A TALE OF TWO TOWNS; Chapter 2
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
This second in a series article takes an in-depth look at transfer QB Ricky Town’s backstory and it is an interesting one. Usually when a player comes onto a school’s roster one takes a glance at where and when he played his previous football and moves on. But in this case the more I read about Ricky Town the more interested, and then fascinated, I became so I started making phone calls to satisfy my curiosity about the young man and from there I felt his was a story that was waiting to be told in deeper terms.
The first chapter of this story can be found here and I suggest you read it first if you haven’t already…
Perhaps in normal days a school’s back-up quarterback issue wouldn’t be something that warranted looking to in-depth but it’s importance will be magnified at the University of Pittsburgh this year because just last season we saw what could happen when your starting QB goes down with injury and your back-ups (QB2s) have to take control for the rest of the schedule.
That came to pass in 2017 at Pitt and the result was an overwhelming failure of the offense and was a key reason we dropped to a seven loss and five win season – the worse Pitt has completed in a full decade of play.
The fact that ex-USC backup QB Max Browne, who transferred in for a single year of play, wasn’t talented enough to play successfully at the D1 level was written about on here extensively prior to the start of last season. Before the 2017 spring practices started The Pitt POV reached out to two Southern California USC sportswriters and a USC football blogger to get their firsthand accounts of and a feel for what type of player Browne was previously and might be for Pitt. The feedback was surprisingly across-the-board negative and we saw that writ large when Browne started the season and played way below everyobody’s expectations.
Save for one four TD game against a truly bad 4-8 Conference USA Rice team, that ended up being ranked very low in all national passing defense categories, Browne threw exactly one other TD in the rest of the season. That lone TD was in overtime against Youngstown State. He didn’t throw any TDs in regulation play except for the Rice game.
When Browne went down in that sixth game with a shoulder injury Pitt was standing at 2 wins and 3 losses and it didn’t get much better under his replacement rsSO Ben DiNucci. Not surprisingly with the acquisition of yet another transfer QB for this year in Ricky Town DiNucci has left the Pitt program and transferred out, along with the once highly heralded rsFR Thomas MacVitte who had hadn’t throw a single pass in a game while at Pitt.
DiNucci’s situation after the season ended was unique and unfortunate. After the last game of the season he was told that he was to be the second string QB behind starter Kenny Pickett (more on him later).
DiNucci’s transfer precipitated Town’s visit to Pitt. Dinucci heard Pitt was looking for more depth at QB and feeling mislead, and not for the first time because it happened twice before during the regular season, he abruptly left the team on December 14th.
Once he told the staff he was leaving, they scrambled to get Town on campus two days later. Town was actually on campus at a smaller school, I believe it was Stephen F Austin, for a visit when OC Shawn Watson called and asked him to come to Pitt. So Town left that visit and flew to Pittsburgh on a Saturday night and Town then signed his LOI on December 17th.
To quote Cardiac Hill on this issue:
The Panthers’ quarterback situation took another strange twist in Saturday’s loss to NC State. In that game, Pickett relieved DiNucci, despite the game being close and DiNucci playing relatively well. Afterwards, head coach Pat Narduzzi and DiNucci gave conflicting accounts about the plan for playing time in the game.
In his post-game statements, Narduzzi insisted that both DiNucci and Pickett knew of the plan to play both during the contest.
“It wasn’t a taking Ben out because he wasn’t getting the job done,” Narduzzi said. “We had talked with them prior to the game so there was communication prior to the game on what we going to do and what the plans were.”
His starter, however, saw things differently and was taken aback by being removed from the game.
“A little bit surprised,” DiNucci said in response to being asked about if he was surprised by being taken out of a close game. “I wasn’t necessarily aware going into this week that they were going to try to get him a series, but that’s ultimately their decision.”
A follow-up question was asked about any conversations he may have had with Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, perhaps to jog his memory. DiNucci’s response?
“I didn’t know anything about it going in beforehand.”
That DiNucci was assured of the 2018 QB2 spot and was, again, mislead by the head coach was the final straw before his leaving the team.
So, the possibility of going into 2018 missing his two marginally talented backup QBs, and in DiNucci the only one who had shown any smattering of D1 talented to start with, was a question mark Narduzzi didn’t want hanging over the offense’s head so he welcomed Ventura CC QB Ricky Town to transfer in for his last two years eligibility.
This creates a situation where Pitt will again have a transfer taking the snaps but as a back-up this time. Freshman Kenny Pickett did a great job at the end of the ’17 season in cementing the starter’s position with a combination of high-end talent, good football knowledge and a leadership capacity well beyond his young age.
He took six snaps while burning his redshirt in the middle of the season then took over the position for the remainder if the year after DiNucci threw an INT in our own territory early on against conference foe Virginia Tech in the next to last game of the season.
The high point of Pitt’s 2017 low year came in the last game against #2 ranked and highly favored Miami when Pickett put on a show of accurate passing accounting for one TD and decisive running for two more accounting for 21 points en route to our 24-14 upset on national TV.
