A week and a half until the Blue-Gold scrimmage, and the pretense of who will be the starting QB in September remains comfortably intact.
“It’s good that you (reporters) don’t know,” Narduzzi said when asked if there was any separation in the quarterback competition. “It means we have no leaks in the office.”
No leaks and no fake news about the play of those vying to replace Nathan Peterman: redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci, redshirt freshman Thomas MacVittie, freshman early enrollee Kenny Pickett and senior graduate transfer Max Browne.
“We have four very functional quarterbacks,” Narduzzi said.
While Head Coach Pat Narduzzi isn’t going to tip his hand, his offensive coordinator at least hints at the top-two.
In speaking with new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, it’s clear that the two oldest signal-callers are the leaders in the clubhouse — not that MacVittie or early enrollee Kenny Pickett are playing poorly.
“I think the two older guys have [separated themselves], because of experience,” Watson said of Browne and DiNucci. “Both of them have really upped the ante the last week. I think what we saw happen during that transition is the two younger kids followed, so it was really good. It’s been really healthy in that room. They work well together, and they compete hard against each other.”
Browne still is expected to be the starter come fall when it’s all said and done, but DiNucci and MacVittie may jockey for the backup role throughout the season. For now, the extra year of experience has been a boost for DiNucci, who stepped in for an injured Nathan Peterman in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Narduzzi and Watson have both praised Kenny Pickett, but barring multiple injuries and/or transfers it seems highly improbable Pickett does and anything but redshirt this season.
This ESPN.com piece on Pitt building depth.
“We’ve got more quarterbacks that can actually get in a game and maybe do something. Last year, we were just too young,” Narduzzi said. “What happened to us in the bowl game, we didn’t have another guy to put in there once Nathan went down. Our backup comes in and throws two picks, so it’s a problem where you can’t play a backup all year, and he gets thrown in a big bowl game and doesn’t get it done.”
One more plus to the four scholarships sharing the reps during spring practice: they are evenly spaced out, class-wise. Browne is a senior; DiNucci is a redshirt sophomore; MacVittie is a redshirt freshman and Pickett is a true freshman.
That is the type of set-up that is ideal for any position, most especially quarterback. While it is true Pitt has relied heavily on transfers to fill the void over the last several seasons, the hope is that coaching stability will now lead to more recruiting successes and players being developed in the program.
Part of the reason Pitt was so devoid of quarterbacks when Narduzzi arrived was because of the revolving door at quarterback.
Even if Browne wins the starting job, he will only be at Pitt for a year and the Panthers need to solidify their future at a position that has lacked stability and depth. Peterman and Tom Savage before him ended up being NFL-caliber players. Moving forward, it would be ideal for Pitt not to have to rely so much on the transfer route for the quality it desires at the position.
I think in the modern college football game, this sort of depth/experience problem is not uncommon and can be expected to happen in cycles for teams. The QB remains one of the unique positions in football. Every other spot can have a regular rotation or depth with opportunities to shine even if not a starter.
Not the quaterback. And in the present time, where transferring is not stigmatized — and it shouldn’t be — a quarterback who feels blocked, potentially passed or doesn’t think he should be waiting has more opportunity to look elsewhere.
In theory, Browne wins the job and starts this year. Pickett redshirts, and MacVittie is the back-up along with DiNucci. Next year MacVittie earns the starting job with Pickett the back-up.
But what if Pickett wins the job next year as a redshirt freshman and does well? MacVittie — a 4-star recruit — sees himself perpetually blocked. Why wouldn’t he look elsewhere for an opportunity? And then Pitt faces concerns at QB depth again. I am in no way saying this is going to happen. I’m saying depth at the QB spot for all but the top, deepest programs is a perpetual concern with only brief interludes of seeming depth and stability.
Certainly, Pitt had different issues contributing to the QB depth issues, but we have seen it happen to Pitt (and elsewhere) even with stability at the coaching spot.
Depth is showing elsewhere on the offense, though. Like on the offensive line where there is plenty of competition to make the depth chart.
Of Pitt’s 36 returning lettermen, none is a backup offensive lineman, but one or more of them might have to play a significant role at some point.
Say hello to Jerry Drake, Jimmy Morrissey, Tony Pilato, Brandon Ford and Justin Morgan.
Drake is a freshman, early enrollee. Morrissey is a walk-on who turned down scholarships at the Ivy and Colonial level. Morgan and Ford are redshirt freshmen and Tony Pilato is a redshirt sophomore. A young group vying to make the depth chart to be sure.
As for targets for the QB, there hasn’t been a lot of talk about the receivers. There was a good piece about how much competition there is, and what a loose, fun group they are. Though, when you think about how far Jester Weah came from last year and Quadree Henderson’s bursting onto the scene. I begin to think we have horribly underrated the job Wide Receivers Coach Kevin Sherman has done.
Still, beyond the OC casually noting that Jester Weah and Aaron Mathews are the #1 and #2 WRs lately. More of the attention is on the singular TE, Chris Clark. Mostly healthy, probably has his head on straight, and the only TE on the roster this spring.
There’s no question Clark, who sat out last season because of transfer rules and a knee injury, has the physical build (6-foot-6, 255 pounds) and speed to be productive in the passing game.
“(Tight ends) coach (Tim) Salem talks about how strong his hands are,” Narduzzi said.
Narduzzi, however, is getting tired — if not annoyed — with answering questions about Clark’s blocking ability.
“I didn’t have any question about him blocking, period,” Narduzzi said Tuesday. “It seems like there’s a lot of questions about his blocking. He’s a big, strong, physical tight end who can block and run.”
Those characteristics have been constant with Clark, although he admits his blocking needs to get better. It’s his mindset and attitude he spent the past year trying to improve.
“Last year, everyone will tell, coach Narduzzi and all them, I struggled a lot learning the offense,” Clark said. “I had a really hard time. More of it was my attitude knowing I couldn’t play. I was real lazy about certain things.
“I’m a totally different person now. He even tells me. I’m not getting any MAs (missed assignments).”
Kind of a strange story. It starts as a typical puff-piece. Highly sought recruit who struggled to make up his mind about schools — decommitting twice and quitting UCLA after one game — becoming more mature and humble. Yet Clark, himself, takes the story in a different direction.
Rather then the typical stuff about how he gained a new appreciation while sitting out both because of transfer and injury; Clark freely admits that he still struggled with focus and effort for the learning of the system. There is a pleasant openness and honesty to it, that he needed others to get him back on track.
Teammates and staff members kept on him, convincing him to be patient about the process and reminding him his time would come. Now, if anything, he just wants to avoid bugging coach Pat Narduzzi too much — texting him about what he can do better, how he’s progressing in his blocking in the run game.
That’s the goal for Clark, who looks forward to seeing how he fares Saturday at Heinz Field when the Panthers have their first scrimmage of spring camp. He’s something of an old rookie, as he’ll turn 22 a few weeks into the season, but he also has just one collegiate appearance under his belt.
And, of course, a whole lot of time waiting in between his second one.
“I’m just so anxious to be able to play college football,” he said. “It’s been so long since I actually competed in a meaningful game. I’m just super anxious to start playing. It kind of stinks just sitting on the sidelines and stuff.”
The talent is unquestioned. The desire/focus/maturity that he claims is there, cynically though, it remains to be seen as compared to all past actions to this point.