The 3-2-1 Column: Capel's criticism, the WPIAL, QB recruiting and more
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In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re thinking about Jeff Capel being right, the shadow of 0-18, a strong WPIAL class, quarterback recruiting and more.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
Jeff Capel was right
No, I’m not talking about the meme version of #JeffCapelWasRight, where he said that Pitt fans have a weird habit of responding to good news with a feeling of foreboding.
I mean, Capel was right about that. But that’s not what I’m thinking about today. I’m thinking about Capel being right a little more recently and a little more acutely.
Like on Wednesday night when, in the aftermath of a pretty bad - really bad - blowout loss to Clemson at home, Pitt’s head coach offered the following thoughts:
“At some point it has to offend you to be close. We’re not there yet. When we get there - not if, but when we get there - that’s when we’ll take a giant leap as a program. So maybe you do have to go through these lessons to get the message across because young people today are so easily distracted. You can lose a game and I can talk to them - and this is not just our locker room because I talked to other coaches - before you leave, 12 guys are looking at their phone, 13 guys, and by the time they leave the locker room their mind may be off the loss. They may have gotten some texts, they may have looked at something on Twitter or Instagram, they may have looked at some snaps and all the sudden your mind isn’t on…like, this kills me. I won’t sleep tonight. I was that way when I was a player. I often wonder, if I had all these distractions, would I have been that way? The game and team has always been sacred to me and I don’t think I would have.
“We have to get to a point where this really bothers you and have to change it. No one is going to feel sorry for us, no team in this league is going to feel sorry for us. So we have to grow up and we have to understand we are the ones that have to change it.”
That’s some really interesting stuff, I think, and it’s another bit of revealing insight on who Jeff Capel really is. I touched on something similar a couple weeks ago when I wrote in this space about Capel’s continuing references to the experiences he has had working in the best programs and coaching the best players and how those references may seem pretentious but really they’re a glimpse of who Capel is.
Who is he? He is a basketball lifer who has experienced the sport at the highest level. Of course, I’m talking primarily about Duke because that’s where his formative years were spent, first as a player and then as a coach.
The idea of being offended at someone congratulating you for being close in a loss - that’s all Duke right there. It’s a mentality, a mindset, a philosophy and an attitude, and it all comes from Durham. Capel may have been born with some of that, but it became who he is when he was at Duke.
Now he’s at Pitt, where he is leading a program that seems to operate with a different mindset. The players want to win, of course. Winning matters to them. A lot. But there’s something else, some level above just wanting to win, some degree of…necessity.
Jeff Capel doesn’t just want to win; he needs to win. Because if he doesn’t win, it ruins him. Look at his quote: he said he would have a hard time sleeping after the Clemson game. I believe him. And I also believe him that his players may not have had the same reaction to Wednesday night’s 20-point loss.
This isn’t to call those players out - I think Capel did a good enough job of that himself - but when you see these inconsistent performances on such a consistent basis, it’s hard to disagree with Capel’s assessment. Because if you simply want to win, you’ll work hard in practice and try to play well in games. But if you need to win, like Capel’s saying, then everything will take on greater pressure, greater importance, greater urgency.
Every offensive possession. Every defensive stand. Every pass, every shot, every screen, every rebound - all of it will mean more if that’s the mindset. And it seems like Jeff Capel is right again, because this team just doesn’t do those things frequently enough. It’s not enough to want it; they have to need it. And when they have that urgency, when it informs all of their decisions and actions on the court, then they’ll truly take the next step.
Getting out of the shadow
One thing I appreciate about Jeff Capel is his consistency. Post-game media scrums are “live” and in the moment, but I think his comments after games are sincere and not just a product of reactionary emotion, and I’ll tell you why I think that:
From the beginning of the season until now, through the course of 25 games, he has been really consistent in his messaging.
Such as referencing the “greatness” he has been around in his career; he has done that a lot. It has been consistent since the season started.
Another thing Jeff Capel tends to talk about is what his players hear from the outside. That topic, which often dovetails with a conversation about social media (see also: the quote in the previous section of this column), has come up a lot this season.
You can go all the way back to the Nicholls State game; after that one, Capel was talking about the players getting too many pats on the back for beating Florida State. He brought up the matter of outside chatter several times early in the season when discussing Xavier Johnson and how he might have heard a little too much about his NBA prospects in the offseason. Capel went to that topic again when saying that the players probably got too much praise for giving Duke a good game (and I’m guessing the fact that his team was praised for a loss really bothered Capel).
