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Pitt football's got demons. Pat Narduzzi might be the guy to exorcise them

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The Panthers have weapons. They also have two decades of bad luck to overcome. Their new head coach has made it through this kind of situation before.

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Wanted: an exorcist

Ignore the name on the helmet for a moment.

When a team brings a new coach aboard, it's a good time to look at the roster instead of the previous season's results. Sure, Pitt's results last year weren't horrendous -- the Panthers improved slightly for the third straight year under Paul Chryst, beat BC, Virginia Tech, and Miami, and were held back by a 1-5 record in one-possession games -- but the season-ending 6-7 belies what Chryst was returning in 2015.

So here are some components:

  • A former four-star quarterback who completed 61 percent of his passes with a 16-to-7 TD-to-INT ratio last year as a sophomore.
  • Perhaps the country's most efficient big running back.
  • One of the nation's best wide receivers, targeted more frequently than Amari Cooper but still averaging more than 10 yards per target.
  • An offensive line that returns six players with starting experience (62 career starts), including a former five-star coming into his own.
  • One of the country's most underrated offensive coordinators, someone who crafted a top-10 (according to Off. S&P+) offense around two receivers at Tennessee in 2012, then a run-heavy top-15 offense at Arkansas two years later.
  • A front seven that returns six players who had at least four tackles for loss.
  • A secondary that returns six of its top seven, including a ball-hawking safety and an aggressive senior cornerback.
  • One of the country's best defensive minds at head coach, along with a defensive coordinator that improved FIU's defense by 46 spots in Def. S&P+ last fall.

Ignore the name on the helmet, and you could talk yourself into that team, yes? But that helmet's hard to ignore.

A close-game record evens out over time; at least, it's supposed to. One lucky or unlucky year hints at an optical illusion, a team that isn't what it seems. The real team is exposed soon enough. But while I gave up on talking about curses long ago -- which, as a Missouri fan, is a big deal -- Pitt's got a case.

Call it the Curse of Johnny Majors. In the last 18 seasons, since Majors retired and Walt Harris took over, Pitt has had a winning record in one-possession games just five times and has been at least two games under .500 in such games nine times. In this nearly two-decade sample, the Panthers are 35-53 in these contests, a 0.397 win percentage.

That's incredible.

In three years under Chryst, Pitt ranked in the F/+ top 50 three times and boasted a strong offense (24th in 2014) and defenses (26th in 2012, 32nd in 2013). But they went 5-10 in one-score games and managed an 18-20 record overall.

Last year was a master class. Against Iowa, Pitt led by 10 points at halftime, outgained the Hawkeyes by 124 yards, and lost. Against Duke, the Panthers allowed a fourth-quarter kick return score, missed a 26-yard field goal at the end of regulation, and lost in double-overtime. Against UNC, Pitt led by 14 in the second quarter, outgained the Tar Heels, and took the lead with three minutes left, then gave up the game-winner in the final minute. In the Armed Forces Bowl, after Chryst had already left for Wisconsin, Pitt led by 25 points with 11 minutes left, but Houston recovered back-to-back onside kicks, scored three times in three minutes, and won.

The Panthers have managed to attend 13 bowls and share two conference titles in these 18 years. If these demons that have taken over Heinz Field ever relinquish their powers, Pitt could easily become an annual ACC Coastal contender.

And if you're looking to slay demons, it makes sense to hire the guy who helped to slay Michigan State's.

Sixteen years ago, Nick Saban left East Lansing for Baton Rouge, starting a seven-year period of frustration and the "Sparty, No!" meme. Under Bobby Williams and John L. Smith, the Spartans put a lot of individual talent on the field, dropped hints of excellent play, and went 38-45. From 2002-06, they went 4-14 in games decided by one possession. Nobody snatched disappointment from the jaws of hope as frequently as early-aughts Sparty.

Dantonio's Spartans have gone through ups and downs based on which way the close-game winds have blown; they went 6-12 in one-possession games from 2007-09, then went 8-1 in 2010-11 before settling into a nice 7-6 groove since.

But after going 22-17 in his first three years, Dantonio's gone 53-14 since, and that's including a 7-6 campaign in 2012.

It took Narduzzi and his boss Dantonio a while to get rolling, but "Sparty, No!" has been slain. Can Narduzzi do it again?

