New West Virginia Offense Offers Unique Test to Start Season for Pitt
It wasn’t a typical Monday morning for Pitt football.
Pat Narduzzi made sure to emphasize that while most looked at Monday as the beginning of the week, Pitt didn’t. The Pitt calendar showed Monday as a Wednesday, the midway point of Pitt’s prep for the season-opening game against West Virginia.
Pitt needed to be further along in the week much earlier than other teams, but Narduzzi also felt like he was far enough along in his prep work to name J.T. Daniels as WVU’s starting quarterback — even before WVU head coach Neal Brown officially did.
“JT Daniels will be the starting quarterback,” Narduzzi said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “If they haven’t made that announcement, I’ll make it for them. He will be the starting quarterback.”
It will be Kedon Slovis facing off against J.T. Daniels in the Backyard Brawl, sharing the same field for the first time since sharing the field together at USC during the 2019 season.
Narduzzi said that he has a lot of respect for a very well-coached West Virginia squad, the coaching staff and the players. There’s been a lot of film study over the last four months, but there’s been a definite focus on Daniels, even before he was officially named the quarterback at WVU.
Whether it’s been USC or Georgia, Narduzzi and the staff have watched every throw he’s made at the college level. Narduzzi was watching Daniels’ tape with a handful of staffers recently, including associate athletic director Chris LaSala, and he could barely believe Daniels’ accuracy. It was as if every ball that left his hands was caught by his receiver, regardless of whether he was at USC or Georgia.
Narduzzi was starting to wonder if Daniels was ever going to throw an incomplete ball, the disbelief growing to an all-time high around the 130th rep Narduzzi watched of Daniels, but he also didn’t know defensive quality control coach Phil DeCapito had set the film to only show completions.
“You know what, you don’t see (Daniels) scramble very much,” Narduzzi said. “He can make every throw. He’s very cerebral. He makes the right decisions.
“He’s just very accurate. He’s smart. He can throw a really good deep ball. Our corner has to be really good in coverage. Thrown a lot of deep balls this week. That is their favorite route, four verticals, three verticals.”
After watching every piece of Daniels’ film possible, Narduzzi could see why WVU would name him the starter. Daniels is a capable passer who can make every throw required at the college level. He acknowledged that Pitt will have its hands full in defending WVU’s passing attack, and if Pitt’s defense will struggle in any area this season, it will be in defending quarterbacks who can stretch the field against its secondary. Narduzzi said it will take a team effort to slow up Daniels.
“We’re based out of our corners,” Narduzzi said. “Got some change-ups, of course. But those guys, they’re out there on an island. Those corners are pressed up out there. Safeties are going to do what they do. They’re going to be involved in the run game and the pass game.”
Pitt returns Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett at safety and the trio of Marquis Williams, M.J. Devonshire and A.J. Woods at cornerback, and defensive coordinator Randy Bates feels good not only about the experience among the starters but the level of meaningful depth across both positions. Bates sees a confident secondary that has played in conference championship games, New Year’s Six bowl games and everything between. There won’t be a stage that will intimidate Pitt’s secondary this season.
“We know (Daniels) can spin the ball, and he can get it where it needs to go,” Bates said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Sometimes (quarterbacks) can’t throw the ball to the field flat the way that this young man can, so you have to be even better at breaking on the ball when the ball is thrown. And you gotta get there as the ball gets there, and if you don’t, they’ll throw it and catch it. So, the challenge for us is to be close enough to affect every pass and challenge every ball that’s thrown.”
However, while the quarterbacks — on both teams — have drawn attention, there’s an added emphasis among both teams to establish a run game this season. Narduzzi certainly respects WVU’s ability to run the football, and it starts with the experience up front.
“They’ve got four returning starters up front,” Narduzzi said. “They’ve got most of their offensive line back. James Gmiter, from Bethel Park, recruited him out of high school, playing left guard for them. There’s some familiarity with some of those guys.”
With Gmiter, Wyatt Milum, Zach Frazier, Doug Nester and either Brandon Yates or Ja’Quay Hubbard comprising WVU’s offensive line this season, all six having played meaningful snaps for WVU last season, it’s an experienced unit. It’s a unit expected to be a strength of WVU’s offense this season, and Narduzzi praised offensive line coach Matt Moore’s approach in preparing his unit.
Narduzzi said that WVU’s offensive line is talented, and Moore — dating back to his time at Texas Tech — has been a good coach in the NCAA.
So, yes, WVU’s offensive line — which wasn’t exactly a strength last season — is expected to be a strength this season. There’s turnover at quarterback, running back and wide receiver to a lesser extent, but the foundation of the offense returns together another year older. Daniels is the quarterback, Tony Mathis is the running back and a healthy dose of Bryce Ford-Wheaton, Kaden Prather and Sam James at wide receiver is a solid receiving corps.
It’s a good early test for Pitt. Daniels can stretch opposing defenses with his talented wide receiving corps, and the new-look running backs unit has a very, very stout test against Pitt’s defense. Narduzzi is very happy with how his team finished camp last week, but that doesn’t mean anything if that progress isn’t evident on the football field.
“You can have a great camp,” Narduzzi said. “We finished a great camp last Friday. But it comes down to what are you going to do on Sept. 1. That’s what it comes down to. What you did in pre-season, how camp went, practice went, scrimmaging here and there, it doesn’t really matter. Thursday will be the first opportunity we find out what we have.
While Narduzzi likes his team thus far, he still doesn’t know exactly what he has at his disposal. That will change Thursday. Pitt has unknowns, and WVU has unknowns. Pitt has transfers, WVU has transfers.
“We got new guys that they’re looking at tape from somewhere else,” Narduzzi said. “A ton of unknowns. It’s one of the hardest games to prepare for in the openers because you have to prepare for so much offensively and defensively.
“What did they put in in the off-season? Who knows. We don’t know. They don’t know. We got wrinkles. I’m sure they’ll have wrinkles. That’s what makes openers so much fun.”
It’s been 11 years since the last Backyard Brawl, and while both Pitt and WVU has gone through a lot of change since even the spring session of practices, one thing hasn’t changed. It’s a rivalry that has both sides prepared for the other’s best.
I believe Pitt is deeper and should win the game. The only things that may keep it from being a 17+ point Pitt victory are 1) it’s game one of the season and 2) it’s a rivalry match-up. Can’t wait. H2P !
We have the better team. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and play blue collar Pitt football. Let’s embarrass WVU in front of their fans so we can make fun of them. H2P
Watch you don’t get steamrolled by the #2 train in the strong side B gap. Crank up that diesel, whhhooommppp!