As we sit here, 14 days away from a college football season that came perilously close to not happening (and still may yet not happen), the time has come to ask ourselves, “what do we have?”. In many ways, we already know. A good defense. Questions on offense. A coach that can motivate his team to greatness on any given Saturday and at other times lead an undisciplined rabble onto the field. And yet, for all his perceived shortcomings, (questionable in-game decisions, high rates of penalization, lack of focus on offensive recruiting), Narduzzi has won more than he’s lost, against tougher schedules than any other Pitt football coach since Jackie Sherrill. And that in and of itself is something. He’s also maintained a clean program, ranked fourth in the ACC in APR, and by all rights built a team culture that is one of the strongest in recent memory.
But APR does not win games. Players do, and to some degree scheme. Pitt has the players on defense (except for a newly-formed question mark at corner) and certainly the scheme. Offensive talent is…well behind the defensive curve, but the scheme is there with Mark Whipple, who made a living for four years at UMASS coaxing an effective passing game out of questionable talent. If ever there was a situation that called for that skill set, that situation is Pitt right now.
Still, not all the talent on the offense is questionable. For the first time in a long time, Pitt has a legitimate quarterback. Kenny Pickett was better than that most people gave him credit for last season, and with the exception of Virginia Tech in the rain, he finished the season on a high note, throwing for 359 against UNC, 323 against Boston College, and 361 against Eastern Michigan. He averaged better than 8 yards per completion in those three games, and completed around 70% of his passes, and that is exactly what you want to see out your quarterback in a West Coast system. Pro Football Focus graded Pickett’s overall passing performance at 75 last season, and that is considered Above Average. For the record, they graded his 2018 performance at 60, and so, at least by PFF’s arcane measures Pickett has shown progress. He also suffered 36 drops during the season (again according to PFF). Four against Virginia, Five against Miami and Six against Virginia tech – his three worst statistical performances of the year. Anecdotally it can also be said that Pickett appeared to be battling through throwing-shoulder injury for most of the season, and I would think it’s safe to assume he’s healthy and ready to go. Its his senior year, and suffice to say anything less than a breakout would be a disappointment.
Of course football is not played in a vacuum, and any breakout would be highly depended on three things, most important being the offensive line. The line has been a subject of much discussion on this blog, and Narduzzi himself rated their performance no better than a “C” in the most recent scrimmage. By now we all know the story. Great Center, Decent Guards, and Questionable talent and tackle. An offensive line coach that was picked off the scrap heap at Maryland (of all places) and yet somehow is an upgrade. Years of recruiting neglect. A pass blocking grade that finished squarely in the middle of the ACC last season (7th) and a run blocking grade that was 2nd from last (12th). All but one starter return however, and so development will be the name of the game. A chain is only as strong as its weakest links though, so in other words, how much have the Tackles improved?
The second factor affecting Kenny’s chances at a breakout season are the wide receivers. The story line in the offsesaon is that there has been an influx of young talent, headlined by true Freshman Jordan Addison. If (and I emphasize the IF) the rumors are to be believed, Addison has the talent level similar to such notable freshman as Antonio Bryant and Tyler Boyd. Comparing him to The Great One (Larry Fitzgerald) is likely not realistic, but if Addison is at least as good as Bryant or Boyd, that would be a huge boon to the receiving corps.
For the record here are Freshman stats for both:
Bryant: 42 rec, 659 yds, 9 TD
Boyd: 91 rec, 926 yds, 6 TD
Pitt also returns Taysir Mack, who is an above average receiver — when healthy — and in terms of contested catches has come down with some very clutch plays. The key phrase here is “when healthy” as last year a heavy target load and a slight frame (sorry he just doesn’t pass the 6’2″ – 205 eye test), led to a walking boot – and commensurate drop off in production – midway through the season. A similar situation happened in 2018.
Shockey Jaques Louis is another upperclassmen that Pickett needs to be productive, but his route running and ball skills have always been a bit of an issue in my opinion. Put another way, he’s fast and athletic but unpolished. Even the most cursory reserach on the West Coast offense will reaveal that “unpolished” not a great fit for the West Coast Scheme. Hopefully he’s spent the offseason working on things he can control, and he’ll improve on his 62% catch rate.
On the other side of the spectrum, Sophomore Jared Wayne runs great routes and has great hands, but lacks top end speed. Still, I’d expect him to grab more than his fair share of targets this season as these are the types of traits that help a receiver excel in the West Coast offense. A year of seasoning will only help. Wayne boasted a 69% catch rate in limited action in 2019. If he can match that in more extended action in 2020 he’ll be an asset to the offense.
A stronger running game will be the third part of any Kenny Picket breakout. In Whipple’s system the running game is a changeup, and most Pitt fans (who were raised on a steady diet of Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin and Leshon McCoy) abhor this. But at the end of the day, it can work if used correctly. Last year Pitt’s running game ranked close to the bottom of the NCAA in most categories. Narduzzi has very publicly commented on his desire to improve in 2020. The running backs will be a year older and stronger. The line as well. There is some new blood…although I for one am not a firm believer that Izzy Ibanikanda is going to be the Messiah. I do think he’ll be a solid piece though. Redshirt Freshman Daniel Carter seems to have emerged as a power back, which is sorely needed. But at the end of the day will Pitt run for more than the 3.5 Yards per Carry they averaged last season? They need to if Pitt is to take the next step.
And so, with all of that, Pat Narduzzi says he likes the team. We, of course, don’t know because of the lack of practice viewing windows. But there is the occasional hype video that is thrown our way. On the eve of the start of the college football season, I’ll break it down:
- Pickett is wearing a glove. No I don’t have a breakdown on his passing grades gloved vs non-gloved. I suspect he is better with the glove.
2. Confirmed: Patrick Jones is still a beast. That’s Nate Temple behind him BTW. Looks like he put on some weight.
3. There was a montage of guys hitting and tackling dummies. Here is Owen Drexel with some nice blocking form.
4. Coaches gonna coach
5. This is important. This is #74 Keldrick Wilson blocking Patrick Jones. It means he Wilson beat him at least once. All though it appears that Jones may be going inside on a stunt. Nonetheless Pickett got the pass off.
6. Redshirt Super Senior Tre Tipton juked rSo Marquis Williams after making a nice catch. We don’t normally discuss religion on this blog, but if you believe in God in any form, please say a prayer, make a donation or light a candle for Tipton to stay healthy and pay a full season. He’s certainly earned it.
7. Freshman WR Jordan Addison running after the catch. He’s not a big guy but he looks shifty.
8. One thing is apparent from both this video and the scrimmage video: If you try to arm tackle Daniel Carter you will fail. Here is #25 AJ Woods trying to do just that.
9. Joey Yellen sighting. Does #81 Aydin Henningham make the catch?
10. Pickett throwing off his front foot in drills. Tipton on the same drill?
11. AJ Woods breaks up a Pickett pass meant for Shocky
12. The “SC Connection” DE Nate Temple rushed QB Davis Beville
13. The very same Beville pass went for a TD to a wide-open Danny Moraga (TE). I guess that’s what you get with 2’s on 2’s. Still nice to the the pitch and catch to a TE though.
14. Nice to see the camaraderie in the QB room.
Here is the film:
Hail to Pitt