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 43
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug Delaware N/A 62-0 W 99% 53.2 100%
5-Sep at Boston College 36 30-20 W 82% 21.6 92%
13-Sep at Florida International 96 42-25 W 74% 14.7 96%
20-Sep Iowa 63 20-24 L 44% -3.4 37%
27-Sep Akron 105 10-21 L 22% -18.1 8%
4-Oct at Virginia 39 19-24 L 52% 1.3 50%
16-Oct Virginia Tech 33 21-16 W 78% 18.0 93%
25-Oct Georgia Tech 8 28-56 L 17% -22.6 0%
1-Nov Duke 51 48-51 L 53% 1.7 40%
15-Nov at North Carolina 70 35-40 L 49% -0.5 67%
22-Nov Syracuse 80 30-7 W 89% 28.4 100%
29-Nov at Miami 31 35-23 W 93% 35.3 99%
2-Jan vs. Houston 73 34-35 L 54% 2.6 47%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 36.1 24 28.2 65
Points Per Game 31.8 46 26.3 60

2. One heck of a midseason funk

Pitt was drastically unlucky, but the Panthers were also below-average for a good percentage of the year. We can talk about curses all we want, but curses had nothing to do with Pitt forgetting losing by 11 points at home to Akron.

  • Average Percentile Performance (first 3 games): 85% (record: 3-0)
  • Average Percentile Performance (next 7 games): 45% (record: 1-6)
  • Average Percentile Performance (last 2 games): 91% (record: 2-0)

Ignoring the bowl game, Pitt's first three and final two games showed a team capable of powerful offense and stout run defense. The Panthers held BC, Syracuse, and Miami to an average of 4.1 yards per carry, pounded early with Conner (first three games: 81 carries, 544 yards), and threw over opponents late. The Pitt in this sample was balanced and dangerous.

The Pitt of the middle seven games was dreadful on defense and inconsistent throwing; Georgia Tech, Duke, and UNC combined to average 49 points per game and 7.3 yards per play. Akron and Virginia were able to corral Conner, quarterback Chad Voytik wasn't ready, and the defense suffered enough breakdowns for close losses. And a strong performance against Virginia Tech was followed by three consecutive duds.

There was no single injury that could explain Pitt's inconsistency, but youth played a role. Pitt started sophomores at quarterback, running back, and receiver and started three freshmen/sophomores on the offensive line. And while the front seven was pretty experienced, the secondary was littered with freshmen and sophomores.

That there was no single cause might be a good thing, with new coaching blood taking over. But while it's easy to see a high ceiling, mid-2014 serves as a reminder of a low floor, too.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.76 109 IsoPPP+ 117.7 32
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 51.7% 2 Succ. Rt. + 131.8 4
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 26.4 4 Def. FP+ 107.0 10
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.7 42 Redzone S&P+ 134.7 2
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 19.4 ACTUAL 19 -0.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 43 15 5 32
RUSHING 16 7 3 17
PASSING 104 29 18 44
Standard Downs 19 5 32
Passing Downs 27 22 27
Q1 Rk 31 1st Down Rk 14
Q2 Rk 11 2nd Down Rk 35
Q3 Rk 12 3rd Down Rk 12
Q4 Rk 19

3. Jim Chaney and adaptability

Chaney is one of my favorite coordinators. He was Joe Tiller's coordinator during Purdue's renaissance (1997-05), and he spent three years as an NFL assistant (2006-08). He helped to blur the lines between pro-style and spread in four years as Tennessee's O.C., and he has solid results; he improved the Vols from 108th in Off. S&P+ to 27th in 2009, and with an experienced line and two solid receivers, his last Tennessee defense ranked 10th.

Bret Bielema hired him at Arkansas, and after some first-year struggles, he was pulling the strings for a devastating Hog offense that ranked 15th in Off. S&P+.

Chaney does what his personnel dictates. He has succeeded with average quarterbacks (he had a top-30 offense with Jonathan Crompton and a top-15 offense with Brandon Allen), he runs the ball when he's got good backs, and he gets receivers open, even in power sets.