That Pickett will return as a starter at Pitt is beyond doubt as well it should be as long as nothing untoward happens. I had a chance to see Pickett in an extended 60 minute viewing period during one of the closed practices during last year’s Spring Practices when he was an early January enrollee.
Actually, I went to Pitt’s Southside facilities to watch Max Browne to see if my USC-based reports matched what he was actually like (they did) but while there I couldn’t take my eyes off the kid wearing #8 on his red jersey. First I noticed his crisp passes then the more I saw him practice the more I realized Pickett was the QB of the future at Pitt. It was obvious Pickett had the most natural talent of all the QBs and his demeanor both on the field and in a short conversation I had with him on the sidelines made me believe he was the QB we needed for the Panthers to succeed – and sooner rather than later.
Most fans and sportswriters felt he’d get more playing time early on last season, especially when Browne was injured in mid-season and DiNucci didn’t do all that much to put the QB situation to rest. But Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson and Narduzzi held Pickett out until later in the season, after a one play burning of his redshirt, then gave him the starter’s job in those last two games… and boy did Pickett deliver.
With that position settled then why all the pre-season spotlighting on the QBs going into the 2018 season? For the injury reasons stated above of course but also because this coming season is going to be a decisive one for Pat Narduzzi and how he and his production so far at Pitt is viewed by the fans and more importantly the administration.
After a good beginning with back to back eight win years then diving to a five win season there are a lot of questions regarding just how effective a head coach Pat Narduzzi is and how good he can be.
He certainly is a fan favorite and seems to be a great fit for the type of football Pittsburghers and Western Pennsylvanians always want to see. He’s a Youngstown, Ohio guy and walks and talks like a Pittsburgher which endeared him to our fans right off the bat. The fact that he was a successful defensive coordinator in the Big Ten prior to his hire felt right for Pitt also.
But his initial promise to us; that he’d deliver a hard-nosed and stingy defense with a full-out push on the field of play hasn’t yet been realized. The problem is that really that hasn’t been the type of football we have seen from him since he’s taken over the head coaching job. One can even make a good case that because the two-deeps in 2015 and 2016 were heavily populated with inherited players left over from Pitt’s previous head coach Paul Chryst’s regime that Narduzzi won the games on their play.
Of course at Pitt eight wins don’t fall out of the apple tree onto his lap without Narduzzi working hard for them also, and his getting Nate Peterman onboard in 2015 was surely a big part of those successes, so there is certainly credit due to him. However, when the starting lineup and their backups morphed into to being more his own recruits and incoming transfers with six starters on offense and six on defense throughout the 2017 season we fell downhill with a resounding thud to a losing record. And not just a losing record but two games under .500 play making it the first time that has happened at Pitt in over a decade.
Maybe that wouldn’t be unique news at other schools similar to Pitt’s place in Power Five conferences but when you consider all the turmoil Pitt went through with four head coaches in the course of that decade without dropping to two games under then you have to take a step back and a hard look at the present situation and what may happen in the near future.
There are some legitimate questions surround just how well Narduzzi is going to be able to do this coming year with a two-deep made up of almost all his own recruits and transfers. At this early point it looks to be at least eight starters on offense and nine starters on defense will be “Narduzzi kids”. And at least two new starters on the offensive line will be via the newly transferred route also with OL Stefano Millin coming onto the roster from Kent State and most probably Chase Brown from Lackawanna Community College.
Which is one of the reasons there is concern for injury to the starting QB. Pitt returns only two starters on the OL this year and they were among a poor bunch in 2017. This season will see Alex Bookser and Jimmy Morrissey (the returning) along with a mix of transfers from lower class school and community colleges along with 5th year seniors (Connor Dintino and Mike Herndon) who have, between all of the news guys, a total of exactly one D1 start among them. Yes Pitt fans, Pickett will be under the gun constantly in 2018. Hence the concern at the position.
So the transfer player on the two-deep this season who really generates concern is new QB Ricky Town because we saw just last season what can happen at the QB position and the precarious situation the starting QB may be in for next year. Let’s now look at how he came about to be here at Pitt and then his being named by Narduzzi directly onto the team’s two-deep listing as the QB2.
The more I read and learned about Ricky Town the more fascinated I became with his ‘human’ story – that is the life he led and the dynamics involved with a super talented youngster who, in essence, had his dream derailed before ever taking a snap in Division 1 football. Of course the thing about dreams is they can be modified and updated as life progresses and that may be what we see happen in Town’s time wearing a Panther uniform. Let’s hope that is so.
But you can bet when he was playing his early football and opening eyes across the country with his really great play as a high school sophomore in California the University of Pittsburgh was just some school out east somewhere and had nothing to do with him or his future.
