Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How Pitt's defense looks for the next few years

Defensive Linemen: Ejuan Price, Shakir Soto, and Tyjuan Jarrett are gone, but all is not lost. Pat Narduzzi has begun to add more talent and depth to the unit and though it's not all the way to where he wants it, it's getting there.

At end, redshirt junior Dewayne Hendrix will finally get his chance. The 6'4" 260 pound redshirt junior missed the last two years, one because he transferred from Tennessee, and one for a leg injury.  If he lives up to his massive ability, it would be a huge development for the line, and the defense in general.

At the other end, 6'4" 245 pound senior Rori Blair will be the incumbent, but he will face a lot of competition from 6'4" 245 senior Allen Edwards, 6'3" 245 pound junior James Folston, Jr., 6'5" 250 pound redshirt freshman Patrick Jones, and 6'5" 255 pound redshirt freshman Rashad Weaver. Blair has played a lot in three years but has only totaled 9 sacks in his career, so he will need to improve in his senior year to be an asset. Edwards is a former junior college product that has natural pass rushing skills, but he hasn't had much of a chance on the field yet. Like Blair, next year will be his last chance to make his mark. Folston is former linebacker that played a little more at the end of the season. Weaver and Jones are good developmental players, and both showed promise as a true freshman in the practice. Big 6'6' 240 pound true freshman Carson Van Lynn will most likely redshirt. A wildcard is Zach Gilbert, who missed last season with a heart condition. Though undersized, the 6'0" 240 pound Gilbert has a lot of skill, but there's a good chance that his career is over.

The tackle situation also has some talented younger players, but more are clearly needed. Two new starters will have to come through, and one of those should be 6'3" 280 pound sophomore Amir Watts, an aggressive bull that has a very high ceiling. The other spot could be between 6'2" 290 pound redshirt senior Jeremiah Taleni and 6'4" 275 pound redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp. Taleni was brought in from Hawaii by former head coach Paul Chryst many years ago, but much to his credit he has stuck around and got better each year. He is good enough that he will at least be in the rotation next season. Camp is an elite recruit with a ton of potential. Watts, Taleni, and Camp were all listed at defensive tackle, so if two of the three start one will have to move to nose tackle. Taleni would be the best bet.

Other contenders inside include 6'4" 315 pound redshirt junior Mike Herndon, 6'4" 280 pound redshirt junior Shane Roy, and 6'3" 290 pound redshirt freshman Rashad Wheeler. Roy and Herndon were the backups to Jarrett this year, but it remains to be seen if either could hold down the spot as a starter. Wheeler is too athletic to be wasted at the nose so he will join the tackles. He has very good potential.

Because there are questions in this unit, a true freshman has the ability to play if he's good enough. At end, Tyjuan Garbutt is between Pitt and Virginia Tech, and he has big time potential. If he decides on the Panthers he has a chance to be in the two deep. At tackle, 6'2" 300 pound Jaylen Twyman, 6'5" 300 pound Kyree Campbell, and 6'3" 315 pound Fred Hansard are three of the big time tackles that are still in play, with Twyman the most likely commitment of the three. Any of the three are capable of playing right away.

You never know where else a big time lineman may come from late in the recruiting season, like Watts and Camp last year, but it's very important that at least one more big very talented end and tackle are found.

Beyond 2017: Narduzzi currently has a lot of projects in the mix, and even though one or two projects usually turn into players, more high level talent is needed. But the future still looks better than it does next year at the position since Watts, Camp, Jones, Weaver, and Wheeler are a talented bunch that will only get better and better. Gilbert would be a welcome addition if that happens, but changing the future from good to excellent depends on what the staff adds to finish out this class.

Linebackers: The Panthers linebacker corps has been below average for years, but that should be changing soon. The group will be very young next season, but they will also be much more talented than their predecessors.

In the middle, Matt Galambos will be moving on, and replacing him should be 6'2" 240 pound senior Quintin Wirginis, who (here we go again) should have been starting for the last two years. So that will be an upgrade.

