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Pat’s Points: Takeaways, Stopping the Run and Pitt Toughness

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Pitt.

Pitt is only a few days out from the 2024 Blue-Gold Spring Game, and Pat Narduzzi likes where his squad stands.

He isn’t exactly pleased with the overall health of the team, with quite a few players ruled out for the game itself, but he’s liked what he’s seen from a toughness standpoint. It’s been very physical.

“As a matter of fact, I had a high school in today who played at Maryland and played for Ralph Friedgen, he goes, ‘That was like a Ralph Friedgen practice,’ which is a good thing. To me, it’s a compliment. Ralph is a heckuva coach, but it’s a compliment because it kind of goes back to the old school. We’ve had a physical spring. We’ve had physical winter workouts. Our guys got bigger, faster, stronger.”

Pitt needed to get bigger, faster and stronger this spring after a disastrous 2023 season, and the Panthers needed to get healthier. The two need to go hand-in-hand in 2024. It would appear that the Panthers will exit the spring with just one long-term injury, which is solid.

There’s a lot going on ahead of Saturday’s game.

Pitt defensive back Donovan McMillon.

It seems like there’s been more turnovers. 

Cruce Brookins might have 10 takeaways stickers on his helmet. Okay, truthfully, it’s more like six or seven, but it’s hard to count all the stickers plastered on his helmet. And he’s not alone.

Just about every defensive back has double-digit takeaway stickers on his helmet through 13 practices. It’s not uncommon for helmets to be covered with takeaway stickers, but even the linebackers (Kyle Louis and Rasheem Biles, notably) have more than a few stickers. There are a handful of defensive linemen with stickers, too.

I cannot say the exact number, but there’s gotta be 30-ish. And that’s with a poor mathematician estimating.

Narduzzi doesn’t think that there’s been more turnovers this spring than any other though. It’s been par the course through just about the entirety of Pitt spring ball.

“I doubt it, probably about the same,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve had turnovers back when Kirk Cousins was the quarterback. He turned it over in spring ball. I can’t say it’s more. I’d have to go back and really look at it. I probably could pull out spring ball stats from a year ago, but I would say it’s probably about the same. Maybe a couple more but not that many more. I’d say this, we’ve certainly had less fumbles this year than last year, I would say, but maybe more interceptions.”

It’s those giveaways that stand out…

A clean sweep defensively 

There’s a reason why the defense has swept the Pitt scrimmages this spring.

It’s one thing to turn the ball over during practice or a scrimmage, but it’s another to give the ball away. If there’s one reason that the offense has failed to do — at least during scrimmages — this spring, it’s holding onto the ball. That’s going to lead to losses in scrimmages and certainly in games this season.

The defense has won every scrimmage this spring, and it’s not hard to see why after just about a month of spring practices.

“I tell them every week, it’s going to be the turnovers,” Narduzzi said. “And our defense has worked on getting takeaways and did a nice job, but our offense gave them away. It’s called giveaways. It’s learning the offense and still some of that stuff, but I think Nate (Yarnell) threw for 254 yards, put it that way. There were some explosive plays. We ran the ball well when we ran it.

“And again, there’s the RPOs and all the different stuff that you might not necessarily see on Saturday that you’d like to see. But there was just more explosion. There were some drive-killers with turnovers, which the game’s not even close if we don’t turn it over. So, I liked the plays we made. I saw a lot of good stuff that way. And there was good stuff on both sides of the ball that you liked. But there was bad stuff on both sides of the ball that we have to eliminate from our game.”

The offense is still learning Kade Bell’s new scheme, installing more of his playbook by the day, but it’s not as if the defense has had an overwhelming advantage either.

Pitt defensive line coach Tim Daoust.

Run stopping must improve. 

If there was one thing that drove Narduzzi crazy last season, it was the Pitt run defense. It was a unit that could not fulfill its duty.

Narduzzi has installed a defensive system that stops the run above all else — sacks and tackles for loss come with it. The Panthers were unable to do any of the three last season. The run defense lacked, and the sacks and tackles for loss never arrived.

It wasn’t as if the defense succumbed to circumstance, but the unit as a whole could’ve been better — regardless of what the offense achieved.

Through 13 spring practices, Narduzzi has seen progress, but of course, he wants to see more. There’s a proud history of stopping the run, after all.

“They’ve done a good job,” Narduzzi said. “It’s day by day. Did they do as good a job as they needed to Saturday? No. Our goal is to hold people to three yards. I think overall with the 1s and 2s out there, I don’t think we got our run goal on Saturday, which is good for the offense and bad for the defense. So, who was on the field? Who made the mistakes? They won’t all be on the field, right? We’ll get our best 11 out there, our best 15, 18, 22 guys, but we’re trying to get everybody reps and sometimes that happens. It’s a work in progress.”

Where Nate Yarnell stands 

Nate Yarnell, for whatever it means, was the first Pitt quarterback selected in the Spring Game draft. Eli Holstein was the second selection. The pecking order is becoming clearer by the day.

Yarnell has been lauded this spring for his approach to leadership and the way he’s put the team on his shoulders on and off the field, but it’s not as if Yarnell is doing anything to emphasize leadership either. It’s just what his starting quarterback has done organically.

“I think he’s not really worried about leadership right now,” Narduzzi said. “I think our seniors and our leadership council have to lead, and he’s on both of those — or, I should say he’s on the leadership council. But I just want him to pick up the offense right now. I want him to be the best quarterback that he can be. I’d give him a B right now. I’d give him a B after 13 practices. He needs to get better, just like everybody else in this room. He’s got a ways to go. He can be better, and he will be better. He’s 13 days into a new offense that’s totally different than what we’ve done in the past.”

Yarnell is currently the starting quarterback, but it’s not a job that’s going to be handed to him. Holstein is going to continue to push him throughout the summer.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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