PITTSBURGH — The ability to stay fresh and healthy throughout the college football season is a key factor in a successful season. Healthy starters, fresh reserves and level-headed team morale are the recipe for success.
Pitt athletic trainer Chris Hanks has told head coach Pat Narduzzi that in the time he’s served as the head trainer, he’d never seen as many players in recovery as he did during Tuesday’s day off. It’s pleasing for Narduzzi, to see the players take care of themselves on and off the field.
“You teach and you teach and you teach our guys how to take care of your body, but they’re really trying to do that, so we hope that keeps up because you can take care of yourself out there, but if you don’t really take care of your body, it will eventually run down on you,” Narduzzi said Wednesday.
Some of that recovery includes both hot and cold tubs, working with the athletic trainers and strength staff, actively stretching and running through calisthenics — especially on days off when it would be easier to sleep in late. Narduzzi has seen more and more players buy in every year.
“When your strength staff and your trainers are doing a great job taking care of them and they like it, and the next day, they go out and feel better, they go, ‘Okay.’ But it’s hard to get everybody to get into that,” Narduzzi said. “We had 54 guys — at least 54 guys — in the cold tubs after Monday’s practice. But that’s a good thing. It’s just encouraging more and more.”
Of course, it takes healthy players, but it also takes talented, hard-working players. And Narduzzi is liking what he’s seen in that regard too. It’s battling back from adversity, iron sharpening iron, as is often said by Pitt players.
“The thing about our kids right now is, the last two practices — really the last three — is they just go out there and they’re competing with each other. That’s what I love about them; it’s back and forth. Offense wins a period, defense wins a period, offense wins a play, defense comes back, and that’s how you get better.”
Israel Abanikanda is Still Explosive
With Israel Abanikanda, Rodney Hammond Jr., Vincent Davis, Daniel Carter and now C’Bo Flemister in Pitt’s running backs room, it’s a very, very deep unit. Abanikanda, Hammond and Davis were a three-pronged rushing attack last season, and if one wants to emerge as the guy, it’s going to take consistency.
“James Conner, was there many people rotating with him? I don’t think so,” Narduzzi said. “He became the guy. I’m waiting for someone to be the guy and that he comes off the field when someone needs a break. So, we’re looking still to see who that guy is. Who’s consistent? It comes down to consistency.”
Narduzzi said all three running backs have looked good this offseason, but Abanikanda has shown the ability to really take the top of Pitt’s incredibly stout run defense.
“Izzy has shown the ability to make the explosive play,” Narduzzi said. “They’re doing a good job reading where to cut and all of that, but Izzy has popped through there a couple times, which against our defense, is hard to do. But once he gets past the linebackers, it’s a race, and not many people are going to win that race against Izzy.”
It’s clear that all three running backs, and even Carter and Flemister, will get their chances this season. But if Abanikanda — who led Pitt in both rushing and receiving yards out of the backfield in 2021 — can keep off the injury list and build some consistency early, he could establish himself as someone like Conner did.
And speaking of every running back coming back, and even adding Flemister, Narduzzi wasn’t surprised at all that all three “starters” from last season returned.
“It’s all about the culture you’ve built, and the kids are happy here,” Narduzzi said. “They like getting coached and they know someone hasn’t appeared to be ‘the guy.’ When you’re rotating three guys back there last season and you bring in a fourth, it’s like, we’re looking for somebody to be the guy, to take it over.”
Narduzzi Isn’t a Fan of Preseason Rankings
Pitt was ranked 16th in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, the third-highest ranked team in the ACC, and Narduzzi doesn’t care at all one way or the other.
“There shouldn’t be a preseason poll,” Narduzzi said. “Take last year’s preseason poll, look at it and go, ‘Okay.’ Look at the before and after. I’ve never done it, but to me, the preseason poll means absolutely nothing. I want to know where we’re going to be late December, early January. That’s the one that matters.”
For reference, Pitt picked up six votes in last year’s USA Today preseason coaches poll, checking in as the 19th team in the “Also Receiving Votes” category. Pitt players have been ho-hum on the ranking, accepting it as an honor in most cases, but Narduzzi said the preseason poll isn’t really recognition for the team he’s coaching this season. It’s more so for last season’s team.
“That ranking is based on the 2021 season,” Narduzzi said. “That’s what it is. So, thank you Kenny Pickett, thanks Damarri Mathis, all of those guys that played for us last year. Thank you for the preseason ranking. Now we’re going to find out what these guys got.
“I think we have a good football team. So, we’ll find out. You gotta go play. You have to go make the plays. You have to be a close-knit team and you got to stay healthy.
Linebacker Versatility is the Name of the Game
If there’s one thing that’s been learned about this season’s linebacking corps, it’s that pretty much every linebacker is able to play all three linebacker positions — Mike, Money and Star linebacker.
SirVocea Dennis is the unquestioned leader and one of the best linebackers in the ACC, and Bangally Kamara, Shayne Simon and even Solomon DeShields have sort of emerged from the pack as sure-fire contributors. I’d say Tylar Wiltz should be in that category too.
“Tylar Wiltz has done a nice job. He has shown that he’s a football player,” Narduzzi said. “Solomon DeShields is a work-in-progress and is doing a nice job. He’s so much better than he was in the spring.”
Narduzzi also mentioned Nick Lapi as a walk-on performing well in camp, and that Aydin Henningham is a prime example of a linebacker who is learning all three linebacker spots. Buddy Mack, who dropped down from safety to linebacker in the spring, also earned some praise. He’s expected to work his way back from a spring injury and compete for playing time this season.