Key question in 2017: How fast can Pitt's young players grow?
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Turnover is natural in college football, and every few years, that means a season like Pitt is facing in 2017:
Lots of underclassmen and not much experience.
After having 20+ seniors on the 2016 team, Pat Narduzzi and his staff are facing a different kind of challenge: playing with roughly a dozen seniors, including three who weren’t on the team last year. And it’s not like Pitt is returning a lot of young players who have seen the field in prominent roles, as the Panthers are looking to fill 13 open starting jobs.
Those numbers would be concerning for any coaching staff. But for Narduzzi and company, there is an upside to the situation. While they will be breaking in a lot of first-time starters, there’s a good chance that quite a few of those spots will be filled by players they recruited.
As it stands after two days of training camp, Narduzzi acquisitions - recruits and transfers - are in position to be the starters at perhaps eight of the open positions, including all four spots on the defensive line, one at linebacker, one at safety, one at cornerback, one at quarterback and one at tight end.
For the coaches and players, that means a unique opportunity.
“I know when we met with them, we said that exact thing: we are younger, we feel like we have good quality talent, it’s just how fast can we get those guys developed,” defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said Wednesday. “That’s the two-way street of coach and player taking advantage of all the meetings and obviously out here on the practice field as well.”
Some of Narduzzi’s biggest acquisitions figure to play considerable roles on the defensive line. Redshirt junior Dewayne Hendrix was already poised to replace Ejuan Price at end, and redshirt senior Allen Edwards saw his chances of being a starter increase when Rori Blair was dismissed from the team. In the interior, second-year players Keyshon Camp and Amir Watts seem to have the inside track for starting jobs.
Camp and Watts are quite a bit younger than Hendrix and Edwards, and while Watts saw some playing time last season, Conklin said both players have grown up quite a bit - and will need to continue to do so.
“They’ve matured; that’s just part of the growth process when you get to college,” Conklin said. “They’ve matured a lot. And they’ve really taken to the coaching in the room. They’ve grown up in terms of just understanding a little bit more big-picture what they’ve got to get accomplished.
“Yeah, they understand it. They have a long way to go. They are not a proven commodity by any means; they have a ton of talent - don’t take that away from them - but to line up and play in the ACC, snap in and snap out, you know, they have a long way to go here in the next few days.”
Camp and Watts are among the Narduzzi players who are in the mix for starting jobs, and they are also part of a much larger group: Narduzzi acquisitions on the roster. If Pitt plays with a full complement of 85 scholarship players this season, as many as 65 or 66 of them could be players Narduzzi brought to Pitt.
Some of those players are upperclassmen who transferred in - like Hendrix, quarterback Max Browne, tight ends Chris Clark and Matt Flanagan and offensive lineman Brandon Hodges - but most are younger. The oldest are entering their third seasons at Pitt, but far more are either freshmen or second-year players.
Naturally, Narduzzi is giving no quarter when it comes to his expectations for 2017’s young Pitt team.
“Not at all,” he said Wednesday. “If I came out and said, ‘Guys, we’re younger so we’re not gonna - let’s win six games this year and let’s call it.’ If I told that to those guys, they’d walk out on me. Our expectations are the same: we expect to win them all. And we can. That’s not a, ‘Hey, we’re trying to tell them something that they want to hear.’ We can. We’ve got talent. Guys have got to make plays, we’ve got to stay healthy and we’ve got to do the little things right.”
At the same time, Conklin thinks the coaches have to adjust their approach with so much youth on the roster.
“I think we have to push harder,” he said. “I think we do have a culture established. But I think we’ve evaluated - coaches have evaluated themselves, we’ve evaluated the team and we’re just trying to figure out a way to continue to get better all the time. The urgency is the big deal. Take a guy like Jason Pinnock or Damarri Mathis at corner; getting those guys to play at the speed they have to play at, snap in and snap out, is a big, big deal.”