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The 3-2-1 Column: Expectations, recruiting and more

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In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re talking about expectations, recruiting, offensive MVPs and more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Eight is still great
Maybe not great, but it will be good enough…

It’s tough to make a prediction or set an expectation for a team’s win total in the preseason. It just is. There are too many unknowns, too many factors that will impact the upcoming season, that saying “This team should win this many games” is mostly empty words.

It’s like those times people say, “If I had told you before the year that this team would have X number of wins” or something like that - that’s flawed logic because the circumstances change as a season progresses. Like last year: if I had told you before the season that Pitt would win the Coastal Division, you would have taken it in a heartbeat. But when that Coastal title came with blowout losses to Penn State and UCF, another loss to North Carolina and a three-game losing streak to end the year, the reaction to the Coastal title was a little adjusted.

Circumstances change and expectations change with them. That’s why it’s a good idea to make the number of expected wins a moving target. See how the season plays out a bit and, once you get a third of the way through the schedule or maybe even halfway, define what would be considered a success.

That’s what I did after the UCF game. With the way Pitt had played against Penn State and UCF, plus the quality of the rest of the Coastal Division, I looked at the Panthers after four games and said that eight was the minimum win total for the season. I said that Pitt should do no worse than 6-2 through its final eight games, which would really be 5-2 through that stretch run of ACC games to end the season.

It was a high bar to set, thinking that the Panthers could get through seven games with just two miscues, but I was of the mindset that it’s okay for the bar to be set high sometimes. Pitt has a great defense, a developing offense and a friendly schedule - let’s aim high around here for once.

So I went with that target: 5-2 minimum over the final seven, with 4-3 or worse being a disappointment.

Now the first of those seven games is in the books with Pitt’s almost-lose-from-ahead-but-then-come-from-behind win at Duke on Saturday night. The Blue Devils were one of the teams I was concerned about. They had looked good in the three games since losing their season opener to Alabama, plus just about every Pitt-Duke game since the Panthers joined the ACC has been a close one. I thought that one would be a challenge and it turned out to be exactly that, but Pitt came out with the victory.

One down, at least four to go.

Because that expectation, that number for minimum wins this season, is still eight. Anything less will be a disappointment. And if Pitt keeps winning, if the Panthers can beat Syracuse at the Carrier Dome next Friday and then Miami at home the week after that, then it might be time to adjust those expectations again.

They found what they needed
The one big question I had about Pitt’s defense entering the season was pretty simple:

Who can make a play?

I looked at Pitt’s defense from last season and saw a lot of nice player, a lot of solid guys who could make good tackles and play their assignments. But something was lacking. I guess “splash plays” is what a lot of people would call them, and that seems sufficient.

There weren’t enough splash plays.

Pitt had 85 tackles for loss and 32 sacks and nine interceptions and 51 pass breakups and 19 forced fumbles, and those were all good, solid numbers. But not great numbers. Not impact-making, game-changing numbers. The S&P+ rating has a metric it calls “havoc” that takes all of those plays I listed - tackles for loss, passes defended and forced fumbles - and divides by the number of total plays to see how often a defense is wreaking havoc.

Last year, Pitt was around 18%, which put the Panthers in the 50’s nationally. Not a bad place to be. A nice, solid place to be.

This year is a different story. The Panthers are second in the nation in total sacks and tied for No. 15 in tackles for loss and their havoc rate is above 23%, which would have ranked No. 2 in the nation last year. They’re making plays because they’ve got players who can change a game.

Like the defensive linemen. Jaylen Twyman was the Outland Trophy Defensive Player of the Month for September after getting six sacks in the month. Patrick Jones had two strip-sacks in huge situations at Duke on Saturday night and got a ton of recognition for it. And the whole line has more sacks than 117 FBS teams.

Or the defensive backs. Dane Jackson, Jason Pinnock and Damarri Mathis have done their part to give Jones and Twyman time to the passer thanks to their lockdown coverage. And Paris Ford is flashing the big-play potential everyone believed he had.

And then there’s the linebackers. A weakness for years in Pitt’s defense under Pat Narduzzi, the linebackers have become an ideal unit: talented, impactful and deep. They have weathered two injuries and gotten big-time step-up performances out of a graduate transfer, a converted safety and a guy seeing every-down snaps for the first time in his career.

Someone needed to emerge on this defense to take it to the next level. After six games, we can say that guys have, in fact, emerged, and the defense is, in fact, on the next level.

Back-to-back looking good
Not to look too far ahead but…

I know the focus is all on the current season, as it should be, but I can’t help looking ahead. I cover recruiting; looking ahead is what I do.

Like, ahead to next season and beyond. Because when I look at the class of 2019 - the current freshmen - and the class of 2020 - the guys who are currently seniors in high school - I come back to the feeling that there’s a chance to really build some continuity.

Now, the first step in building continuity is having a good, young foundation on the current team, and I think Pitt has that. We’ve talked about all the guys who are coming back on defense, and the offense is full of underclassmen. So that part is covered.

The second part - the building of continuity - is about the next group of guys, and that’s where I see some optimism.