On the outside, longtime lettermen Mike Caprara and Bam Bradley are also gone, and among those vying for their time is returning starter, and former walk on, 6'0" 215 pound redshirt junior Sean Idowu, and 6'2" 225 pound junior Elijah Zeise, who began the season as the starter over Idowu before going down for the year with an injury in the first game. Also returning will be 6'0" 210 pound redshirt sophomore Saleem Brightwell, who is undersized but showed good quickness when he played. He looks like he will be in the mix for the rest of his career because he looks like he could be a playmaker.

The most intriguing part of this unit is the players that haven't seen the field yet. Redshirt sophomore Anthony McKee is also undersized at 6'0" and 210 pounds, and it's a little disappointing that he hasn't made a move yet with such untalented upperclassmen, but he's young and has physical skills so it's obviously too early to give up on him. In the middle, 6'2" 225 pound redshirt freshman Elias Reynolds will try to be the backup to Wirginis.

But the three most promising linebackers are 6'1" 220 pound Kaezon Pugh and 6'3" 230 pound Chase Pine, both redshirt freshmen, and 6'1" 210 pound incoming freshman Cam Bright. Pugh and Pine should definitely be in the mix, if not start, and even though he's a true freshman, Bright has the speed  and explosiveness that makes him a possibility, too.

Incoming freshman Kyle Nunn is not yet big enough at 6'3" and 190 pounds, but he should be a factor in the not too distant future. Floridian Albert Tucker played linebacker on a loaded high school team, but at 6'3" and 205 pounds he will move over to linebacker. Like Nunn, he will probably redshirt. And big time recruit, Nathan Proctor, is still a possibility.

Beyond 2017: This unit is finally starting to look interesting, mostly because Pine, Pugh, Bright, and Brightwell will be around for a long time, and Nunn, Tucker,  and McKee could be good players eventually, too. More are needed, but they are off to a very good start for the future.

Defensive backs: Where do we start? Well, Ryan Lewis and Terrish Webb struggled more than anyone in the secondary this year and both are gone, so that has to be considered a plus. Reggie Mitchell will also be gone, and he's another player that regressed.

Replacing Lewis permanently (starting maybe this season) should be 6'1" 185 pound sophomore Damar Hamlin, who the staff thinks has a very high ceiling. On the other side, 5'9" 175 pound senior Avonte Maddox will probably get the call again. Others joining the mix will be 6'0" 180 pound redshirt sophomore Dane Jackson, 6'0" 190 pound redshirt freshman Therran Coleman, 6'0" 185 pound redshirt sophomore Malik Henderson, and 5'10" 175 pound redshirt junior Philipie Motley.

Only Coleman didn't play this season, and the other three all struggled, but they were also very young and inexperienced. They will obviously get better, the only question is, how much and how quickly?

The obvious huge get is Lamont Wade, who would start immediately, but if I had to guess I don't think he will end up being a Panther. If he does choose elsewhere, the staff will have to either find a hidden gem or hope that another top level back springs open somehow. But with the Panthers adding so many cornerbacks last year it was always going to be add more this year.

At safety, 5'11" 190 pound junior Jordan Whitehead did not have a good year, and he's probably at the wrong position. He needs to have a comeback next year because he has All-American potential. His backup should again be 5'10" 190 pound redshirt junior Dennis Briggs. The replacement for Webb at free safety should be among 6'2" 185 redshirt sophomore Jay Stocker, 6'1" 175 pound redshirt freshman Bricen Garner, and 6'0" 170 pound true freshman Paris Ford. All three have very good potential, especially Ford, an elite prospect that will be impossible to keep off the field as a freshman. I expect Ford will also get some snaps on offense, too, and if it wasn't for Quadree Henderson he would be used in the return game. In other words, Pitt will find a way to get him on the field as much as they can, even in his first year. He's that good.

Two other promising redshirt freshmen are 6'3" 205 pound Henry Miller, and 6'1" 195 pound Phil Campbell. Miller has safety size (if not linebacker size), but may have the ability to play cornerback, which would be a huge development because athletic 6'3" 205 pound corners don't come along very often. Campbell is a safety that has the ability to be good, too.

Beyond 2017: Believe it or not, this should actually be a very good unit in the future, and should be improved next year (can't really get worse). Lewis, Webb, and Mitchell are out, Hamlin, Jackson, Motley, and Henderson will be a year better, and Coleman, Stocker, Garner, Ford, Miller, and Campbell will be added to the mix. And with expected improvement around them from the younger players, Whitehead and Maddox should be able to rebound.

