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The 3-2-1 Column: Mood swings, recruiting, the spring game and more

MORE HEADLINES - Recruiting rundown, part 1: A busy spring for Pitt | Mailbag: OL, QB play, wins and more | FREE: What's the two-deep on offense? | FREE: What's the two-deep on defense? | Akron CB excited for Pitt offer | A look at Pennsylvania recruiting | Salopek gets an extended look at Pitt's offense | FREE: Paris Ford looks to go from absence to presence

In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re talking about swings in optimism, spring recruiting, Paris Ford and more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Well, that escalated quickly
It’s interesting to look around at Pitt football fans right now. They are, for the time being, a pretty content bunch. Perhaps even happy. Dare I say optimistic.

It’s a strange look and not necessarily one they’re comfortable wearing. But it’s true: Pitt fans seem to be feeling pretty good about themselves right now.

This stands, of course, in stark contrast with the very recent past, as recent as a month ago. Pitt had just started spring camp and was fresh off an offseason that saw the team suffer a third-consecutive loss in the Sun Bowl behind an unimpressive snoozer of a performance, a showing in El Paso that birthed more apprehension than confidence.

Couple that with a second Signing Day that was not in any way inspiring or exciting and you had the makings of an offseason filled with not quite doom and gloom but something else: resignation, perhaps, or maybe even apathy.

But a few things have happened this offseason that are turning things around, at least from the fans’ perspective. The first was the decision to fire Shawn Watson; Pitt fans didn’t exactly rally in the streets over that move, but they certainly welcomed it.

That move was followed by the decision to hire Mark Whipple to replace Watson. Whipple didn’t have the initial ‘wow’ factor, but as his resume and track record were considered, he started to look like a good option. Throwing in the hire of Chris Beatty as receivers coach to bolster not only his position but also recruiting generated some more positive buzz.

Then spring camp started. It was always going to be tough to find momentum-builders out of spring camp when the practices are closed and no one can really see who’s standing out (reports of Kenny Pickett lighting the world on fire, for instance, might have generated some buzz). But in lieu of publicly-available on-field progress, there was a lot happening off the field to create buzz of its own:

Recruiting.

We’ll talk about this more in a second, but Pitt had one of its best springs in a long time, at least as far as getting priority targets on campus. Beatty had a lot to do with that, but whatever the cause, Pitt was getting visits from recruits who are high on the board. Plus, the Panthers landed two commitments this spring, a welcome change from last year’s not-until-June commitment trend.

“Maybe the recruits are seeing something that we’re not,” the thinking went, and momentum grew.

Then came the Reveal. On April 7, Pitt rolled out its new uniforms, and despite whatever quibbles you may have about number fonts - and I’ve got them, too - it’s hard to call that day anything but a smashing success. The unveiling of the new uniforms created near-universal buzz among the fan base and beyond. Not to be overlooked was the production as a whole: from staging it at the Bigelow Bash to coinciding the reveal with the opening of a Nike store jam-packed with brand new merch, the whole event was executed at a near-perfect level.

Which isn’t always the case at Pitt, as we all know.

Things were capped with the Blue-Gold Game, which started slow but ended strong, getting enough good play from the offense and the defense to generate some positivity about both sides of the ball. And as 8,000 or so walked out of Heinz Field, there was an unmistakable air of…I don’t know what you want to call it, so I’ll just steal the headline of a thread that frequent poster @bobfree started on the message board Sunday morning:

“Things feel different…”

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An impressive spring
I mentioned recruiting in the last section and even talked about it in last week’s 3-2-1 Column, but I’m coming back to it now since, in the week since that column, Pitt has gotten another commitment and hosted a strong group of recruits at the Blue-Gold Game.

That concluded spring camp on the same theme that was present throughout the six weeks of practices: generally speaking, a lot of recruits with offers from Pitt wanted to see what the Panthers have going on.

By our count, there were more than 60 visits this spring from offered prospects, a huge number that dwarfs any spring in recent memory. I can’t say that I have exact numbers for the last few springs, but having attended pretty much every open spring practice over that span, I can’t recall another spring when every day saw at least a couple offered recruits in attendance.