I think the idea of outside noise is one that Capel thinks a lot about, and I would add another element to the topic.
I’ve been talking for a few weeks about the idea that, at some point, we’ll all stop using the last two seasons as context for Pitt’s current success.
“Hey, two years ago this program went 0-18 in the ACC…”
We hear that kind of comment from fans and media fairly often.
But that kind of sentiment, I think there will be a time when we stop saying that. We’ll stop using that 0-fer (or last year’s three-win season) as a reference point. I’m not saying it needs to happen right now; I know that the Kevin Stallings era is still fresh in everyone’s minds and no one has forgotten what it was like to sit through - or ignore completely - 18 losses in 18 regular-season conference games. Nor should we forget it just yet; that season still represents the hole Pitt has had to dig out of since Capel arrived. And that’s still important. For now.
But I think that sometimes we do the things Capel is bemoaning, like praising a loss by saying “Look how far they’ve come” or “It wasn’t that long ago that they were losing ACC games by 30 on a regular basis.” And I wonder if some of that outside mentality trickles down to the players.
Capel talks about his players getting the message from outside the locker room rather than inside it - that’s another big theme of his - and maybe some of what the players hear on social media or what they hear walking around campus or what they hear when they’re eating at Miami Subs (kids still eat at Miami Subs, right?) is that it’s okay to blow games like Louisville or Wake Forest or Clemson because they have still won a half-dozen ACC games and that’s a lot better than not winning any.
Maybe everybody - players, fans, media, everybody - needs to make a conscious effort to start distancing the Pitt program from where it was two years ago. Maybe the expectations need to be set by what this team has done and not by what Kevin Stallings’ team did.
A huge WPIAL class
Switching to football recruiting for a bit…
We can spend a lot of time - and we have spent a lot of time - talking about whether the WPIAL is good enough or strong enough or deep enough anymore, and while the numbers certainly back up the notion that western Pennsylvania simply isn’t turning out the talent (in numbers) that it used to, I think there’s one thing we can all agree on:
When the WPIAL is strong, it’s better for Pitt.
That makes sense, right? If there are talented players in higher quantities locally, then that’s better for Pitt’s coaching staff as it works to build the roster.
Seems logical enough.
And with that in mind, it’s hard to deny that the 2021 class is a big one for Pitt. This upcoming group looks to be as top-heavy as any class from the last few years, led by four-star prospects Derrick Davis, Elliot Donald and Nahki Johnson and backed up by the likes of Dorien Ford, Donovan McMillon, Stephon Hall and Khalil Dinkins, to name a few.
Davis, Donald and Johnson (who is already a Pitt commit) are four-stars now, but Ford and McMillon have offer sheets that match those of prospects in that range, so you can’t rule out the possibility that they could get a fourth star; if Ford and McMillon do get bumped to four-star status, that would bring western Pa.’s total of four-star prospects to five - the most since the WPIAL had seven in the class of 2014.
Not all of those seven in the 2014 class worked out, of course; Mike Grimm didn’t play at Pitt, Shai McKenzie had some legal issues while he was at Virginia Tech and J.J. Cosentino, the Central Catholic quarterback who went to Florida State, was pretty clearly over-ranked.
Still, that class was pretty talented. Montae Nicholson, Dravon Henry-Askew, Alex Bookser and Chase Winovich all had really good college careers. If you get four guys from the same class in the WPIAL to have careers like Nicholson, Henry-Askew, Bookser and Winovich had, then I’d say it was a pretty strong class.
As we sit here in February of 2020, a full 18 months or more from the time any of the current juniors will start their first college training camps, I’ll say that I think the 2021 class could end up rivaling that group from 2014.
And that makes this class a crucial one for Pat Narduzzi and company. If that kind of talent is in your backyard, you have to get it - or at least a significant portion of it.
TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE
How tough will it be to get those WPIAL players?
Continuing from that last thought…
Pitt needs to get a significant portion of the talent in the WPIAL for the 2021 class. I think we can all agree on that. But we should probably agree or something else, too:
It’s going to be a battle to get a significant portion of the talent in the WPIAL for the 2021 class.
