Monday, September 19, 2016

Why Pitt football recruits at the level they do

I've been meaning to write this article for months, and I kept putting it off, but after the uproar of Donovan Jeter not committing to Pitt, I thought this was as good a time as any.

Let me start by saying that Pitt fans have big aspirations for the football program. I don't blame them for that because I've not hidden the fact that I believe that Pitt has the potential to be so much more than they have been for many decades.

So let me start by saying that there is a pecking order in recruiting, and the Panthers are not currently in the top group of that pecking order.

Let's look at where Pitt stands by going down each category of program when it comes to recruiting. We will start first with the elite group that the Panthers program aspires to be.

Elite level- This is the blue bloods of the college football recruiting world. They are in this group mostly because of money (coaching salaries, facilities, stadium capacity, etc.), tradition (strong, recognizable trademark with decades of success), recruiting area (it's infinitely easier when you have a lot of top players in your local vicinity), and sometimes even a win at any cost lack of ethics (over half of the programs on this list have had at least one major incident, had probation, or have been rumored to employ suspicious practices at times).

This group includes the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State (sorry, but it's true), Clemson, Florida State, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Notre Dame, USC, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Auburn, and LSU. That's sixteen programs that, for various reasons, often have the potential, because of how well they recruit, to finish in the top 10 in any given season.

Obviously there are circumstances that could prevent each of these programs from having an elite team for a stretch of time, and really only Ohio State and Alabama have avoided that for the most part. But even these programs can be derailed by poor coaching (Michigan, Oklahoma, USC, and Florida are some examples in the past few decades).

But make no mistake about it- and I can't stress this enough- these are the sixteen programs that are at the top of the heap for most kids. When one of these sixteen programs really want a kid, it's hard for for any program not in this group to get them. Not impossible, and there are many instances of top prospects turning down these programs for a program on a lower level, but more often that not these are the programs that kids want to be part of it- sometimes because they truly are the most successful, and sometimes because it's an ego thing from them or their parents to be able to brag about being at one of these blue blood programs.

Here are the recruiting rankings, via Rivals, of last year's recruiting class of this top level- Ohio State (3), Michigan (4), Penn State (23), Florida State (2), Clemson (6), Texas (7), Oklahoma (16), Nebraska (26), Notre Dame (13), USC (12), Florida (14), Georgia (11), Tennessee (15), Alabama (1), Auburn (9), and LSU (5). I didn't even look at the rankings before I listed those teams but I already knew all of their rankings would be high. And they will be just as high next year. And the year after. And so on.

Then there are two types in the second level. One is a traditionally a good, or even, mediocre program that either has a great coach, or cuts corners to win, and the other is very good programs that are below that top level. They are traditionally programs, that with stability, may not be a National Championship contender (unless it's a truly special year when everything goes right), but generally are good enough to be top 25 caliber.

In the first group is the win at all cost programs that will usually end up badly. Currently, that is Baylor and Ole Miss. Both took shortcuts, and both will pay. Enough said on those two. This group also includes schools like TCU, that are likely only in rarefied air because of Gary Patterson. If he's not at TCU, it's questionable whether they would even be in the "very good program" category.

In the second group we have very good programs that could flirt with top 10 status with the right coach. That group includes Louisville, Virginia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Stanford, Washington, Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State, Utah, and Texas A&M.  None of these programs are always excellent, but they've proven that they are good enough programs that with an excellent coach they can be among the elite.

Again using Rivals, here are last year's recruiting rankings for these seventeen programs-  Louisville (36), Virginia Tech (42), Miami (21), North Carolina (24), Pittsburgh (26), West Virginia (38), Oklahoma State (48), Michigan State (18), Wisconsin (35), Iowa (42), Stanford (19), Washington (37), Oregon (28), UCLA (10), Arizona State (30), Utah (34), and Texas A&M (17).

Once again I listed those programs before I looked at their rankings, and once again it's no surprise that most are indeed a level below in their recruiting. And as you may have noticed, of the seventeen schools on this level, Pitt recruited better than ten of them last year. Now look at the six in in this group that recruited better than the Panthers last year: Miami (big name Mark Richt in an area loaded with prospects), North Carolina (Larry Fedora in his fourth season and coming off an 11-3 record), Michigan State (Mark Dantonio coming off a 12-2 season in his ninth season), Stanford (David Shaw coming off a 12-2 season in his fifth season), UCLA (Jim Mora in his fourth season, and in one of the easiest places to recruit), and Texas A&M (Kevin Sumlin in his fourth season, and in a state loaded with talent).