We’ve only seen a little bit of the 2019 class so far. Mostly, that has been Vincent Davis, who has been impressive. But did you see the catch Jared Wayne made at Duke? The really nice grab for 17 yards on third-and-14 in the second quarter? That was a quality reception, and there’s a reason the coaches have felt confident putting him on the field.

I don’t think Davis and Wayne are alone as impressive players in the class. I’ve been hearing a lot of optimism in certain circles about the group and how they have looked in practice so far, from quarterback Davis Beville to the offensive linemen like Matt Goncalves and Liam Dick to the defensive linemen - people can’t say enough good things about Bam Brima - to the linebackers and defensive backs, who have all seen the field this season (that’s right: every one of the three linebackers and two defensive backs Pitt signed in 2019 have gotten game action, and most of them won’t redshirt).

It’s a class that is shaping up to be much better than most of us expected it to be when those guys were signed. I know we always talk about recruits being overrated or underrated; a lot of the players Pitt signed in the class of 2019 are looking like they could fall into the latter category.

And then the current recruiting class, the class of 2020, seems like it could be even better. In fact, from the look of things, it is shaping up to be Pat Narduzzi’s best class since coming to Pitt. The receivers, Jordan Addison and Jaylon Barden, could step onto the field right away. The running backs - whether Pitt signs both of the current commits or only one - are legit. The offensive linemen were handpicked by Dave Borbely. And not to paint with too broad of a brush, but the defense has some studs at all three levels.

They still don’t have a quarterback or a tight end, so that has to be addressed. But the class as it currently stands looks really, really good. Add it on top of the 2019 class and the foundation that is already built on the current roster, and there’s a chance for Narduzzi and company to really be positioned for sustained success.

Like I said, though, not to look too far ahead…

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Why hasn’t the offensive line been built like the defensive line?
That’s a question lurking underneath all of this defensive success this season:

If Pat Narduzzi and his staff have built what seems to be a great defense, why isn’t the offense following suit? Or, put another way, it seems like the defense is finally coming together; why isn’t that happening on offense?

Well, there a few explanations. One element is coaching. Specifically regarding the defensive line, Charlie Partridge is now in his third season on staff and the results are showing. Partridge has proven to be worth every penny Pitt has spent to bring him to the South Side and keep him there. I’m a big believer in the caliber of players being more important than the coaching, but you can’t look at the success of the defensive line - and the impact it has on the rest of the defense - and not give a lot of credit to Partridge.

Another element is the recruiting classes. This is important. The 2015 class hasn’t really had any impact on the 2019 roster, in terms of the linemen; in fact, there isn’t a single linemen on either side of the ball from that class who is still on the roster.

But the 2016 class is a different story. In that class, Pitt signed Rashad Weaver, Patrick Jones, Keyshon Camp, Amir Watts, Rashad Wheeler and Zack Gilbert as defensive linemen. On the offensive side, the Panthers signed Bryce Hargrove, Brandon Ford, Zack Williams and Justin Morgan.

You tell me which one has had a better hit rate. Even if you take out the two guys who got hurt this year - Weaver and Camp - you still have Jones and Watts starting on the defensive line, whereas the offensive line has one in Hargrove.

The 2017 class is more of the same: Deslin Alexandre, Jaylen Twyman and Kam Carter on the defensive line; Jerry Drake, Owen Drexel, Gabe Houy, Carson Van Lynn and Carter Warren on the offensive line. There are two starters from each group on the 2019 roster, but setting aside stats, you tell me which guys have been making more of an impact: Alexandre and Twyman or Houy and Warren?

So in the two key classes that have built the bulk of the starting lineup, you’ve got nine recruits on each line; six of the defensive line recruits are starter-caliber - including the two guys who are injured - and three of the offensive line recruits are at that level. That’s a huge difference.

And that says nothing of the 2018 class. Jake Kradel got some good snaps at Duke in place of Houy, but on defense, Habakkuk Baldonado has been a breakout player while Devin Danielson has been playing well in a reserve role and David Green and Tyler Bentley have been giving quality reps, too.

Maybe the biggest difference is in the johnnies and joes, as they say: Pitt has recruited some really good defensive linemen in the last few classes.

Now, this isn’t all negative on the offensive linemen. Any coach will tell you that it can take longer for offensive linemen to develop and be game-ready than it takes for defensive linemen, and there’s something to be said for that. Plus, the offensive line is in a period of transition: Pitt is relying on first-year starters at left tackle, left guard and right guard plus a graduate transfer at right tackle.

The upside is that those first-year starters have years to play. Warren and Houy have two more years after this, as does Van Lynn, who should earn playing time at tackle next year. And there are positive reviews about the younger tackles on the team, too. So this offensive line should come together.

Right now, though, the defensive line is a powerhouse, full of talent and depth.

Who has been the best player on offense?
I talked earlier about impact players on defense, but what about the other side? Who are Pitt’s impact players on offense?

Right now, there’s really only one answer, and it’s Taysir Mack. The redshirt junior receiver, who was added to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List this week, has been the Panthers’ big-play option and he’s becoming a go-to target in the passing game. He already has two touchdown catches - one more than he had last season - and he has set career highs in targets (69) and receptions (41) while needing just 47 receiving yards to set a career mark in that stat, too.