And while receiver depth is a serious concern for Pitt, Chaney inherits stars at running back and receiver, a quarterback with a high ceiling, and a strong, experienced offensive line. Pitt improved to 24th in Off. S&P+ last year, and I would be surprised if the Panthers weren't in the top 25 again this year.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Chad Voytik 6'1, 205 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9177 176 287 2233 16 7 61.3% 20 6.5% 6.8
Trey Anderson
11 18 155 1 0 61.1% 1 5.3% 7.9
Adam Bertke 6'6, 210 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8514
Jaquaun Davidson 6'2, 170 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8451

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
James Conner RB 6'2, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8370 298 1765 26 5.9 4.9 46.0% 4 3
Chad Voytik QB 6'1, 205 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9177 88 610 3 6.9 5.9 53.4% 7 4
Chris James RB 5'11, 210 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8884 87 437 4 5.0 3.0 43.7% 1 0
Isaac Bennett RB
51 272 2 5.3 4.0 47.1% 2 1
Rachid Ibrahim RB 6'1, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8001 33 263 0 8.0 5.9 60.6% 0 0
Tyler Boyd WR 6'2, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9392 12 63 0 5.3 3.4 58.3% 3 1
Jaymar Parrish TE 6'2, 270 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8245
Qadree Ollison RB 6'2, 215 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8498
Darrin Hall RB 5'11, 215 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8974







4. Absurd rush efficiency

Before I gush too much, I should point out that the right side of the offensive line is getting overhauled. The Panthers must replace two all-conference linemen -- three-year starting guard Matt Rotheram and two-year starting tackle T.J. Clemmings -- and there's no guarantee that they can match last year, in which Conner rushed for at least 120 yards seven times and Pitt ranked third in Success Rate+.

But it's hard to worry, isn't it? Conner wore down at the end of the year (last three games: 48 carries, 203 yards), but he's had an offseason to recover, and he's got three exciting battery mates in efficient sophomore Chris James, explosive junior Rachid Ibrahim, and four-star freshman Darrin Hall.

And while Chaney offenses don't tend to feature mobile quarterbacks, Voytik rushed about seven times per game last year (not including sacks) and gained nearly seven yards per carry. He picks his moments well.

And while Pitt's line will be less experienced, the upside is obvious. Former five-star guard Dorian Johnson is coming into his own and lines up next to a former four-star in Adam Bisnowaty. There are a couple of other former four-stars in the mix, and sophomores like Alex Officer and Jaryd Jones-Smith got quite a bit of playing time. The line won't be as big as the one Chaney had at Arkansas, but it should be big enough: the 14 linemen listed below average 6'5, 313. And they're blocking for a 250-pounder. They'll lean on you just fine.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Tyler Boyd WR 6'2, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9392 122 78 1261 63.9% 41.5% 52.5% 10.3 317 10.4 197.1
Manasseh Garner WR
35 17 201 48.6% 11.9% 42.9% 5.7 -17 6.0 31.4
J.P. Holtz TE 6'4, 245 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8848 26 21 199 80.8% 8.8% 69.2% 7.7 -45 7.4 31.1
Kevin Weatherspoon WR
26 15 195 57.7% 8.8% 42.3% 7.5 10 7.3 30.5
Isaac Bennett RB
17 12 125 70.6% 5.8% 41.2% 7.4 -18 6.3 19.5
Rachid Ibrahim RB 6'1, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8001 14 11 73 78.6% 4.8% 42.9% 5.2 -55 4.9 11.4
Ronald Jones WR
13 9 79 69.2% 4.4% 38.5% 6.1 -28 5.6 12.3
Adonis Jennings WR
8 6 55 75.0% 2.7% 75.0% 6.9 -16 8.1 8.6
Dontez Ford WR 6'2, 205 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8007 8 3 50 37.5% 2.7% 25.0% 6.3 9 9.2 7.8
James Conner RB 6'2, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8370 7 5 70 71.4% 2.4% 100.0% 10.0 11 N/A 10.9
Scott Orndoff HB 6'5, 260 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8584 7 4 24 57.1% 2.4% 85.7% 3.4 -25 4.3 3.8
Jester Weah WR 6'3, 205 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8191 3 0 0 0.0% 1.0% 66.7% 0.0 -4 0.0 0.0
Chris Wuestner WR 6'2, 205 Jr. NR NR 1 1 8 100.0% 0.3% 100.0% 8.0 -3 N/A 1.2
Zach Challingsworth WR 6'2, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8185
Tony Harper TE 6'4, 220 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8173
Devon Edwards TE 6'4, 260 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8113
Elijah Zeise WR 6'2, 195 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8437
Quadree Henderson WR 5'8, 170 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8590

5. Wanted: a No. 2

Chaney still has a puzzle to solve in the passing game, but there's reason for optimism. For starters, Voytik improved drastically.