As we can see, coaches like Bobby Petrino, Frank Beamer, Larry Fedora, Gary Patterson, Mike Gundy, Mark Dantonio, Barry Alvarez, and David Shaw are talented enough to turn good programs into excellent programs. The programs that these coaches elevated may not be elite enough to be great after that coach leaves, but they're good enough that an excellent coach can turn them into a top 10 team, and maybe more. Louisville, currently with Petrino, Beamer at Virginia Tech, Patterson at TCU, Dantonio at Michigan State, and Shaw at Stanford made their programs National Championship contenders (Petrino is possibly in the process of doing that).

Am I saying that Pat Narduzzi will definitely do that? No, I'm not. But it's certainly possible. The level of Pitt's program is such that a great coach could make Pitt a National Championship contender, if they have an excellent coach. Not every program can say that.  The Panthers definitely have that possibility. And if Narduzzi turns into that coach, and if they want to keep the program at it's newly elevated status, they will need to pay him. All of the coaches in the above programs got raises for their accomplishment. But we will worry about that when/if the time comes.

Now let's look at some specifics when it comes to Pitt. The first thing to look at are the local elite prospects that want to stay home. Pitt fans understandably get bummed out when a top local kid goes elsewhere, but just because you want them badly that does not make them immune to wanting, like kids all over the country, to be in one of the blue blood programs. Kids (and their parents) get stars in their eyes. "I can play for legendary Notre Dame?" or "I can't believe Ohio State is recruiting me!" is a natural response for kids.

But look at the bright side. One, not every local kid is swayed by that. Damar Hamlin, Paris Ford, Kaezon Pugh, Tyler Boyd, and Dorian Johnson are just some of the local kids recently that could have gone just about anywhere, but chose Pitt instead. And there will be others that follow.

Secondly, Dantonio at Michigan State and Gary Patterson at TCU are perfect examples of programs that recruited about the same level as Pitt is recruiting now (actually, in TCU's case they were recruiting at a much lower level), but then when they got better, their recruiting skyrocketed.

Thirdly, you don't need top 20 recruiting classes to be a top 20, or even top 10, team. Louisville is currently No. 3 in the nation. Their last four recruiting classes were ranked by Rivals as 41, 36, 32, and 36.  Houston is No. 6 in the nation and Rivals ranks their last four classes as 48, 77, 91, and 41. Wisconsin is No. 11 and their last four classes are 54, 33, 44, and 35. Just a reminder, in Narduzzi's first class he was ranked No. 26. Even Dantonio's last four classes were 47, 22, 22, and 18, meaning even his classes after he already established himself as a great, highly successful coach, were not that much better than Narduzzi already did in his first year. And if Pitt's class this year slips a little bit into the 35 or 40 range, so what? Dantonio just had a No. 47 class not long ago. Some years things just don't go your way. For the record, I still think Pitt's class will at least be No. 35 when all is said and done, which is still good enough with the right coaching.

Bottom line, don't get caught up in recruiting hype. A portion of Pitt fans ink in a Donovan Jeter and then when they don't get him they think the program is doomed. The problem with social media and message boards are that pessimistic and paranoid people can get people worked up way too easily, and then the doom and paranoia feeds itself with more doom and paranoia. There's no need for doom and paranoia. Narduzzi is recruiting well enough to win big at Pitt. I just proved it. I'm not saying he definitely will win big because until he does it, he hasn't done it. But Narduzzi is adding top 25 talent at Pitt, and if he ends up being the coach that most of us expect, he's also recruiting enough to be a top 10 team from time to time. Nothing has changed with Pitt. They are a very good program that could be a national power with the right coach. And for the first time in decades there are legitimate signs that they have that coach.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Pitt 42 Penn State 39

Well, it's never easy with Pitt, and it wasn't this time either, but the Panthers came up with a huge win, for many reasons. Some thoughts:

1.  James Conner is now all the way back, it would seem. He doesn't carry the ball as often as he used to, but he's not being babied either. He ran hard all day and ended up with 117 yards on 22 carries, plus a touchdown. He also caught 4 passes for 29 yards, and another touchdown. However, it should be noted that he also had a crucial late game fumble deep in Pitt territory that nearly cost the Panthers the game.

2.  The player of the game (again) was sophomore Quadree Henderson. The speedster had 3 catches for 43 yards, and a TD reception, plus 4 carries for 58 more yards. And while he didn't get the ball kicked to him often he had a gigantic 84 yarder in the fourth quarter. He is a special talent and don't be surprised if he is an All-American kick returner at the end of the year.