How Pitt's offense looks for the next few years

Quarterbacks: Nathan Peterman was a good, but not an excellent quarterback. He simply couldn't win a game when called upon and that's something every football team needs. The staff wants, and expects, redshirt freshman Thomas MacVittie to be the starter next year. MacVittie only played quarterback for one season in high school, but he was excellent against one of the most brutal schedules in the country. Physically, he's 6'5" and the staff wants to add muscle on him to get him to 230 pounds for the season. He's also been timed in the 4.5s. Clearly, the raw physical skills are there. But it takes more than that to be a special quarterback. Intangibles and all of the little nuances that makes an excellent quarterback are something you can't tell until the time arrives. We'll find out soon enough if MacVittie shows those traits, but it should be noted that offense coordinator Matt Canada is very high on him. He also is a perfect fit for Canada's offense because of his mobility.

My guess on the second string quarterback will be Central Florida transfer Bo Schneider. The 6'3" 225 pound redshirt sophomore started as a true freshman for a terrible UCF team. He could be solid as a backup, but doesn't have the high upside to be an ideal starter. He's also more of a pocket passer, which is not the perfect fit in Canada's system.

Ben DiNucci has not progressed much and doesn't appear to a factor at the position. Incoming freshman Kenny Pickett has good potential due to his good mobility, brains, and accurate arm. His accuracy is particularly outstanding, and that's maybe the best trait a quarterback can have. For that reason, he has a chance to be a good player in the future.

The big quarterback target in the 2018 class is Kevin Doyle. He has the potential to be a truly special quarterback, and his dad told me recently that he loves Canada and his system, as well as Pat Narduzzi. Landing him would be huge. Pitt won't reach a high level without a top quarterback, and between MacVittie, Pickett, and Doyle, the chances are that one of the three will be special.

Beyond 2017: Pickett could end up being a good player, and if the Panthers land Doyle he has an even better chance of being excellent, but if either of them turn into a star it will still be a few years down the road. On the other hand, if MacVittie is a success next year the position will be set for two or three years.

Running Backs: James Conner has one more year of eligibility left, but it's so unlikely that he'll be back that I'm not even going to consider him in the mix. That leaves 6'2" 230 pound redshirt junior Qadree Ollison, 5'11" 225 pound junior Darrin Hall, 5'11" 210 pound sophomore Chawntez Moss, and 5'10" 215 pound true freshman Todd Sibley.

Hall was expected to be a bigger part of the running game this season, but he did not grab the bull by the horns. He is very talented, but he needs to get it together or he will continue to get passed over. I hate to speculate like this, but one has to wonder if he will look elsewhere where he could get a fresh start. Especially since Moss and Sibley will be hard to beat out.

Moss was a revelation as a true freshman. When he signed he was written down as a redshirt by everybody. Instead he impressed the coaches enough to be second team for most of the season. He is quick and he runs hard on every play. With those two traits he could pile up a lot of yards in his college career. Sibley runs hard, has very good speed, and has the perfect build for a running back (short, athletic, and strong). Youth matters little when it comes to the running back position, since it's pretty much raw skill that gets it done there, and Moss and Sibley could be a dynamic duo if they both live up to their expectations next year (and are the top duo, of course).

Ollison is strong, runs hard, and has good straight line speed, but quickness at the position in this system is what is needed, and his style really doesn't fit. He's more of a fullback in this system, except that he can't block. But Ollison has been counted out before, and even though I don't see him as a major contributor next year I would never count him out. He's been counted out before and people were wrong.

At fullback, 6'0" 245 pound redshirt junior George Aston has already become a legend. He can block, he can run, he can catch. Generally, he can be awesome.

Beyond 2017: With Moss and Sibley around for a long time, and Aston around for two more years, this position should continue to be a strength for a long time. And any team that can run a lot will have a much better chance of winning games so this bodes well for the future.

