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The 3-2-1 Column: Confidence, Aston, freshmen and more

MORE HEADLINES - From the players: What's the sales pitch to get recruits to Pitt? | Media Day collection: The offensive coaches | PODCAST: The safety dance | News and notes from Thursday's practice | Video: Narduzzi on Media Day | Aston's return can boost numbers | Slideshow: The first practice in pads | Recruiting rundown: Where do things stand after the August mini-run? | Video: The Harley Drill - get a look at every defensive player

In this week's Panther-Lair.com 3-2-1 Column, we're talking about team confidence, George Aston, freshmen and more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

There’s a lot of confidence - and that’s a good thing
Okay, we’ll start with the obvious: every football team is confident in training camp.

All of them. They all talk about how much bigger, stronger and faster they are. They talk about how well they’re doing with the new coaches or how strong the relationships are that they have with the returning staff. They talk about how the veteran players are comfortable in the system and the newcomers are catching on quicker than expected.

Everybody’s a winner in August (except Maryland; they’re losing right now). And everybody has a lot of confidence in August. So that’s not unique to Pitt.

However, Pitt’s confidence this August seems a bit unique from other years. Hindsight is always going to make things look whichever way you want them to look, but when I think back on training camp 2016, there was something of a quiet confidence in the offense, a sense of “We know something you don’t know and when you find out what it is, you might be pretty impressed.”

And last year, in retrospect, there were maybe some uncertainties. I don’t think the players and coaches were as confident in their quarterback situation, for starters, and I think they knew they had youth and inexperience on defense that would likely have some issues in the early part of the season.

This year, there is certainly some confidence, and I think it comes from a couple things.

The first source of confidence is the defense. The coaches and players believe this group can be really good, and I think they believe that they showed signs of what they could be late in the 2017 season. Now, with a bunch of returning starters and experienced players coming off a year when they got better from start to finish and were playing pretty well at the end, they think they’re ready to take another step forward.

Which seems plausible to me

The second source of confidence - and really, this is a 1A because it’s that important, is the quarterback. Having a good quarterback makes everybody feel better about their chances, no matter what question marks exist.

If you go into a season with a quarterback you believe in, somebody you think can really take control of the team and lead it, then everybody in the program walks with their chest a little higher and goes into the season feeling like they can play with any opponent.

So while Kenny Pickett is still relatively green, I think the Pitt football program - players, coaches, staffers, everyone - has bought into him. When a team buys into its quarterback, it’s going to have some confidence. Add in the defense, and I think these guys genuinely believe they’ve got a chance to surprise some people.

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Aston can provide tangible benefits

Look, I like refashioning a good Chuck Norris joke to fit George Aston as much as the next guy (“George Aston can win a game of a Connect Four in only three moves”) but the reality is, Pitt’s redshirt senior fullback is important for more than just being a folk hero.

Okay, a fullback in Pittsburgh will always be a folk hero. But this one is something different. This one, as you probably are well aware, scored 10 touchdowns in 2016, and while there are probably a lot of reasons why Pitt averaged 17 points per game less in 2017 than it did in 2016, I think Aston’s absence due to injury was a big one.

Yes, they missed Quadree Henderson’s scoring (he had 10 touchdowns in 2016 and just two in 2017) and the fall-off in the passing game (Jester Weah had four touchdowns, down from 10) was significant as well. But those players were at least on the field, so the opportunity was there.

Aston wasn’t on the field. The threat of scoring from his position, manned as it was by Matt Flanagan and then Tyler Sear, wasn’t present. And while it was one among many issues in the offense, I think it was a big one.

No one saw Aston coming in 2016. There were other weapons to focus on, whether it was Henderson on the sweeps or Weah stretching the field or James Conner running from the backfield, so when the quick sweep or the shovel pass went to the fullback who was hiding among all those other playmakers, it caught defenses off-guard.

Ask Clemson, who gave up two touchdowns to Aston. Or Penn State, who gave up two rushing scores. They never saw him coming, and once they realized he had the ball with an open lane to the end zone, he was too strong to bring down.