3.  Nathan Peterman was not asked to do much throwing, because to be honest he didn't need to, but he still completed 11 of 15 passes for 95 yards. He also had 3 touchdown passes and interception. He even ran for 52 yards on 8 carries, and some of those runs were very big. He was also not sacked at all.

4.  Qadree Ollison had back to back nice runs in the second half and ended up with 36 yards on 9 carries. Darrin Hall added 33 yards on 4 carries, and Jordan Whitehead added a 28 yard run down to the 2-yard line. Fullback George Aston played, after missing last week with an injury, and he had 2 rushing TDs.

5. Scott Orndoff played very well in the first half, but then the Panthers stopped throwing. He ended up with 4 catches for 15 yards, and a TD.

6. Outside of Henderson's big kickoff return, special teams played poorly. A big Penn State punt return in the first half gave the Nittany Lions much needed momentum, and Chris Blewitt missed yet another field goal, his sixth of the last seven that he's missed.

7.  Defensively, the Panthers started like gangbusters, but in the second half they played rather poorly.  They did have 4 sacks, and gave up only 74 yards rushing on 34 attempts, but Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 332 yards and Saquon Barkley had five touchdowns (four running and one receiving).

8. Pitt had 432 total yards and Penn State had 406.

Bottom line, it was an even game, just as it was expected to be, but because Pitt almost lost a big lead, people again mention "Pitting" (I can't tell you how much I hate that whiny term). But at the end of the day, they didn't blow it, Penn State did, thanks to a nice interception by Ryan Lewis.

The win was huge, not only because of bragging rights, or because so many top prospects saw a great game in front of a record crowd, but also because with road games to Oklahoma State and North Carolina looming, a 1-3 start to the season was very possible.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Stallings adds a big man

It's been a long time since Kevin Stallings got his first commitment with PG Aaron Thompson, but the first year coach can finally add another name to the list. Terrell Brown, a 6'10" PF from the Tilton School in Tilton, NH, visited Pitt this weekend and it didn't take long for him to tell Stallings that he was committed.

Brown, whose only other offer was Purdue, is surprisingly under the radar when considering his wide array of skills. Brown is long and very athletic, but he also has become an excellent shooter all the way out to three point range. Any time you can get a 6'10" kid that can shoot from all over the court you have something. If that wasn't enough, Brown also has the ability to be an excellent shot blocker. So why is a player with this much skill not talked about more? That's a good question. For one thing, he has always been young for his age so he developed little later than others in his class. But this summer he has quietly been very good. The other perceived weakness is that he is soft. But, like I said, he was a little younger than others in his class, he is pretty thin, and he's got a great perimeter game. For those reasons many considered him soft. But there have been reports this summer that he has toughened up, and that may be as a result of his getting older.

Bottom line, the Panthers need at least five players in this class, and it may be more than that. Getting a 6'10" kid with great athleticism and perimeter skills, to go with a good point guard, is a good start by Stallings. But the remaining members of his first class will really tell the story about how well he will recruit in Pittsburgh.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Pitt 28 Villanova 7

It wasn't pretty, but if truth be told, in past years the result has often been much worse in the opening game of the year. Some thoughts:

1.  James Conner is back and he looked pretty good. They threw him the ball more, and he even caught a TD pass to go with his rushing TD.

2.  The offensive line, which is expected to be a strong point, played poorly. Center Alex Officer even had two poor snaps out of the shotgun. They better get much better for the rest of the season or the Panthers could be in trouble.

3.  Partly because the offensive line played so poorly, quarterback Nathan Peterman played just okay. He completed 19-32 passes for 175 yards, 2 TDs, and no interceptions.

4.  Tight end Scott Orndoff may finally be living up to his potential and he led the Panthers with 5 catches for 68 yards. Jester Weah had 4 catches for 38 yards, and he also had a TD reception. Almost as importantly, he didn't drop any.

5.  Quadree Henderson had 4 catches for 35 yards, but he was dynamic in the return game, and it's safe to say that he may be one of the best return men in the country this year. He had a 96 yard kickoff return for a TD and returned 4 punts for an average of 14.5 yards a return.

6.  The defense was consistently excellent, and they gave up no points (a fumble recovery was the only Villanova TD). Unofficially, safeties Jordan Whitehead and Terrish Webb led Pitt with 6 tackles, and he also had the lone interception. Avonte Maddox had 5 tackles and 2 late sacks. Ryan Lewis had 5 tackles. Mike Caprara had 4 tackles and 2 sacks.

7.  The second team defense came in on Villanova's last series and Amir Watts looked fantastic. He was destroying his man on every snap. He's going to be a star.

8. Pitt had 261 total yards. Villanova had 172 total yards.