Wide Receivers: Coming into this season, this group was considered a weakness, or at least a question mark. They didn't do enough to change the group into a strength, but at least there are signs of life. Junior Quadree Henderson is only 5'8" which hinders him as a down the field receiver, but he's turned into a big threat as a runner on the jet sweep, and is a possible All-American as a kick returner. Kudos to Canada for playing to Henderson's strengths.

Many scoffed at the future of 6'3" 210 pound redshirt senior Jester Weah, but his hands and route running improved, and with his blazing speed he's become a plus player. This season he's leading the team in receiving yards and is on pace for over 800 yards.

Two locals- Tre Tipton and Aaron Mathews- got on the field this year and have bright futures. The 6'0" 180 pound Tipton is a redshirt sophomore that can do a little bit of everything and is just scratching the surface of what he can become. The same goes for true sophomore Mathews, who at 6'4" and 190 pounds has the potential to develop into a top big target. But it's still unknown just how high their ceilings are.

True freshman Maurice French was another player that many assumed would redshirt, but he got on the field and showed some promise in his few snaps. At 5'11" and 185 pounds he has very good speed and elusiveness.

After that, there's a lot of question marks. Much was expected from incoming freshman Ruben Flowers, who at 6'3" 190 pounds has the size, the speed, and athleticism to develop, but he redshirted out of the gate so he's still an unknown. Redshirt junior Rafael Araujo-Lopes saw some action, and had some moments, but he's another smaller receiver at 5'9" and 185 pounds. He does have quickness, though.

Incoming freshmen Montavious Butler and Darian Street are at the same level as the receivers that played this season so they'll probably redshirt.

Beyond 2017: The unit should continue to get better because of added experience, but it still remains to be seen if a star will emerge. The coaching staff has to do a better job of adding, or developing, a big time No. 1 wide receiver.

Tight ends: Scott Orndoff had a fine year, but he's gone, as is Jaymar Parrish. I also wouldn't be surprised to see Devon Edwards and Zach Poker not coming back for a fifth year. For that reason, the staff needed to add tight ends, and they did by adding UCLA transfer Chris Clark in the last class, and adding three more freshmen in this class.

The 6'6" 255 pound Clark had a leg injury that kept him from practicing during this season, though because he transferred he couldn't play anyway. The redshirt sophomore was the former No. 1 tight end in the country so, needless to say, if he lives up to his potential, he could be a big time player. MacVittie loved to throw to the tight end in high school, and with the receivers not a strength yet, Clark could have a big season if it all comes together for him both physically and mentally.

His backup should be true freshman Charles Reeves, a 6'5" 265 beast with great receiving skills. His blocking is something he will need to work on, but he's so good as a receiver that that's what he'll be doing for most of his career at Pitt. I wouldn't be surprised to see both Clark and Reeves on the field together a lot.

Two local freshmen are coming in, and they will be used more for their blocking, at least initially. Both are huge already. Grant Carrigan is 6'7" and 250 pounds, and Tyler Sear is 6'5" and 255 pounds. If either can show right away that they can block they could see time as a freshman doing the dirty business.

I know many people expect either Carrigan or Sear to move to a different position in the future, and maybe that will happen, but they are needed at tight end now.

Beyond 2017: Clark is eligible for the NFL draft after next season, and he could leave even if he doesn't have a big year. He could decide that on raw talent alone he could get drafted. If he leaves, the group should still be strong with Reeves and the big locals. The staff is also looking at other big time tight ends in the 2018 class. If Clark decides to stay, then the unit will be even stronger. Either way, this should be a good group for many years.

Offensive Linemen: Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson are gone, but the cupboard is far from bare. Redshirt sophomore right tackle Brian O'Neill could go to the NFL after this season, but even though he will eventually be a high round draft choice, that seems unlikely. But I also find it very unlikely that he will be back for his senior year, though it's always possible that I am wrong about his draft stock (doubtful).

Redshirt senior Jaryd Jones-Smith will finally get his chance in the limelight replacing Bisnowaty next year. At 6'7" and 330 pounds, there may not be much of a drop off, especially since Jones-Smith has something to prove. Redshirt senior center Alex Officer is huge at 6'4" and 335 pounds, and he returns as a starter. It's always possible that he moves to guard if a quality center is found. Otherwise, he'll stay at center. At guard, 6'6" 315 pound redshirt junior Alex Booker is back as a starter and I expect him to take his game up to an all-star level.