  • Chad Voytik (first 7 games): 59% completion rate, 11.1 yards/completion, 3.8% INT rate
  • Chad Voytik (last 6 games): 65% completion rate, 14.5 yards/completion, 0.8% INT rate

After some early-season miscues, Voytik and star receiver Tyler Boyd clicked; Boyd averaged seven catches and 125 yards per game during Voytik's six-game surge. Assuming Boyd faces no lengthy punishment for his recent DUI charge, Voytik-to-Boyd will be one of the ACC's best connections.

After that, though? Who knows? Tight end J.P. Holtz is a decent option, but the next four after Boyd are gone. The No. 2 returning WR is Dontez Ford, who caught three passes.

And while Chryst recruited well at a lot of positions, the ratings here are less than amazing. Jester Weah and Zach Challingsworth, low-three-star sophomores with zero combined catches, filled in the second-string on the two-deep this spring. Chaney, who is not averse to dumping the ball to running backs, will have to get creative in finding weapons for Voytik.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 121.4 3.57 3.06 48.4% 77.4% 15.3% 101.5 8.1% 5.3%
Rank 8 5 88 4 11 17 68 117 32
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Matt Rotheram RG 39 2014 2nd All-ACC
T.J. Clemmings RT
26 2014 1st All-ACC
Adam Bisnowaty LT 6'6, 305 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8954 19
Dorian Johnson LG 6'5, 300 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9772 15
Artie Rowell C 6'2, 315 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8073 15
Alex Officer C 6'4, 335 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8404 10
Jaryd Jones-Smith RT 6'7, 335 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8277 2
Gabe Roberts C 6'5, 305 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7793 1
John Guy LT 6'7, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) NR 0
Alex Bookser RG 6'6, 295 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9223 0
Aaron Reese RT 6'5, 310 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8239 0
Carson Baker LG 6'5, 330 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7854 0
Mike Grimm OL 6'6, 325 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8721
Mike Herndon RG 6'4, 320 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.7907
Alex Paulina OL 6'3, 300 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8600
Tony Pilato OL 6'5, 315 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8457

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.88 80 IsoPPP+ 89.3 104
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 41.3% 67 Succ. Rt. + 98.1 76
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 32.5 23 Off. FP+ 104.0 25
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.0 120 Redzone S&P+ 92.2 95
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 19.4 ACTUAL 14.0 -5.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 34 94 77 104
RUSHING 57 93 83 95
PASSING 25 82 70 94
Standard Downs 110 101 107
Passing Downs 56 32 76
Q1 Rk 69 1st Down Rk 71
Q2 Rk 73 2nd Down Rk 117
Q3 Rk 76 3rd Down Rk 46
Q4 Rk 98

6. Risk vs. reward

How Narduzzi's defense works

Narduzzi's Michigan State defenses were fascinating; the Spartans were willing to sacrifice the occasional big play for turnovers and three-and-outs. They attacked what offenses did best and dared college quarterbacks to make throws college quarterbacks can't usually make. The strategy was analytical, and the personnel was mean.

Pitt's defense could use plenty of analytical meanness. The Panthers were passive on standard downs (but still figured out ways to allow big plays) and pushovers near the goal line. Late-game fades suggested they didn't have much depth.

A defensive drop-off was to be expected; the Panthers had to replace not only all-world tackle Aaron Donald, but nose tackle Tyrone Ezell and injured end Ejuan Price. They fell from 10th to 52nd in Adj. Line Yards, from 35th to 103rd in Adj. Sack Rate, and from 32nd to 65th in overall Def. S&P+.

Still, whether it's understandable, a stout front is essential for what Narduzzi wants to accomplish. Can a more experienced unit improve enough to balance risk and reward?