And then there were the Saturday’s. With no school, kids were on the road. The first Saturday of spring, a couple caravans - literally - of recruits from Virginia came to campus, including some of the best prospects the commonwealth has to offer.

Remember how I mentioned Chris Beatty? Yeah, that was all him. Every recruit who visited from Virginia talked about Beatty, and he was the reason they came to town. That’s a big-time impact from a guy who has only been on staff a couple months, and that Saturday featured a couple recruits who will probably be No. 1 in Virginia at their positions in the 2021 class.

Pitt may not get those recruits, but they got them on campus; that’s the first step, and the Panthers took that first step about 60 times this spring.

It wasn’t just Virginia prospects, too. Pitt had almost all of the top local juniors visit, some multiple times. And the staff brought in a ton of out-of-state prospects, including kids from Florida, Georgia, Maryland, D.C., New Jersey, Ohio, New York, Michigan and beyond.

Of course, there were the tangible results of getting two commitments: Florida defensive end Sam Williams and Maryland offensive tackle Michael Statham. Both committed during their visits, and while Pitt has historically landed a few pre-June commitments, last year’s drought that didn’t end until Father’s Day created a sense of dread that this spring would go the same way.

But it didn’t. And whereas last spring seemed to have no momentum despite the season-ending win over Miami, this spring was the opposite: all the visits and the two commitments clearly indicated that some momentum does exist. Maybe it’s from winning the Coastal, maybe it’s from the addition of Beatty and maybe it’s something bigger - a lot of recruits, including the two commits, talked about experiencing a family vibe, a “brotherhood” among the players - whatever it is, recruits are seeing something in Pitt right now.

There will be top targets who go elsewhere. We know that. There already have been, with some of the recruits who visited this spring committing to other schools. But it’s hard to look at this spring’s recruiting and not see things heading in a certain direction. June should be really interesting.

The most important player on defense
Probably not going to shatter any earths here, but it’s got to be Rashad Weaver, doesn’t it?

I look around Pitt’s defense and I see a lot to like. Nice pieces throughout the defensive line and the secondary looks really stout (we’ll talk about one of those guys in a second). The linebackers are a collection of question marks, but the group has as much athleticism and speed as it has had in years, so that’s a good place to start.

But I keep looking for those players who can put the defense over the top. Pitt’s defense has been solid, good but not great, for the better part of the last two years. There have been wildly-bad exceptions, of course (Oklahoma State in 2017 and UCF last year come to mind) but overall, the Panthers have been solid. Very solid. Solid enough, in a lot of instances, to win games, even if they didn’t get enough help from the offense (ahem, Notre Dame and Stanford).

Solid is not spectacular, though. Solid is not game-changing. Good enough to win games is not winning games on your own. That’s what Pitt needs from its defense: it needs to take the next step to becoming great, and in order for that to happen, some individual players are going to need to take some big steps of their own.

I think that starts with Weaver. Having a productive pass-rushing defensive end isn’t a guarantee of a great defense. Ejuan Price had 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss in 2016, and we know that defense wasn’t great. But with the pieces Pitt has in place throughout the 2019 defense, Weaver could be the player who puts it over the top.

Since Price put up those numbers in 2016, Pitt’s defensive ends have been virtually non-existent. Weaver has been the best of them, though, and his 2018 production - 6.5 sacks and 14 TFL - is the best the Panthers have gotten from the position. Now those numbers need to be a jumping-off point. In 2019, Weaver has to get into double digits in sacks and approach 20 tackles for loss.

I don’t mean to set the expectations too high, but that’s where they should be for Weaver this year. He’s got the talent to do it, and he physically looks like an NFL player. This season, his fourth at Pitt, should be the time when he takes a big step forward to put himself on the radar within the conference and beyond as one of the premier pass-rushers in the game.

If that happens and the rest of the defense does what it should, then the Panthers have a real chance to be one of the better defenses in the ACC.

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TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Is it finally happening?
As I sat down to work on some spring camp preview content, one of the natural angles to explore is the open jobs.

Where does Pitt need starters and who are the most likely candidates to fill those spots? Simple questions with usually-obvious answers, but it makes for good content to get everyone back in the mind of football after a couple months of the offseason.

