If you all remember I did a series of articles in June of 2017 that looked at the departing starters from the 2016 season and who I thought would be replacing them for 2017. With that I assigned a grade of “Upgrade“, “Downgrade” or “Draw‘.
What I’ll do first is look at each position, or unit, along the offense as of today and write down who I think will be the starter and why it will be that guy. Then I’ll assign a ranking of “Upgrade” if I see an upgrade, “Downgrade’ if I see a downgrade or “Draw” if I think we’ll match last year’s player(s) in the position or unit.
Last season Pitt fans had great hopes for our linebackers mainly because we were doing away with the “old” (Mike Caprara and Matt Galambos”) and ushering in “new” LBs, some of whom Narduzzi recruited. How did that turn out for us? Pretty much with a resounding thud. That thud started rumbling in the preseason when the heir apparent to the Middle Linebacker spot, SR Quentin Wirginis, was suspended for three games.
Then, pretty conveniently, Wirginis had a phantom ‘non-football’ (water skiing) accident which kept him out of the whole 2017 season. Funny how that works, huh? His family owns the Gateway Clipper Fleet and he might not have been situationally aware enough to stay out-of-the-way of that big freakin’ paddle wheel when competing in the Greater Mon Slalom Course on his skis.
Either that or he was shrinking his nuts on a regular basis, but that would be covered by student privacy acts so who really knows? Too bad the NCAA is looking at teams having to disclose injuries next season – I’d love to hear what actually went down.
In essence we went from a LB corps who had followed the Narduzzi mandate of getting pressure on the QB in 2016 when our LBs were effective at doing just that. Galambos had 10.0 TFLs (-53 yds) and 5.0 Sacks (-42 yds) and Caprara had 10.5. TFLs (-40 yds) and 5.0 sacks (-29 yds). That was some of the best pressure play we have seen from out LBs in some time.
Our ’17 guys who replaced them fell off of that pace very dramatically with Brightwell having only 5.0 TFLs and 1.0 Sack and Ziese having 5.0 TFLs and zero Sacks. The lone bright spot was Idowu getting 11.5 TFLs and 5.0 sacks to make up the deficit. So on the face of it you’d think that we’d just have to field a better LB corps for 2018, wouldn’t you?
Maybe we will but three out of our Top Four LBs (Wirginis, Idowu, Ziese and Brightwell) are still Chryst’s recruits with an average-playing Brightwell representing Narduzzi’s contribution. Where was/is all the LB talent Pitt fans were so excited about when they were being recruited? We’ve seen underclassmen play LB at Pitt in their first two years and do a great job but to date only Brightwell has cracked Pitt’s starting lineup.
What is the definition of insanity again? Oh, right – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I’ve always wondered why, since Narduzzi has been so transfer happy, he didn’t try to get a stud upperclassman or two to plug into our LBs but he seems to have been, and still is, satisfied with the talent on hand. I dislike his transfer policy anyway but hell, if he’s going to do it…
Well, the talent on hand is rather …how do you say this in English? -“Average” all around with the exception of Idowu who has gotten better in each his years of play. He’ll again be the best of the existing and returning bunch I think.
My concerns are this – we have seen so many times history repeat itself at Pitt so why do all of a sudden we feel like a player like Quentin Wirginis is going to breakout into some sort of stardom when he couldn’t sniff a starting job in his previous three years of eligibility? Yes, Scott McKillop didn’t reach stardom until his JR year but he was playing more than Wirginis has been before that. We, well some fans, are expecting stardom from Wirginis in his rsSR year.
Now before you jump out of your seat to disagree I will say this – I have always consider Wirginis an exemplary physical ball player; he’s strong and quick and fast – much more so than the LBs he has been stuck behind…so why was he stuck behind them? Galambos was an excellent field general if you believe the praise Narduzzi heaped on him for his play in the middle, so you have to assume Wirginis was lacking that cerebral strength or he would have grabbed that starting job.
But now in his last year at Pitt he’s smart, level-headed and steady enough to be the field general out there calling our new Defensive Coordinator Randy Bates’ defenses? Did the light come on behind his eyes while watching from the sidelines last year? Or is it a case of throwing him out there because his competition at that spot is so thin? Let’s really rub that rabbit’s foot and hope it has been the former and in a big way because Narduzzi has already publicly stated Wirginis is our starter there.