Now, I don’t think Aston alone will be the engine that restarts Pitt’s offense and gets it past 30 points per game; they’re going to need players to step up at virtually every other offensive position to truly turn a corner. But I think it’s pretty notable that the production at tight end and H-back - two positions that have enough personnel overlap to merit combined stats - dropped from 15 touchdowns in 2016 to just one in 2017. Scott Orndoff’s departure plays into that, as does the quarterback situation, but Aston is too significant of a figure to disregard in that equation.

Of course, his impact on blocking for the run game can’t be overlooked either. He’ll help there, for sure, and could be part of a significant upgrade in that regard. But Pitt needs touchdowns this season, and Aston has a good track record with that.

There are three great Aston numbers
When it comes to George Aston, there are three numbers that I think really stick out:

6, 4.4 and 30.

To wit…

6 - In 2016, when Aston scored 10 touchdowns, he was one of six players in FBS to score five or more rushing touchdowns and five or more receiving touchdowns. The other five included Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel and Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon, who both went on to be drafted in the second round; N.C. State’s Jaylen Samuels, who was a fifth-round pick of the Steelers; and Jamal Morrow from Washington State and D’Ernest Johnson from USF.

How rare is it to get five and five like that? Last season, with Mixon and Samuel gone to the NFL and Aston injured, only one player in FBS hit that number - Rodney Anderson from Oklahoma.

4.4 - Those 10 touchdowns Aston scored in 2016? They came on just 44 touches. He ran the ball 22 times and caught 22 passes.

That’s one touchdown every 4.4 touches, which seems like a remarkably high rate - and it is. Compare it to those other guys who scored at least five of each, and it’s by far the best number. Curtis Samuel scored 17 touchdowns on 171 touches. Joe Mixon got his 15 touchdowns on 224 touches. D’Ernest Johnson also needed more than 200 touches to get 13 touchdowns.

Only Jaylen Samuels came close to Aston in terms of scoring efficiency in 2016; he scored 13 touchdowns on 88 touches, or one touchdown every 6.8 times he touched the ball.

30 - That’s how many reps at 225 pounds Aston says he can do on the bench press right now. Absent any context, that seems like a lot, but the context makes it even more impressive.

Consider that only 11 players had more than 30 reps at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine. But 10 of those 11 were linemen - offensive or defensive - and the 11th was an NFL-designated “EDGE” rusher, so he is pretty close to a lineman. Either way, those 11 guys who did more bench reps than Aston currently does averaged 312 pounds per man.

Aston weighs 240.

That’s a huge weight disparity - roughly 70 pounds - for Aston to be that close to those guys. It speaks to his pure strength, and with more training in the offseason, he’ll probably get upwards of 32 reps, which would be astonishing.

Just like the rest of those numbers.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

How will Shawn Watson use Aston?
We can talk a lot about how good it is for Pitt’s offense to have George Aston back, but there’s certainly a big question lying in between getting him back and getting his production back, and that question is this:

How will Shawn Watson use Aston?

Before Aston got hurt, Watson talked about him being the “adjuster” - a moving fullback who could line up at fullback, H-back, tight end, in the slot or just about anywhere else other than (or maybe including) the offensive line or quarterback.

Aston would be all over the field with opportunities to get the ball in a variety of ways, in addition to using his strength and instincts to open up holes for the running backs and other ball-carriers. That was the plan, and it was largely going to reflect and build upon what Aston did in 2016.

But as we saw, a lot of stuff that worked in 2016 didn’t work in 2017. Maybe that was due to quarterback issues. Maybe Watson didn’t have the seemingly “magic touch” with play-calling that Matt Canada had. Maybe opposing defenses had a full season’s worth of tape to study and they were better prepared for things like jet sweeps and shovel passes.

That last point might be the most relevant one. Watson certainly thinks so. He told me at Media Day that he wanted to do those things that made the 2016 offense so effective, but unlike in 2016, defenses were ready for it last season. Even at the end of the 2016 season, opponents had 10 or 11 games of tape and were still struggling to keep up with Pitt’s offense. But after a full offseason to study tape and understand how and why Canada’s plays were working, the 2017 opponents were ready for what Pitt was going to try to do.

So Watson had to adjust, and the results weren’t always pretty (again, the quarterback issues loom pretty large here - maybe larger than any other factor).