Redshirt senior tackle Aaron Reese, redshirt senior guard Carson Baker, and redshirt junior center Connor Dintino were all listed as backups this season, so any could move up to being a starter. Many others will try to move into position for playing time including redshirt juniors Mike Grimm, redshirt sophomores Tony Pilato and Alex Paulina, and  redshirt freshmen Brandon Ford, Bryce Hargrove, and Justin Morgan. Your guess is as good as mine as far as this bunch goes. True freshmen center Owen Drexel, and offensive tackles Carter Warren and Gabe Houy, all have promise, but few true freshmen offensive linemen can see the field. Major tackle target Thayer Mumford is someone that, if the Panthers land him, could possibly be good enough to see time as a true freshman as a backup.

Beyond 2017: The unit will try to make a smooth transition from the veterans of this year and the younger group that includes Warren, Ford, Houy, Drexel, Morgan, and possibly Mumford. It's anybody's guess what will happen here because offensive linemen are the most difficult to predict, but as far as potential there is at least a lot of it.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Narduzzi is right on track at Pitt

Pitt football fans have been frustrated this season because the Panthers will probably be 5-5 after this weekend, and the losses all seemed winnable, even against Miami for most of the game. But the truth is, this is the kind of season that usually happens when a new head coach starts out at a new program.

The first season for a new head coach usually has enough veterans to eek out a decent, or even good season.  In the second and third season, however, those veterans start to depart, along with any other veterans that aren't in the plans, and who have to be replaced by the players that the new head coach brings in. The problem with that is that those players are too young and inexperienced to fill the gap. It's often not until year four that those talented young players turn into talented veteran players, and that's when most head coaches have their first breakout season.

Just to use some examples, Walt Harris took over Pitt and went 6-6. In seasons two and three he went 2-9 and 5-6. Then he won 7 or more games for the next five seasons. Mark Dantonio was 7-6 at Michigan State in his first year, went 9-4 his second year, then 6-7 in his third year. That's a 22-17 record in the first three seasons. In his fourth year he went 11-2.

Dabo Swinney had a head start as an interim coach at Clemson, and actually coached seven games before his first full season. He still ended up going 6-7 in his second full season before turning it around and getting double digit wins the next six years. He was a combined 19-15 in his interim season and first two full seasons. 

There are many other examples. Charlie Strong was 7-6 in each of his first two seasons at Louisville. In season three he went 11-2. In Mike Gundy's first three seasons he went 4-7, 7-6, and 7-6. In season four he went 9-4 and didn't win double digit wins until season six. At Baylor, Art Briles went 4-8, 4-8, and 7-6 in the first three seasons before going 10-3 in season four. At Washington, Chris Petersen when 7-6 and 8-6 in his first two seasons before starting 9-0 this season. Mike Leach was 3-9, 6-7, and 3-9 in his firs three seasons at Washington State before going 9-4 in season four. At Tennessee, Butch Jones went 5-7 and 7-6 before breaking through to go 9-4 in season three. Even the great Nick Saban took time to turn around programs. At Michigan State he was 25-22-1 in the first four seasons. At LSU he lost 12 games in his first three seasons before being co-National Champion. Even at Alabama he went 7-6 in his first season.

Now looking at Pat Narduzzi, he went 8-5 in his first season and will probably be 5-5 after this weekend. The Panthers will be the favorite over Duke and Syracuse to end the regular season. For the same of argument, let's say they win those two since they've yet to lose a game in which they were favored (don't say Pitt won't win another game because it just makes you look crazy). That would make Pitt 7-5. With a bowl, the Panthers could be 7-6, which would be disappointing but still in line with many other coaches in their second year, or 8-5 which would make him 16-10 in his first two seasons. That would be a highly impressive first two years in a middle of a turnaround.

