Byline by Lee Pickens
While watching a recent documentary about 100 years of Pitt football that Bob Jeffery had posted on his “Real Pitt Football Talk” Facebook site – something came to me in a flash like Curtis Martin running wild against Texas in ’94.
I realized something very simple. We have a real disconnect between the coaching staff and the players.
While watching a game the other day our opponent kept scoring against us, and my Dad, a rabid Pitt fan, kept asking me “How do we stop these guys? Should we blitz the gaps? ” or “why did we run a jet sweep on 3rd and 1?”.
Thinking I knew the answers I explained the sets Pitt’s defense were in and plays we were calling and how these players just couldn’t execute. I wondered if that was the case over the last five years also… that was until I watched that documentary from 1990.
If it is really apparent that the players aren’t bad or not good enough to compete, then I’ll agree that recruiting is all-important. But if you are only going to get only three star or a sprinkled few four star talents like Pitt has done over the last few years then COACHING is the key…
Now this doesn’t mean Pitt’s coordinators have run complex defenses or trick plays on offense. It comes down to the Coordinators ensuring that the position coaches teach fundamentals such as efficient running, blocking, tackling; coming back to the football to make the catch and how to lead the receiver by the QB. Throw in other basic football talents like knowing when to call for a fair catch or to throw the ball away to avoid a sack.
These are all things that can be coached up, but many times aren’t, at least not well enough to show a consistent high quality of play on the field. This is a real part of Pitt’s problems in this ongoing 2017 season.
Pitt’s coaches these days work hard putting in new plays and going over film but are they focusing on the correct things with such a young football team? The answer appears to be ‘no’ based on what we have seen so far in this year.
I’d like to take a step back and speak about the current state of the program.
We recently started tapping back into Pitt’s great tradition of getting players from around the Pittsburgh area and the outlying towns in Ohio. Recent WPA recruits Safety Jordan Whitehead, LB Kaezeon Pugh, DB Damar Hamlin and Safety Paris Ford were great ‘gets’ as recruits but no matter what their HS talent level was highly rated recruits have to turn into good college players – and that is where effective coaching comes in.
This combination of talent and coaching is what made Pitt a powerhouse during the 70’s through the mid 80’s. As was stated earlier we are not always going to get too many five-star kids from around here, when there are some that is, to come to Pitt. Look up WR Robert Foster’s college career; he chose to be a depth player at Alabama rather than an almost sure starter at Pitt and potentially being a star and segueing into the NFL – he was that talented.
Pitt has a lot of players get drafted in the last five season – it isn’t a stretch to think Foster would have been one of them:
That said even in Pitt’s worst years you can see how many Pitt players of all recruiting rankings are in, or have been in, the NFL.
This year there were 17 returning players in NFL camps this summer (above), along with the many guys who were picked up by NFL teams after last season. All this shows we have had a lot of physical talent on our recent rosters.
So I believe the biggest issue facing this team right now necessarily isn’t being younger; it is the coaching staff. I believe Pat Narduzzi certainly is the right man for the job. He has the potential to be a lifer at Pitt and not run for the first opportunity elsewhere like his predecessors with their “High Octane Offense!” have done; nor does he have a “Chryst like demeanor.” He is a motivator and an emotional coach who cares about his players. His downfall however could be his unswerving loyalty to his coaching staff.
At what point does he hear jet sweep being called through his headset on 3rd and 1 and just says NO! and then request a change to a simple dive or QB sneak?
It’s time he starts to live up to the promises he made to the student athletes in their living rooms when he recruited them. And that is that they would get the best coaching staff available.
Some of the staff’s personnel decisions have been productive like using DB Jordan Whitehead on offense. He has amazing vision and acceleration yet after the game Coach Narduzzi said “The line seems to block better for him!” Sorry coach, but whether that is tongue-in-cheek or not maybe the problem is the Offensive Line coach himself, John Peterson, who has his OL players rotating in and out all game.
If the OL kids are not in shape enough to play the entire game that is a problem… a coaching and strength and conditioning problem. I know one of them was recently converted from the D line. How about moving him back there and picking your best five actual OL players so they can develop into a cohesive unit.
Some of the blocking schemes are so ridiculously complicated they had the strong side tight end try to block the weak side defensive end? That play was the direct result in leading to QB Max Browne getting hurt in the latter half of the Syracuse game.
This in turn led to Kenny Pickett, who is the future of the program, losing his redshirt on a single meaningless 13 yard pass. But had we put him in the first to run the offense when DiNucci’s helmet came off the first time we could have saved that time out maybe we could have got into field goal range later in the series? Again questionable staff calls.
The coaching staff also has decided we should have converted WR’s playing linebacker. Look at Syracuse’s rushing TD in the second half of last week’s game. A WR trying to take on a 275 pound fullback on the goal line? If the coaches weren’t trying to be geniuses, Sean Idowu Pitt’s best defensive player, wouldn’t have had to put on weight and could have been a phenomenal Strong Safety. That move would have allowed Whitehead to play Free Safety and DB’s coach to rotate in Hamlin when necessary.
Pitt needs to get back to fundamentals of football, learn and practice those to effectiveness and stop creating situations on the field where we are beating ourselves. If you watched the Pitt-PSU game can you say honestly say now that PSU looked like the #3 team in the country? Not even close.
Sure they have one of the best RB in college football but he was a non-factor for the most part. It was Pitt’s questionable play calling and defensive formations that helped us to lose that game along with the three others we have dropped.
Before I began writing this I was convinced that the right plays were being called but just not being executed by Pitt players. So I re-watched a few of the games again. Indeed with a closer second-hand look a lot of the play calling on offense was, well, just offensive. For instance our OC Shawn Watson has continued to use shovel passes on 3rd and long yardage when we showed that play so many times last season and again earlier this year that it takes no one by surprise any longer.
Is it any wonder that our 3rd down conversion rate is an absymal 34% and ranked #103rd nationally?
Watson insists calling screens inside the red zone which lead to a safety. It didn’t help when the QB forgot that the screen play call was actually passed by himself to the 10 others in the huddle just seconds before, but that is a risky play to call so deep in your own territory regardless.
In every game we see players not lined up in correct formations on defense when the ball was snapped. Not because they weren’t smart enough to run those formations but mostly because the coaches were not getting the sets called into the defensive captain in time!
And over and over we are seeing missed tackles on defense and on offense blockers using bad techniques. We’ve watch our supposed star WR Jester Weah dropping passes or our heralded Special Team’s returner Quadree Henderson letting the ball bounce down to the 5 yard line on a punt return.
These are all things that can, and with the upper classmen, already should have been coached firmly and thoroughly. So I think the unit position coaches need to start being held accountable for most of these problems.
I know people will say it’s not the “X’s and O’s” so much but is the “Jim’s and the Joe’s”! Well when the Jim’s and Joe’s can’t block, run, tackle or catch properly at this level of play does it matter what play is called?
Regardless, it’s time for the coaches to get back to the basics and focus on fundamentals and not their ego’s…