Just look at the competition. Elliot Donald has a top eight that lists Pitt right next to LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Texas A&M and West Virginia. Dorien Ford’s offer sheet has Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana, Iowa State, Kentucky, Maryland, Syracuse, Texas A&M and West Virginia on it.
Donovan McMillon is ranked the No. 17 prospect in Pennsylvania, but he’s got an offer sheet that looks like a top-10 recruit. Just in the last week, he added offers from Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Louisville, and those three joined Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse, Vanderbilt and West Virginia, along with Pitt. Khalil Dinkins has been one of the quieter recruits in the group, but he’s got Syracuse, Virginia, Boston College and Michigan on his list. And Stephon Hall’s offer sheet is the “lightest” - Pitt is the only Power Five offer - but that list will likely grow.
So yeah, there is some serious competition for those players. But that’s what happens: when you pursue top-end talent, you’re going to have to fend off some top-end schools.
This is the pond Pitt wants to swim in, and quite frankly, it’s where they should be swimming. I’m a big believer in coaches recruiting the guys they think fit their systems and believing in their ability to project talent and develop it, but there’s also some truth in the fact that a good offer sheet full of legitimate offers from schools that frequently succeed on the field is a strong indication of a recruit’s potential.
To over-simplify the thought, a MAC offer sheet probably means a guy is a MAC player.
That’s not the be-all/end-all, of course. Plenty of players have excelled at the Power Five level despite having only one or two Power Five offers. And there is a giant list of non-Power Five players who have had successful careers in the NFL.
But in the simplest terms, recruits with offers from the best programs in the sport have a pretty good chance of being good in college. It’s just like stars and rankings: none of those things guarantees that a player will be good but, generally speaking, you would rather have a four-star prospect with offers from Ohio State and Clemson than a two or three-star guy whose best option is in Conference USA.
Again, no disrespect to those programs, because UCF and Cincinnati and Boise State and Memphis and countless other schools have shown how competitive schools outside the Power Five can be. But if you want to beat Clemson, you probably want to get the players that Clemson is recruiting.
Heading into Year Six of the Narduzzi Era at Pitt, the Panthers should be thinking in those terms. They’ve had enough success that the coaches can paint a picture of progress, and they’ve got enough staff stability that relationships should be in place. Now they just have to capitalize.
To some extent, I think they did capitalize last year. Dayon Hayes was a four-star prospect with an offer sheet to match. Jordan Addison was a three-star but he had a four-star offer sheet. Aydin Henningham, Jahvante Royal, Solomon DeShields, Bangally Kamara, Jaylon Barden - the list of Pitt recruits in the 2020 class who had strong offer sheets goes on and on. Really, the only guys who don’t jump out at you are Sam Williams (he had USF and Syracuse), Buddy Mack (he had Indiana and West Virginia) and “special situations” like JUCO tight end Daniel Moraga and kicker Ben Sauls (who actually had a few Power Five offers).
And if you look ahead to Pitt’s 2021 class, the three commitments (Nahki Johnson, Rodney Hammond and Javon McIntyre) have a combined total of about 30 Power Five offers - not counting Pitt - so things are off to a pretty good start in that regard.
That’s where the level where Pitt needs to be recruiting, and there has been some early success. Narduzzi and company will need to keep that up - especially with some of the locals in this class.
How important is the 2020 season?
I think a common conclusion - or, at least, a common adjacent thought - to the discussion of having some top prospects in the local area is that Pitt can really have success in recruiting if the Panthers have success on the field in the coming season.
“This is a really strong year in the WPIAL,” the thinking goes. “Now the coaches have to do their part and win on the field to make the most of it.”
And that’s true. Kind of.
Look, on-field success is always going to be important. You want to win more than you lose and you want to have good seasons because that will help you in recruiting. But winning in any given season doesn’t necessarily translate to helping in recruiting for that year’s class.
Far more often, we see a successful season truly bear fruits the next year. So Pitt won the Coastal Division and got to the ACC Championship Game for the 2018 season, but the class of 2019 - which was being recruited during that season - didn’t exactly get a big boost; instead, it was the next class, the class of 2020, that really benefited from that success (we just spent some time talking about that class).
You see this trend often. Look back to Pitt’s most recent 10-win season: the Panthers went 10-3 in 2009, but the class of 2010 was, for the most part, just okay. It didn’t look that much better than previous classes.