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 101.6 2.87 3.05 40.6% 75.6% 19.2% 74 2.4% 6.9%
Rank 52 59 42 88 108 67 103 116 76
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Darryl Render DT 6'2, 275 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8468 12 25.0 4.0% 6.0 2.0 0 4 1 0
Shakir Soto DE 6'3, 270 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8473 13 23.0 3.7% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
David Durham DE
12 23.0 3.7% 3.5 3.0 0 2 0 0
Khaynin Mosley-Smith NT 6'0, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8482 13 22.5 3.6% 2.0 0.0 0 3 0 0
Ejuan Price (2013) DE 6'0, 255 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.9000 6 17.5 2.6% 4.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Rori Blair DE 6'4, 230 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8200 12 12.5 2.0% 5.5 5.0 0 2 0 0
Justin Moody DT 6'3, 280 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8528 13 7.5 1.2% 1.0 1.0 0 2 0 0
Tyrique Jarrett NT 6'3, 335 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8617 8 4.5 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Luke Maclean DL
4 4.5 0.7% 1.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Devin Cook DE
9 3.0 0.5% 0.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Jeremiah Taleni DT 6'2, 295 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8120 6 2.0 0.3% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Reggie Green DE 6'2, 225 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8380
Connor Dintino DT 6'3, 295 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8356
Shane Roy DE 6'4, 245 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8407








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Anthony Gonzalez SAM
13 71.5 11.5% 5.0 1.0 0 2 0 0
Todd Thomas WILL
13 61.0 9.8% 5.5 0.0 1 3 0 1
Matt Galambos WILL 6'2, 245 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8315 13 57.5 9.3% 4.5 0.0 1 1 0 0
Bam Bradley SAM 6'2, 230 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8728 13 29.5 4.8% 4.0 2.0 1 1 0 0
Nicholas Grigsby MLB 6'1, 220 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8671 13 24.5 4.0% 4.0 3.0 0 0 2 0
Mike Caprara SLB 6'0, 225 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7000 3 4.5 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Quintin Wirginis WILL 6'2, 220 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8005 12 4.0 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jameel Poteat MLB 5'10, 210 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8976
Jamal Davis II LB 6'2, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8432
Anthony McKee LB 6'2, 200 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8863
Saleem Brightwell LB 6'0, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8550








7. Whole vs. sum of parts

Looking at individual pieces, you can craft a pretty good front seven. Darryl Render is a quick, if movable, defensive tackle who combined six TFLs with four break-ups. Equally movable end Rori Blair showed potential as a pass-rush specialist -- five of his 12.5 tackles were sacks. Khaynin Mosley-Smith is a bowling ball who gets his hands up on passes. Former four-star linebacker Nicholas Grigsby has had blitzing success, and Matt Galambos was pretty disruptive against the run.

But only Mosley-Smith and Galambos are particularly big for their positions. And even with this group, plus since-departed linebackers Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas, Pitt's defense was below average. And again, while there are former star recruits elsewhere, there's really no such thing on the line.

This might be the perfect time for a new coaching staff. This wasn't an awful defense, but it wasn't good enough. And the staff has a record of fast improvement; in his first year as Michigan State's coordinator, Narduzzi's defense improved from 86th in Def. S&P+ to 50th. And after a single-year reset in 2013, in which his defense fell from 78th to 107th, new D.C. Josh Conklin's FIU defense improved all the way to 61st, four spots ahead of Pitt.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Ray Vinopal FS
13 55.5 9.0% 2 0 2 5 2 0
Reggie Mitchell SS 6'0, 185 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8144 13 53.0 8.5% 3 1 0 7 2 0
Lafayette Pitts CB 5'11, 195 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9289 13 35.5 5.7% 1 0 2 6 0 0
Avonte Maddox CB 5'9, 165 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8377 13 29.0 4.7% 0 0 0 3 0 0
Terrish Webb SS 5'11, 180 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8061 9 28.5 4.6% 1 0 2 1 0 0
Pat Amara FS 6'2, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8269 10 14.0 2.3% 1 0 1 1 0 0
Ryan Lewis CB 6'0, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8022 12 8.5 1.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jevonte Pitts SS 5'11, 205 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7000
Jalen Williams DB 6'2, 180 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8351
Phillipie Motley DB 5'10, 170 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8410
Dennis Briggs CB 5'10, 195 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8085
Malik Henderson CB 6'0, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8433
Jordan Whitehead S 5'11, 185 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9494
Jay Stocker S 6'2, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8656








8. The secondary should take to NarduzziBall

The break-don't-bend defense that Narduzzi patented in East Lansing asks a lot of every position. The line has to be disruptive enough for the linebackers to swallow up any running game, and the cornerbacks have to be stout because the safeties are too close to the line of scrimmage to clean up messes.