This year, the focus centered around the offensive line, of course, since there are four open starting jobs up front. Running back was a big one, too, after the departures of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. On defense, Pitt lost seniors at defensive end and defensive tackle as well as both outside linebacker spots. We had names to offer for all of those positions, possible candidates to battle for the starting jobs left vacant by offseason departures.

And then there was boundary safety.

Of all the open starting jobs, that one was as intriguing as any. At first, Phil Campbell seemed like an option, but then he moved to linebacker and put himself in competition for one of the starting jobs there. Jazzee Stocker was another one; he has experience and has played the boundary safety in games before. Possibly even Bricen Garner, who learned both safety spots. All of those guys were options.

But there was one more name that I was almost hesitant to mention. One more name that would immediately draw a reaction if included and even more of a reaction if it was left out.

You know who I’m talking about.

Paris Ford.

I included him in the discussion, of course, since the coaches had moved him back to safety after spending a year in purgatory at cornerback. But I almost didn’t want to list him, because for the last two-plus years, I - like everyone else - have been building the expectations for Ford. You can go all the way back to his senior year at Steel Valley and find hype (overhype) everywhere around Ford.

He wasn’t innocent in that. He didn’t shy away from that hype; he even somewhat encouraged it. And his play on the field definitely encouraged it.

Then his enrollment at Pitt was delayed due to academic issues, ultimately leading to a redshirt. Then he moved to cornerback and barely played, sitting out the Penn State and four other games altogether while seeing minimal snaps in the nine games when he actually got on the field. And when Pitt went to El Paso for the Sun Bowl, Ford wasn’t even on the plane, watching that loss to Stanford at home on TV instead.

It was one disappointment after another - disappointment for the fans, disappointment for the coaches and, probably most of all, disappointment for Ford himself.

So I was hesitant about saying too much about Ford, about writing too much about what he could do in the defense. I preferred to wait and see.

And what I saw is what you saw: Ford was named one of the most improved players of spring camp, put in a stellar performance in the Blue-Gold Game and was pronounced the starter at boundary safety by Pat Narduzzi himself.

For Ford’s part, he did his best to stay humble in spring interviews, even after the spring game with the Ed Conway Award and Narduzzi naming him a starter. He was more reserved, less talkative and generally trying to let his play on the field make the noise. That’s a little disappointing from an interview perspective, but if it is a byproduct of a new mindset that has Ford more focused on doing what he needs to do, then it will be worth it.

If it all comes together, Pitt will have a really, really good group of safeties in Ford and Damar Hamlin. Ford could very well lead the team in tackles, as Jordan Whitehead did from that positon and as Ford did in the Blue-Gold Game. He might not have a ton of interceptions - although he did get one on Saturday - but if he plays the boundary safety right, he’ll be in the middle of a lot of action.

I’m still going to wait and see on Paris Ford, but things seem to be heading in the right direction.

Is Beville the future?
So, there’s no secret in what this section is about, because I’m sure I’m not the only one who walked out of Heinz Field on Saturday thinking, “Hey, that freshman quarterback is pretty…intriguing.”

Look, I don’t know about you, but I’ve reached that age where quarterback recruits, whether they’re five-stars or two-stars, have to prove it on the field before I anoint them. Or crown them, as the great Denny Green would say. Really, that could apply to any position, but quarterbacks, in particular, need a certain wait-and-see period, because there have been plenty of four-star quarterbacks to roll through Pitt - and other schools around the country - this century without doing a whole lot.

Throw in things like level of competition faced in high school or the type of scheme the quarterback’s high school team ran, not to mention the simply complex matter of adapting to life in college, and there are a whole lot of factors that can submarine a quarterback’s career.

So yes, I thought it was great for Pitt to land a four-star prospect like Davis Beville, a big quarterback with 6,700 passing yards and 88 passing touchdowns in high school while serving as a three-year starter. Those are good measureables, but I entered this spring firmly in “ask me three years from now” mode regarding Beville.