In year three Narduzzi could have a slight downturn since it will be his big gap year between Paul Chryst's players and his own players. Players like James Conner, Scott Orndoff, Adam Bisnowaty, Dorian Johnson, Tyrique Jarrett, and Ejuan Price will be gone and will have to be replaced by younger players. Those younger players are very talented, and if they're talented enough their lack of experience won't matter, but it definitely could. Either way, in year four, Thomas MacVittie will be starting for the second year, and the offense and defense will be loaded with talented starters brought in by Narduzzi. Players in their prime at that time will include Quadree Henderson, Tre Tipton, Aaron Mathews, Charles Reeves, Alex Bookser, Chawntez Moss, Todd Sibley, George Aston, Damar Hamlin, Keyshon Camp, Amir Watts, Henry Miller, Paris Ford, Therran Coleman, Rashad Weaver, Elijah Zeise, Phil Campbell, Bricen Garner, Kaezon Pugh, Chase Pine, Saleem Brightwell, Cam Bright, Jay Stocker, and Rashad Wheeler. Potential wildcards, who will still have eligibility but could leave early for the NFL, are Jordan Whitehead, Chris Clark, Dwayne Hendrix, and Brian O'Neill.

Looking more closely at this year, the offense has been much better than the defense, and when looking at the roster it's easy to understand why. Chryst recruited extremely well on offense but also recruited poorly on defense. Against Miami, the Panthers had two starters on defense that had at least five P5 offers coming out of high school- not surprisingly their two most decorated defensive players, Ejuan Price and Jordan Whitehead. Narduzzi brought in fourteen defensive players with at least five P5 offers just last year. Players like Watts, Camp, Pine, Pugh, Hamlin, just to name some, will be much better in Narduzzi's defense than those that were starting this year. Not only are they more talented than the players starting this year, but they were also brought in by Narduzzi specifically for his defense. 

The current defensive line has been good, mostly because of Price, but a defensive line that has the likes of Hendrix, Watts, and Camp could be potentially outstanding. As for the linebacker and defensive back units, it's a fact that both have been way below par. The seniors in those two groups are Matt Galambos, Bam Bradley, Mike Caprara, Ryan Lewis, and Terrish Webb, and unfortunately all have been highly overmatched. 

Quentin Wirginis will replace Galambos next year, and he'll be an upgrade. Pine and Pugh will be among those that should play a lot at linebacker as redshirt freshmen, and while both will be inexperienced they are both much more talented than their predecessors. Elijah Zeise will also be back from an injury, and he looked promising in camp this season. At defensive back, Hamlin will likely replace Lewis, and Stocker, Garner, and true freshman Paris Ford will replace Webb. Both positions are obviously huge upgrades. 

When at Michigan State, Narduzzi stayed with his system and said to be patient until he got the players that fit it. In his third season for the Spartans, his pass defense finished 112th in the nation. In year four they finished 60th. In the next three years they finished 11th, 9th, and 3rd. In other words, having players like Hamlin, Ford, Coleman, etc. makes a big difference. You need the players. 

Offense shouldn't regress either, especially if Matt Canada stays. Canada thinks MacVittie has NFL potential and at 6'5" and 230 pounds, with speed in the 4.5s, you can see why. Moss and Sibley will be dynamite at running back for the next three years and even Aston will be with the Panthers for the next two years. At wide receiver, Weah is back for another year, Henderson is back for two more years, and Tipton and Mathews are back for three more years. Their natural progression alone should make this unit a strength eventually, and that doesn't even include any players that haven't made their move yet. Tight end is a major strength with Clark and Reeves, and the OL still has Jaryd Jones-Smith and Officer back next year, Booker back for two more years, and O'Neill back for one or two years depending on if he goes early to the NFL after next year. Justin Morgan, Brandon Ford, Gabe Houy, Owen Drexel, and Carter Warren are the next group, and while it's still early they have a ton of upside. The cherry on top would be Thayer Mumford, who turns this very good group into an excellent group. 

Bottom line, it usually takes about three or four years to turn a program into a big winner, and often there isn't much winning going on while that transition happens. The fact that Narduzzi is still winning most of his games despite his defense having very few players that are capable at the moment, is pretty impressive. But when we will really see Narduzzi flourish is when he has the players on defense that are much more talented. The offense started seven players against Miami that had at least five P5 offers, and that doesn't even include Conner, Weah, Aston, or O'Neill- four really good players. When the talent on defense matches the talent on offense, the Panthers will finally arrive.