Entering 2018, I think Watson still wants to do some of those things, but I also see him branching out and making the offense more “his own” - my words, not his. How does that incorporate Aston? That remains to be seen, and it’s something I’ve very curious about, particularly if defenses show some awareness of Aston. In 2017, they knew about Quadree Henderson and had plans in place for what to do once he started going in motion; as a result, Henderson was ineffective in running the jet sweeps that were a big part of the offense the previous year.

If defenses know they have to account for Aston, can he still be as effective as he was two years ago? Can Watson find new things for him to do, new ways to get the ball in his hands and get him running downhill? Sweeps and shovels might not do it in 2018, so what else does Watson have up his sleeve for the Swiss Army knife of Pitt’s offense?

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Which freshmen will play?
We’ll probably ask this question a few more times between now and Sept. 1. And then a few more times after that throughout the season, since the NCAA’s new rule allows freshmen to play up to four games and still take a redshirt.

To me, that rule change is really interesting because it opens up the possibility of more freshmen playing than in the past - guys who keep working throughout the season and come on strong in practice late in the year can get some playing time and still preserve their redshirts.

So who could see the field this year? Here are some guesses after eight practices.

Shocky Jaques-Louis - This is the easy one; I would put the odds of Jacques-Louis getting on the field pretty high, maybe upwards of 90% barring injury. Everyone who has seen him in camp has said he’s the real deal, and a lot of people around the program are expecting him to be a playmaker. I think he’s playing this year.

That was the easy one and pretty much the only one that’s easy. On Media Day, Pat Narduzzi mentioned Marquis Williams; I guess he could see the field in one of the defensive subpackages or even at cornerback if he keeps practicing well, but it’s just tough to imagine given the depth and talent they have in the secondary.

John Morgan is an interesting one. The upperclassmen at defensive end look good and should produce this season, but there are only four of them, which means one injury eliminates a solid two-deep rotation. So I’m guessing the coaches look to get one of the freshmen on the field this season so that if an injury happens to an upperclassman, the freshman has some game experience. And at this point, Morgan seems to be the top freshman defensive end in camp.

Beyond those three guys, I’m not sure if anyone jumps out as being likely to play this year. A week ago I would have put Mychale Salahuddin in the mix, but I think the top four upperclassmen are really competing and Salahuddin seems to be a bit behind, so I would say he’s less likely.

Then you have linemen, who usually aren’t ready as freshmen, and defensive backs, where there is a lot of depth. I’m sure the number of freshmen who play will be more than I expect - it always is - but right now, there aren’t any others really jumping out.

ONE PREDICTION

The defensive ends will step up
I’ve written a bunch and talked a bunch about the defensive ends in the last few weeks, and for good reason: Pitt needs a ton out of those guys, or at least a lot more than they’ve gotten in the last few years (outside of Ejuan Price). For whatever reason, the defensive end position has been a black hole in terms of production.

When you’re setting five as a bar for productivity, which has more or less been the case in this decade, then you’re not aiming very high. But that’s what Pitt has been getting out of a crucial position.

I say that changes this season.

I think Dewayne Hendrix and Rashad Weaver are really going to make some noise in 2018. Someone asked in the weekly Mailbag whether a defensive player would get to 10 sacks this season; I’m not sure about that, but I think Hendrix and Weaver should combine to be in the 15-17 range over the course of 12 games.

And it really is about the combination of those two, because Pitt needs an effective group pass rush. Throw the linebackers in there as well, because getting some production out of those guys will help. But it truly does have to happen up front at multiple positions. In 2015, Ejuan Price had 11.5 sacks and Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara had five each, but that production from the linebackers, good as it may have been, didn’t fill the void on the defensive line.

Because while Price may have had 11.5 sacks, no other end had more than two, and only one guy even got that many. You need consistent production out of both ends of the line to create the every-down threat of a pass rush.

Get that rolling in combination with effective pressing from the cornerbacks, and you can really disrupt the timing of the opponent’s passing game. Disrupt the timing of the passing game, and life can be very difficult for the opponent.

So it comes back to Hendrix and Weaver. Both guys showed flashes last season, but Weaver was playing for the first time in his college career and Hendrix might as well have been doing the same, since 2017 was his first full season as a starter and really the first full season he played in college.

Now both guys have experience to go with their natural talent - and both will go well beyond the three sacks they each put up last season.