Coming out of the Blue-Gold Game, I’m not leading the “Start Beville” camp, but I’m also a whole lot more intrigued by his potential than I was before. He certainly looks the part, looming quite large at 6’5” and putting up arguably the best overall stat line for a quarterback in the spring game:

13/17, 157 yards, 1 touchdown

Kenny Pickett’s line wasn’t bad either - 10/14, 125 yards, 2 touchdowns - but Beville was a little better in terms of completions and yards, so we’ll give him the nod. And even if you want to lean toward Pickett’s performance, the underlying point still stands:

Even by playing well enough to get in the conversation, Beville made something of a statement.

Now, I think the ideal scenario for all parties is that Pickett is really good this season and stays healthy, allowing Beville to sit at No. 3 on the depth chart and take a redshirt. That’s probably ideal. But it’s pretty easy to slip into visions of the future.

I’m not ruling out Nick Patti at all, but Beville sure is intriguing with his physical tools.

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JUST ONE MORE THING

More from the spring game
Some other things I was thinking after the Blue-Gold Game…

- Heinz Field looked great. I know it’s just some banners around the field and some new graphics on the scoreboard, and maybe I’m just still caught up in the colors, but there’s a reason we dedicated a whole slideshow just to the new marks at the stadium. They simply looked great and the place felt like Pitt’s own joint.

That’s not to say it didn’t feel like Pitt’s home before, but just like the retro colors looked more “right” than the navy and gold on the uniforms, so too did those colors look more “right” in the stadium.

- The defense was impressive. I know we shouldn’t read too much into the spring game - I’ll be the first to caution against that - but there were some things to appreciate in the defense on Saturday. Those guys were flying around and getting to the ball fast. The defensive line was getting a good push, the linebackers were always around the action and the secondary did what you would expect this secondary to do. They called off the dogs a bit in the second half and ended up allowing three touchdowns, but that doesn’t change the overall impression that this defense should be pretty good.

- Speaking of the second half, it was good to see the offense turn things around a bit. Like I said, the defense seemed to back off - the coaches and players said they stopped blitzing - but that’s no guarantee that the offense could take advantage, and I think everyone would have felt even worse if the defense had dialed it back and the offense still couldn’t score.

Instead, the offense capitalized. Pickett and Beville combined to throw three touchdown passes, including a pair to Tre Tipton that saw the redshirt senior receiver make some really nice catches. Getting a good half from the defense and a good half from the offense allowed everybody to go home happy.

- Speaking of Tipton, I hope Saturday was an indication of what’s in store for him this season. He’s been a great kid since he was in high school (probably before that, too, but I didn’t meet him until high school); that positive attitude he has was part of his personality back then and it hasn’t faded. He is the kind of guy you pull for, and when injuries kept beating him back, you hoped he could overcome and contribute on the field.

Eventually, though, it seemed less and less likely that he would get there. So when he was out there running around and making great catches in the Blue-Gold Game, it sure was good to see. Pitt has some quality receivers, and hopefully Tipton is one of them.

- Tipton scored a pair of touchdowns, but the leading receivers for the Blue and Gold teams were Taysir Mack (4/57) and Maurice Ffrench (7/31) and that’s how it should be in pretty much every game this season. I think those two receivers are really good with a chance to add a few “really’s” to it before 2019 is over. They both showed last season that they can get downfield and make plays, and if Mark Whipple really is going to bring Pitt’s passing game into the 21st century, then those two are going to be the ones to make it happen.

- Of course, no matter how much the passing game improves, Pitt’s offense is going to be based on the run game as long as Pat Narduzzi is the head coach. That’s concerning if you look at the stats from the Blue-Gold Game, as the running backs combined to rush 19 times for 11 net yards. That’s an average of 0.58 yards per carry - which means Pitt’s backs would need to carry the ball about 17 or 18 times to get a first down.

After the spring game, Narduzzi didn’t seem too concerned about the run game and, to be quite honest, neither am I. I think they’ve got a lot more in the run game than they showed on Saturday, and I think they’ll get a lot more production out of it once the real games start.

- And if the run game does take off, I think sophomore V’Lique Carter is going to be a big part of it. AJ Davis will probably be the starter and Todd Sibley will get carries, but I think Carter is going to get a lot of touches in a variety of ways, and I imagine he’ll do more with those touches than the other backs. He’s more explosive, as he showed in the Duke game last year, and with a wider arsenal of plays he can run this season - instead of, you know, just running sweeps - I think he can really make an impact.