Here is the rub with all this. Bates was, for 12 years, the LBs coach at Northwestern (yes, whose LBs helped beat us in the Pinstripe bowl, damn him) then was hired to Pitt in January so it wouldn’t be a grand leap of faith to assume that he really knows and can effectively coach LB play very well.
But he most probably won’t have any say on whether Wirginis should be the starter or not. Certainly not after PN already anointed Wirginis to the the position back in November of ’17. Now I find that pretty interesting and wonder if that’s going to be a problem down the road.
Since MLB is the key position in our 4-3 defense it is going to be a very interesting situation to watch unfold. If I were a betting man I’d say Wirginis will do OK there, but I still have to wonder why the recruits Pitt fans were so hyped up about – rsSO Chase Pine, rsSO Elias Reynolds and rsJR Anthony McKee – don’t seem to be even mentioned to be in the mix there at all.
At the other LB positions we’ll see stalwart Sean Idowu keeping his hold on the Star LB position. Idowu led the team in tackles last season and his two LB mates filled out the Top four:
Idowu was the QB pressure guy in ’17 but Wirginis – again if he lives up to billing – will challenge that. Back in 2016 when Wirginis got PT in scrub time he racked up five Sacks but most were against 2nd string offenses – but that is when he showed his athleticism.
Rounding out the Money LB position it will be either converted MLB Brightwell switching spots or we’ll fall back to rsSR Elijah Zeise, who played better toward the end of the season than the beginning. Neither are standout performers but both have at least some experience.
Either way I can’t say that we are absolutly going to see dramatically better play at this position unit because of the questions surrounding Wirginis at MLB. I suppose you can say we won’t be any worse than last season as we have the three ’17 starters returning and I can buy that. But that nagging feeling based on what I wrote above – that the supposedly prime LB recruits Narduzzi got haven’t been in the mix at all, not even a mention, when we have four LBs and none have played so well he couldn’t be sat down for a better, younger player, persists. Not even Idowu who is good… but not great.
Makes me wonder about the overall talent level at that position big time. I suppose that I take an early look at this 2018 season and see around a .500 won/loss record so I’m thinking why doesn’t Narduzzi roll the dice and take risks with some of his own players like Pine and Reynolds (and other underclassman at other positions) and see if they can’t make the Great Leap into stardom… but that isn’t how our head coach approaches things.
I hear fans saying “Wait until he has his own kids in there” when talking about Narduzzi’s coaching. Well, that doesn’t mean he has to wait until all his inherited players either graduate or die off – he can form a starting lineup with his own HS recruits any time he wants to. and especially in this his 4th year at the helm.
I’ll give Wirginis the benefit of the doubt and say we’ll have an upgrade at the position with him in there on a starter’s basis… but I’m still wary because of his playing history (still can’t get over that he couldn’t usurp Galambos, sorry) along with his suspension history. It would be wonderful if we looked at Pitt players and confidently said that ‘they made their mistakes and won’t do that again’ but it does seem like we have repeat offenders rather often. Wirginis, and our defense, can’t afford to have that happen in his case.
I gave the 2017 LBs a final C- grade for their work last year. Granted things tightened up over the last two matches when our LBs and overall defense played well – but we tend to forget (or overlook on purpose) that just one week earlier we let a two-win North Carolina score 34 against us in that loss. Last year our LBs contributed in a defense that was:
41st against the run with 142 ypg (pretty good)
65th in Scoring Defense at 26.6 ppg (not so good)
82nd on 3rd down conversion defense at 41%… (bad) and
105th in Passing Yards allowed at 254 with 24 TDs and almost 8 yard per attempt (terrible and more on that when we get to 2018’s DBs)
So looking at those stats I do feel we’ll better those marks but the question is by how much and that, to me, means how effective is our LB corps going to be in getting pressure on the opposing QB. If Wirginis can live up to the hype we fans have laid on him in that regard we’ll be able to hold the bad guys to lower scoring – and maybe win more than five or six games as I’m thinking we’ll do at this point before fall camp.