result for them or a close contact — will almost assuredly place an emphasis on depth.
Pitt’s first opponent learned that the hard way, as Austin Peay was without its top three long snappers in its season-opening loss to Central Arkansas. The result was a punt team that turned the ball over twice, giving the Bears great field position in a one-score game.
Players far down the depth chart at this time of the year would normally be looking at a year on the scout team and possibly a redshirt, but Narduzzi knows that he may need each and every one of his players to get through this season.
“Our third team has got to be ready,” he said. “Everybody’s got to be ready. It’s a sudden change at any point if something crazy happens. Not only the guy that tests positive, but the tracing that goes along with that can hit you worse than the guy testing positive. You’re never feeling comfortable.
“We’ve got to get enough guys that know what they’re doing. It could hit you pretty fast.”
FRESHMEN IN ACTION
True freshmen have played a ton for Pitt under Narduzzi, but a few talented examples have shined through over the years. There may be another this season in wide receiver Jordan Addison, who seems to have wrestled a starting job away from several vets.
“The rookies have been better than most,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know why. Maybe we’ve done a better job as coaches. You see those guys in Coach Powell’s office every morning early.”
But beyond that, the blanket eligibility wavier for 2020 means that freshmen can spend a year contributing on special teams without it counting as one of their four playable seasons.
“That helps a ton,” he said. “We’re not worried about it, but we’re not going to play guys just to play them. They better be as good as what would have been in there or better. That’s what our kids have done so far. They’ve paid attention to it. They’re interested in special teams. A lot of times those guys are like, ‘I want to be a starting this or that.’ These guys have really bought into the special teams. I think it’s going to help us a lot.”
MORE PLAIN VANILLA?
Narduzzi has notoriously played things tight to the vest in seasons openers against lower-level teams, and while he’s 4-0 in those games, they have repeatedly been close affairs.
Pitt held off Youngstown State, 45-37 after a James Conner injury in 2015, showed absolutely none of Matt Canada’s dynamic offense in a 28-7 win over Villanova in 2016, and escaped with an overtime victory over the Penguins with a 28-21 win in 2017.
“There’s certain things you want to show, there’s certain things you don’t want to show,” Narduzzi explained. “There’s certain things you want the next opponent to have to work on, then there’s certain things that you don’t. Kind of a little bit of both. What do you want them to worry about on the next game?
“But ultimately, the most important thing is to come out of this thing with a win. Austin Peay will not be easy. That’s the goal. In the fourth quarter or third quarter, if we have to bring something out we’re planning on trying to hold on any side of the ball, we’ll do that. Certain things you don’t want to show that you have, certain things you want to show just to find out what people are going to do when they see that dilemma.”
Austin Peay should present another tough test, as far as FCS teams go. The Governors were an FCS quarterfinalist a year ago and return a veteran starting quarterback in Jeremiah Oatsvall. Running back Brian Snead comes by way of junior college and Ohio State, where he was a Top 100 national prospect.
“They’re a talented football team, make no mistakes about it,” Narduzzi said. “They’re talented, tough, physical. You can tell they love to play the game. When you watch them play, they just play with an attitude.
“But they’re talented on both sides of the ball. You have to love what you see on tape as far as a football team goes.”