There's no guarantee that an iffy pass rush will improve, and that alone could result in too much work for the secondary. But if the front seven is competent, the secondary should make plays. Lafayette Pitts is a solid No. 1 corner, and while Avonte Maddox was overwhelmed at times as a freshman, he's a scrapper. Reggie Mitchell fits the template of a Narduzzi safety: decent at ball-hawking, great near the line.

Depth could be an issue -- after these three and safety Terrish Webb is a sea of unknowns -- but as long as the starting four is on the field, the secondary should be the least of Narduzzi's concerns.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Ryan Winslow 6'5, 210 So. 50 40.1 4 18 21 78.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Chris Blewitt 5'9, 185 Jr. 78 62.6 37 4 47.4%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Chris Blewitt 5'9, 185 Jr. 50-51 9-11 81.8% 7-10 70.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Tyler Boyd KR 6'2, 190 Jr. 16 27.6 0
Avonte Maddox KR 5'9, 165 So. 11 19.9 0
Tyler Boyd PR 6'2, 190 Jr. 16 10.1 0
Kevin Weatherspoon PR 4 1.5 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 61
Field Goal Efficiency 42
Punt Return Efficiency 82
Kick Return Efficiency 60
Punt Efficiency 69
Kickoff Efficiency 53
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 98

9. Making your breakdowns count

If you remember two things from Pitt's 2014, they're probably a) the missed chip-shot that cost the Panthers the Duke game, and b) the two onside kicks Houston recovered late in the bowl.

Your logical conclusion, then, would be that the Pitt special teams unit was terrible. Not true! It was almost perfectly mediocre, ranking between 42nd and 82nd in all five primary categories above.

Chris Blewitt made nine of his other 10 field goals inside of 40 yards. Plus, Ryan Winslow is a wonderful finesse punter -- nearly half of his punts were downed inside the 20 -- and while Boyd's punt returns are inconsistent, they're occasionally explosive.

There's plenty to like about this unit; there's also nothing to like too much. But wow, talk about making your miscues count.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
5-Sep Youngstown State NR
12-Sep at Akron 112
19-Sep at Iowa 57
3-Oct at Virginia Tech 26
10-Oct Virginia 46
17-Oct at Georgia Tech 19
24-Oct at Syracuse 73
29-Oct North Carolina 44
7-Nov Notre Dame 16
14-Nov at Duke 54
21-Nov Louisville 32
27-Nov Miami 28
Five-Year F/+ Rk 14.3% (39)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 42 / 46
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -5 / 0.0
2014 TO Luck/Game -1.9
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (8, 7)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 8.3 (-2.3)

10. With just a little good fortune...

I know, I know. Saying "If Pitt gets just a little bit of good luck ..." is the college football version of saying "If this country would just adopt a high-speed rail system ..." or "If we could just get Andre and Big Boi in the studio again one time ..." We can pretend it's a possibility, but we've been given too much contrary evidence to believe it will happen.

But if Pitt can break even in the luck department, the Panthers could be dangerous enough to keep an eye on. A top-35 team could win nine or 10 games against this schedule, but with four home opponents projected between 28th and 46th and three road opponents between 26th and 57th, the Panthers will need to hop up to have a good year.

They can do it. Their quarterback had a late-season breakout, and if their No. 1 receiver is in uniform, he is one of the country's best. They have an efficient run game and a secondary that should hold its own, even against a decent set of quarterbacks. If Narduzzi and Conklin can make something of the front seven, this team won't have any devastating weaknesses.

And from the coaching staff to the players on the field, Pitt has more exciting components than a majority of the ACC. The program made what seems like a great coaching hire, and he has players to work with. We'll see if that is enough to overcome the rain cloud that has followed the Panthers for two decades.