What’s best for Pitt is, Mack has been on fire for the last four games. Against Penn State, UCF, Delaware and Duke he caught 32 passes for 421 yards - an average of 105 yards on eight catches per game. 21 of his catches in that stretch have gained first downs, including every one of his six receptions against UCF.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s clearly a growing confidence with Kenny Pickett. Some of the throws Pickett tossed to Mack at Duke were heaves - but they were catches that Pickett clearly believed Mack would make. Nick Patti did the same thing twice against Delaware.

These quarterbacks believe Mack will come down with the 50/50 balls, and Pitt hasn’t really had someone with that kind of reliability since…well, I won’t say Larry Fitzgerald because there have been some good receivers around here since 2003. Tyler Boyd and Jonathan Baldwin could both catch balls in traffic, so we won’t overlook those guys.

But the key is that Mack is doing it now. And he’s making some big catches. 25-yard catch on third-and-10 at Duke. Monster 48-yard catch on third-and-17 against Delaware. Two third-down catches and one fourth-down catch against UCF. Two catches on third down and two on fourth down at Penn State.

All told, Pitt has converted 29 third downs this season; Mack has made the play on 10 of those. And the Panthers have converted six fourth downs as a team; Mack gets credit for half of those. That’s making an impact.

Of course, if you’ve read the site long enough, you know that I think quite highly of Maurice Ffrench, and that hasn’t changed. I thought he was criminally underused last season, and the numbers are up a ton this year. He already has 56 touches on offense after seeing just 54 last year, so that’s a step in the right direction. The problem is, he’s not getting as much out of those touches; last year he averaged 12.57 yards per offensive touch, but this season it’s down to 7.48.

I still think he can blow up in the second half of the season and make this offense really explosive. But for now, Mack is the man.

ONE PREDICTION

Pickett is going in the record books
Let’s take a quick moment to reflect on how good I am at predictions, shall we?

I started doing predictions in these 3-2-1 Columns with the column we published the day before the season opener against Virginia. I figured that was a good time to bring the predictions back, and while that section of the column functioned more as an opportunity to discuss one additional topic rather than a full-fledged guarantee of something that would happen, I still wouldn’t mind being right about predictions every now and then.

This season…yeah, my track record isn’t great.

The day before the Virginia game, I predicted that Pitt would have at least 175 rushing yards against the Cavaliers. The Panthers finished with 78 yards on the ground.

The next week, I said the passing game would improve against Ohio. That was an easy one and turned out to be right.

For the Penn State game, I said Pitt would score a touchdown outside the second quarter. The Panthers hadn’t done that since the Wake Forest game last year, and that streak didn’t end in State College, as they scored one touchdown and it was in the second quarter.

I got the prediction right for the UCF game when I said that Pitt’s defense would continue its streak of holding opponents under their season averages for yards and points. I hedged that prediction by saying it still might not be enough for Pitt to win, but the prediction still hit.

Heading into the Delaware game, I wasn’t sure what to predict so I said that Paris Ford would get his first career turnover. As with the “touchdown outside the second quarter” prediction, I was a week too early on that one.

And this past week, I predicted that the under would hit in the Pitt-Duke game. It was heading that way and would have been a clean win if Pitt hadn’t turned the ball over so many times.

So I’m 2-for-6 this season on predictions. That’s not great. I mean, it’s a good batting average if you’re a Major League Baseball Player, but there aren’t many other walks of life where you can be considered a success by failing 67% of the time.

For this week, I’m going to make a prediction that won’t be proven right or wrong for a couple months, so hopefully we’ll all forget about it by the time the chickens come home to roost. I’m going to say that Kenny Pickett joins the relatively short list of Pitt quarterbacks who have thrown for 3,000 yards in a season.

Right now, the Pitt junior has thrown for 1,370 yards in five games; that’s an average of 274 yards per game. If he keeps up at that pace and the Panthers reach a bowl game, Pickett will finish with 3,288 passing yards. That would tie for the second-most passing yards in a season by a Pitt quarterback (Tino Sunseri hit that number in 2012).

And really, he only needs to average about 233 yards per game over the next seven to hit 3,000. He has topped 233 in three of his five games, and in one of the other two - the UCF game - he had 224 while missing some time due to injury.

If Pickett gets to 3,000 yards, he will be in rather rarified air. There have only been four 3,000-yard seasons in Pitt history: Rod Rutherford in 2003, Sunseri in 2012, Alex Van Pelt in 1992 and Tyler Palko in 2004. Pickett can put himself in that group by mostly continuing what he has done to this point, at least from a productivity standpoint.

He needs to be more efficient, of course; he can’t make the mistakes he made against Duke. But Pickett is going to have the opportunity to get the yards. He is third in the nation in pass attempts, trailing New Mexico State’s Josh Adkins, who has played one more game than Pickett, and Anthony Gordon, who plays in Mike Leach’s offense at Washington State.

Pitt isn’t going to stop throwing the ball, and as long as that’s the case, Pickett is going to have a chance to hit for three-large.