But the class of 2011 - that was a different story. The summer of 2010, when a lot of those recruits were committing, was an exciting time because the staff was really having success on the strength of the 10-3 record. Of course, all of those recruits ended up at different schools after the coaching changes that followed the 2010 season, but the point remains:
Pitt’s success in the 2009 season carried over to recruiting for the class of 2011. So while a lot of success in the coming season certainly won’t hurt, it probably also won’t move the needle as much for the 2021 recruits as it will for the next class.
Setting aside historical trends, there’s another element at play:
By the time the season rolls around, Pitt’s recruiting class could be nearly full. Just look at Pitt’s 2020 class: 14 of the 18 recruits who signed with the Panthers committed before the season started. And that’s the pattern nationally; I looked at the Rivals250 for the 2020 class, and by my count, 136 of those top 250 prospects committed before September 2019.
The 2020 season won’t have as much of an impact on 2021 recruiting if the 2021 recruits are, for the most part, committed before the 2021 season even starts.
Now, there will be some guys who don’t commit over the summer. Maybe Elliot Donald and Dorien Ford and Donovan McMillon decide to hold out and take official visits in the winter and commit on Signing Day.
I’m guessing that most of those guys will be committed somewhere before we get to the season opener.
Quarterback recruiting is going to be interesting
Some new quarterback offers went out from the Pitt coaching staff this past week.
I mean, a lot of new offers went out this past week at all positions, and we’re not going to write about every one of them in this column because it would take up the entire space. But quarterback offers are particularly notable because, well, quarterbacks are particularly notable.
Those are three pretty good prospects and there’s a bunch we could say about each of them, but here’s the key and here’s why we’re talking about them in the column:
They’re all sophomores in the recruiting class of 2022. And by my count, Pitt hasn’t offered a junior quarterback - the guys in the class of 2021 who are really the focus of the recruiting process at this point in time - since last summer.
So the guys who will be taking official visits in a few months and will be seniors in the fall and will sign in December - Pitt hasn’t offered one of them since July. But the guys who just finished their sophomore seasons and will be juniors next fall and don’t sign for 22 months - Pitt offered three of them this week.
What gives? Doesn’t Mark Whipple want to get a quarterback in the 2021 class?
I’m sure that Whipple wants to land a quarterback recruit, but the situations with the 2021 and 2022 classes at quarterback are pretty interesting.
According to the Rivals.com database, Pitt does have five offers out to quarterbacks in the 2021 class, but the only real option among that group, it seems, is four-star Christian Veilleux, who was considering Pitt before he reclassified from the 2020 class; the Panthers are still involved now that he's in the 2021 class, but that’s a tough one.
There aren’t a lot of options on Pitt’s current offer board for the 2021 class, so why haven’t the Panthers offered more quarterbacks? One problem is the available talent pool. If you look at the national rankings of pro-style quarterback prospects in the class of 2021, the top 10 uncommitted targets are as follows:
Notice anything about those 10 guys?
I’ll tell you what stands out to me: only one - Christian Veilleux - is even close to what I would call a “Pitt recruiting territory.” And after that, you have to go to the No. 14 uncommitted pro-style quarterback prospect to find another one in a Pitt territory (Dorian Nowell, the No. 25 pro-style quarterback in the nation, is a three-star prospect in New Jersey).
Quite frankly, it’s a rough year for Pitt to be looking for a quarterback. You don’t have to stick in your natural recruiting territories, but the further you get from the places you recruit on a regular basis, the more challenging the task becomes. If the assistant coaches have to start going to Texas or Alabama or some place like that to find a quarterback, they’re going to be working to build new relationships with high school coaches and the players themselves, and that puts you behind almost immediately when you’re recruiting against college staffs that have those relationships in place.
So this year is going to be interesting. I think Pitt can find a decent quarterback in the class of 2021. It probably won’t be one of the guys the Panthers have already offered; instead, it will probably be a target who emerges during the June prospect camps or perhaps at some point during the season.
Really, Pitt’s main hopes are pinned on Davis Beville and Joey Yellen; the staff needs one or both of those guys to be legit in order to lock up that position for the next few years. That would be the ideal scenario. But Narduzzi, Whipple and company are going to have to have their eyes wide open for candidates to fill the quarterback spot in the 2021 class.