Well fall camp is wrapping up, and next week the team starts their Virginia game prep in earnest.
The depth chart won’t be published until Monday, but I think we’ve watched enough videos and read enough camp reports to get an idea of who will be on the field.
The question is, will they be any good? There is a momentum behind the program that has not been felt in many years, but good vibes can dissipate rapidly with a blown coverage, a missed tackle, a sack surrendered or an untimely interception thrown.
Pitt still doesn’t have enough talent, detractors will say. Nothing we saw last year shows that we’ll improve, they will say again.
And it’s possible that they are right.
In the college game, unless your team is a blueblood, recruiting depth, talent evaluation, scheme fit and player development are the lifeblood of a winning season. And after following Pitt Football for twenty-two seasons, I can say that Narduzzi has build more depth in more positions than nearly any other coach of my era.
The jury is out on the the other three areas (talent evaluation, scheme fit and player development). We can assume that the staff is better-than-average at finding talented two-and-three star players. A handful of staffs are (Wisconsin, TCU come to mind). We can hope that Narduzzi has recruited well for his scheme. We can pray that the coaching staff has been able to develop players across all the positions.
But assumption, hope and prayer are not a strategy, and the truth is that until 7 p.m. on August 31st we don’t know how good we are.
What we do know is that the expected starting lineup comprises mostly upperclassmen, though many of them are inexperienced. Still, in the college game, older is better. The physical and mental difference between a 19 year old and a 21 year old is significant. While I haven’t done the analysis recently, I believe the large majority of Pitt’s starting 22 have been in the program for three years or more. In a game where strength, technique and discipline can often compensate for a talent (to some degree…), this is encouraging.
We also know that twelve positions return starters or players with significant playing time.
On offense, we return two Receivers that posted 500 yards in our lovely 120th ranked passing offense. That has to count for something. The Tight End position simply can’t be any worse than last year, even though that is a small bar to clear. Our Center is primed for an all-ACC season, and if there is one position on the offensive line that can lift the rest out of mediocrity, it is the Center. And most importantly, our Quarterback has a year of seasoning under his belt. He is older. He is wiser. Time will tell if he takes the leap that we need him to take.
On defense our secondary, for the first time in a long time, is projected to be strength. Safety Damar Hamlin is a four-star talent, and he’s entering his senior year. His play could mean the difference between a $300,000 NFL payday and $3 million. You’d have to think he’s motivated. Senior Cornerback Dane Jackson was the highest-rated corner on third and fourth downs last year in the ACC. He also has NFL aspirations and motivation. Cornerback Jason Pinnock played meaningful snaps last year and performed well. Paris Ford bring energy and playmaking ability safety spot opposite of Hamlin. Ford is undoubtedly an upgrade over Dennis Briggs, but can he stay disciplined? Our defensive tackles run three deep with Keyshon Camp coming back off of injury, Jaylen Twyman completely transforming has body and drawing rave reviews this fall, and Amir Watts returning from injury as the spiritual leader of the locker room.
Replacing graduation losses of course will be key. The prevailing wisdom is that the guys coming in are as talented or more talented then the guys that left. That remains to be seen.
The loss of Defensive End Rashad Weaver, of course, is the exception. He was expected to be one of the best pass rushers in the ACC., and despite what you are hearing out of camp, Weaver will not be easily replaced.
The linebackers are another question mark. The middle will be solid if unspectacular. Reynolds and Brighwell have both been to combat, but I don’t think anyone classifies them as elite. The Money linebacker should be an upgrade. Florida transfer Kyalan Johnson bring athleticism and motivation. Redshirt Junior Chase Pine brings athleticism and size. Has he matured mentally enough to make an impact? The star linebacker is more of a question mark, and reading between the lines of the camp reports, it may even be a concern. Pitt is forced to choose between youth and inexperience. Cam Bright has been a linebacker since he came to Pitt, but he’s just a redshirt Sophomore. Phil Campbell has been in the program for four years, but he’s a converted Safety. There will be growing pains on the outside…
Flipping back to offense, Pitt is replacing four offensive linemen. If you believe the camp reports, they are more talented then their predecessors, and they are doing everything that is being asked of them. But they are also opening up under the lights in a nationally televised game against a seasoned and talented defensive front. The first quarter, and indeed the entire first game could be a learning experience.
Running back is also a concern, since we graduated two 1000 yard rushers and have nothing but an unproven stable of backs to replace them. Although I believe that if the offensive line can open the holes, Pitt will find someone to run through them.
Special teams will likely be a mixed bag. Kicker Alex Kessman is seasoned, and he has a strong leg, but Pitt is breaking in a new holder. Reports indicate that it will be Aussie Punter Kirk Christodoulou. Has he improved his holding ability since his inauspicious debut last year against Penn State? We can hope he has.
We can also hope that he has become less erratic in his punting.
The return game should be strong with Maurice Ffrench handling both punt and kick return duties. He was named preseason first team all-ACC this season. Lets hope he stays healthy.
Coaching should be an improvement, especially on offense. The “Mark Whipple is better than Shawn Watson” horse was dead well before the spring game, and it does not need to be beaten. On defense, Randy Bates enters his second season. This continuity will pay dividends.
But, the schedule is daunting.
Virginia is the trendy pick to win the Coastal. They return a Heisman-candidate Quarterback and an experienced defense.
Ohio is an option team and also features a Heisman candidate at QB.
Penn State has been recruiting better than Pitt for years and has the home
ref field advantage.
UCF still has all that Florida speed.
Syracuse is just hitting their stride as a program and we play them on the road.
Miami has always had our number.
We’ve never beaten North Carolina in this decade.
That’s seven potential losses, even if we take care of business in the games we’re “supposed” to win.
And so, with that, I will give you my prediction. It stands at 7-5, and that may be optimistic. Yes, we will probably beat Ohio. And yes we have played pretty well against Syracuse of late, but heck they are due. Virginia and UNC are still toss-ups at best (and oh how it pains me to say that). Miami, Penn State and UCF all outclass us on talent (and yes it pains me to say that as well).
Still, until the team takes the field, hope springs eternal. Fall camp is a time for optimism, and there is the slimmest of chances that this year it will all come together. Oh and believe me, this is a fantasy. Whipple waves his magic wand and Pickett turns to gold. Borbley works some ancient and arcane wizardry with our offensive line. Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench catch 2000 yards and twenty touchdowns between them. Aaron Matthews and Tre Tipton produce mystical senior years. Jaylen Twyman morphs into the second coming of Aaron Donald, and Deslin Alexandre turns into a hybrid of Greg Romeus-Jabaal Sheard. Harley rides those linebackers into a freewheeling band of gang-tackling Hell’s Angels, and Paris Ford ignites our secondary into an incendiary no-fly zone.
Sure, it could happen,
But it sure as heck isn’t likely.
Either way, we’ve got one more week to revel in the fantasy folks, and then it gets real.
Hail to Pitt