Town was a California kid in the most literal of terms. He grew up in California’s Bay area Walnut Creek which is located 16 miles east of the city of Oakland and is were Town played his junior league ball. And it was apparent football was meant to be in his blood from an early age when his father pushed him hard toward the QB position as a young child as some overbearing fathers do. Here are Town’s own words, at only age 13, published on a recruiting site before he entered his freshman year at Chaminade High School:
I am a hard-working student with a 3.8 GPA. I am currently 6’2″ and 180 pounds. I believe that I am a strong leader, I am very coachable, have great size, speed and athleticism, and I am fundamentally sound. I have been told that I have good footwork, a quick release with great accuracy, most of which I have learned from Steve Clarkson. However, I believe my strongest attribute is making good decisions on and off the field. My goal is to play in the NFL one day so at this time I am focusing on Elite D1 football schools. I hope to play Varsity QB as a freshmen next year at Chaminade College Prep in West Hills, California. My coach is Ed Croson who I believe is a great coach and a great mentor. I’m looking forward to playing for him and learning as much as I can.
By the way, in that interview he also said that his favorite cereal was Fruity Pebbles – the only age-norm thought found anywhere in it.
What is so unusual about Town’s young life is that since the sixth grade he had already been flying 800 miles on round trip visits from the Bay Area to Pasadena twice a month to be tutored in QB skills and position play from well-know QB Guru Steve Clarkson who had previously worked with future USC QBs Matt Leinart, Matt Cassel, and Matt Barkley to name just a few.
To describe what transpired from that point on I am going to quote heavily from an excellent book written by Sports Illustrated’s Bruce Feldman titled The QB: The Making of the Modern Quarterback.
There are detailed sections pertaining to Town and the book focuses on Trent Dilfer’s Elite 11 quarterback camps which Town was an invitee and participant in after his senior year in high school… I suggest it as a great read for all football fans.
Here is an excerpt:
Ricky town Jr., who played at St. Bonaventure in the valley, was originally from Walnut Creek, California in the Bay area a biography of town was still up on the DeBartolo sports website with Steve Clarkson’s logo, towns measurements were 5’4″, 110 pounds from when he was in the sixth grade. Among the info covered in the Q&A Town said his favorite college teams were Texas and UCLA and his favorite cereal was fruity pebbles.
“I got him to move to Southern California as a seventh grader” Clarkson said “he was a regular he would fly and once or twice a month into Burbank and stay with me.” Clarkson stopped working with Town about three years after he moved from Chaminade High to Bonaventure. “Distance was an issue” Clarkson said. Instead, Town trained with Clarkson’s son Anton, a one-time quarterback at Oregon State, and later with Donovan Dooley, another LA area QB coach. (Pg. 248)
“I got him to move to Southern California as a seventh grader”… that is undue stress on a young kid in my opinion.
So you can see the heavy pressure he was under from an early age to not only participate in organized youth football as so many other kids do at that age but to accept and partake in the extreme extra-curricular actions that his father demanded he do .
When the news hit that Pitt was getting Town as a transfer I reached out and talked with two long-time sports writers in Ventura, CA, who had been covering area high school and local Ventura Community College football (where Town played last) for the leading newspaper there for 20 years, to discuss Town and his background and abilities.
At the beginning of that discussion one of the first sentences out of one of the writer’s mouth was “Oh, he’ll never make it at Pitt” which was so bold as to surprise me.
However, that guy wasn’t the writer who actually covered Town’s play in high school. The one who did do that got on the line and after I told him why I called and what the other writer said he told me “Ignore him – he’s not real familiar with Town” but then said… “Have you ever heard of Todd Marinovich?” which also took me aback.
Before readers get too upset reading that last phrase let me clarify.; Todd Marinovich was literally bred to play quarterback by his domineering father Marv and Todd’s story is a true cautionary tale for parents who want way too much from their sons as a substitute for what they themselves never had.
From birth Marinovich’s father controlled every aspect of Todd’s life with a unblinking eye toward the being a star QB in the NFL. That control included his ultra-strict diet (never had a McDonalds or a Twinkie in his life), his friends and on down to a limit on the hours he could do his schoolwork so as not to interfere with his football training.
Marinovich did play QB at USC and did well enough to have a brief and unsuccessful stint playing for the Oakland Raiders but quickly succumbed to built up long-term pressures and the associated stressors and that led to serious post-NFL failures, arrests and addictive drug use.
But the fact is that the demands of that same sort of outside pressure to excel on Ricky Town, albeit to a lesser extent and the constant emphasis of football on his young life left distinct influences and impressions on Town in his later years, and not all of them were positive.
That sportswriter I talked to had a lot of background on Town and what he imparted to me was that Town’s high school and community college story had more to it than just the stats and wins and losses…
In Chapter Three we’ll discuss more about Town’s extensive and elite training regime, his successes and his failures in HS and in college and his long and circuitous road to the Southside.
Editor’s Note: I have chosen to ‘close comments’ for this series until the last chapter is published. I do that for a couple of reasons but mainly because I am telling a long story here and with that don’t want anyone to jump ahead and write about issues that I’ll cover in later chapters.