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The 3-2-1 Column: Narduzzi's key class, the value of stability and more

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In this week's 3-2-1 Column, we're thinking about the 2016 recruiting class, stability, the running back situation and a lot more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Mixed results
We continued our Revisionist History series this week with a look back at the 2016 recruiting class. The goal of that series of articles is to re-rank the class based on what those players have done to this point in their careers.

The results are always interesting, on a number of levels. It’s a nice trip down memory lane to recall the original rankings, as well as all of our reactions and expectations for each of those recruits. It’s also interesting to take a step back and consider what each of those players ended up being in college.

In some cases, we’re re-ranking the guys who are out of eligibility. That was the case with the first article in the series this summer when we looked back at the 2014 class. Or you have the 2015 class, which is almost out of eligibility and only has four representatives still on the team (Dane Jackson, Tre Tipton, Saleem Brightwell and Jazzee Stocker).

The 2016 class is not quite as far along as either of those groups. This is the first time we’ve re-ranked the class, since it doesn’t make too much sense to attempt such an undertaking when those guys have only been in college for two years. But the 2016 class is entering Year Four, so we’ve seen a whole lot of them (or some of them, at least) and we can start to really form some opinions on where they should be re-ranked.

That said, there’s a ton that can change in the next 12 months. The three guys at the top - Damar Hamlin, Rashad Weaver and Maurice Ffrench - should stay in those top spots, but after that, it’s pretty much wide open. There are 12 other players from that class who are still on the team, and they’re kind of lumped into one pile.

How do you separate, for example, Chase Pine and Aaron Mathews? Or Bryce Hargrove and Therran Coleman? Or Phil Campbell and Bricen Garner? Or Amir Watts (more starts) and Keyshon Camp (more production)? There’s not a ton of distinction in there. But here’s the thing:

There probably will be after this season.

2019 is a huge year for the 2016 class. I put Hargrove at No. 10 in the re-ranking, almost exclusively for the fact that he was the sixth lineman last year and will be a starter this season. But if he starts every game in 2019 and plays well, he’ll jump up the list. Similarly, Campbell (No. 9) could be in line for a big redshirt junior year.

To some extent, there are probably too many players in that category. Really, if you look at the class as a whole, there are basically five players with significant starting experience, and that’s including Reynolds for his playing time last year. Guys like Camp and Mathews and Campbell have played a lot (Garner, too), but in terms of significant starting experience, it’s Hamlin, Weaver, Ffrench, Reynolds and Watts.

That seems like a low number to me when you’re entering a class’s fourth year. So this season is an important one for those players. And it’s important for Pitt to get some giant leaps forward out of a bunch of them, too.

The ones who got away
Like I said, there are 15 players from the 2016 class who are still on the roster and nine who are not. We talked about the 15, so we should spend a minute on the nine, too.

That group has a variety of tales. There’s Zack Williams; he never made it to campus after his academics took a nosedive in the spring of his senior year of high school. I don’t know where he ended up. There’s George Hill and Zack Gilbert; they made it to campus but were ruled medically ineligible prior to the start of training camp. Hill appears to still be enrolled as a student at Pitt, while Gilbert went to a junior college and is now at Robert Morris.

Six others actually lasted a couple years at Pitt. Kaezon Pugh and Justin Morgan hung around for a few seasons but never played. Thomas MacVittie and Henry Miller played in a handful of games each - neither at the positions they were recruited for - and Ruben Flowers even had a couple passes thrown his way.

Chawntez Moss was the most productive of the 2016 recruits who are no longer on the team. He averaged five yards per carry on 42 attempts as a freshman in 2016 but was sub-three ypc on the same number of carries in 2017 before he was dismissed halfway through the season.

Of those nine, the focus going forward will always be on MacVittie, for a few reasons. To start, there was a lot of hype surrounding him when he arrived at Pitt. He was a three-star prospect with one year of starting experience, but he showed a lot of promise in that one year and seemed to have a lot of good physical talents to build on.

Nothing happened for him at Pitt, though. He redshirted in 2016; that was expected. But 2017 was a telling season. He wasn’t No. 1, No. 2 or, as it turned out, No. 3, because when Max Browne (No. 1) got hurt and then Ben DiNucci (No. 2) lost his helmet, Kenny Pickett (No. 3) burned his redshirt for one snap at Syracuse and then became the backup behind DiNucci. We all know how that story went.

We also know that MacVittie was the clear No. 4. He played in three games, but all three appearances came on the punt team. If he had stayed, there was probably a decent chance that MacVittie would have moved to tight end.

Instead of doing that, he left. The Ohio native went to Mesa Community College in Arizona and was one of the top JUCO quarterbacks in the nation last season, throwing for 1,064 yards and 16 touchdowns in six games. Now he’s at Kansas, and you can bet that more than a few eyeballs in Pittsburgh will be looking at the Jayhawks’ box scores this fall.

Les Miles said this week that MacVittie will enter training camp with a slight edge as the starter; if he holds onto that, Pitt fans will certainly be watching how he performs. And if, by chance, he outperforms Kenny Pickett…well, there might be a bit of teeth-gnashing.

I’ll say that I wish MacVittie the best. He and his family were always good to interact with and I fully understand why they made the decision to seek success elsewhere. But I am not looking forward to seeing Twitter and the message boards if that particular scenario unfolds.

As to the other eight from the 2016 class who are no longer at Pitt…well, I’m not sure that their careers will merit much more than a passing interest over the next two seasons.

That seems like a good thing
Here’s something else that has stood out to me while working on this year’s recruiting re-rankings:

The class of 2015 - the guys who will finish their eligibility this year - will be the first Pitt recruiting class to play five years for the same head coach since the class of 2006.

I know that Pitt’s turnover turmoil in the last decade is not exactly a surprise, but that’s a long time to go without one head coach seeing a class all the way through. And if you extend the timeframe we’re considering to the whole of the 21st century, there are just four classes that have been with a single head coach for five years:

2000
2005
2006
2015

That’s four out of 16 possible classes (the classes of 2016-19 haven’t been around for five years yet, obviously). And that’s an incredible lack of continuity. It reminds me of when Aaron Donald said prior to his senior season in 2013 that it would be the first time in his Pitt career that he had the same head coach two years in a row.

And I think there’s a correlation between coaching stability and success (that seems obvious, doesn’t it?). That 2000 class, for instance - its final two seasons were the 2003 and 2004 seasons when Pitt went a combined 16-9 and won the Big East. The 2005 class went 19-7 in its final two seasons. The 2006 class went 18-8 in its final two seasons.

The 2015 class is starting its final two seasons with a 7-7 record - complemented by a Coastal Division title - and a chance to pile up some wins this year.

Stability is a funny thing, isn’t it? Coaches recruit kids they believe will fit the system. The same coaches then work to develop those kids. Those same coaches evaluate kids, move them around and find their best positions. Those very same coaches then go out every Saturday in the fall with those very same kids they’ve been evaluating and developing for roughly a half-decade.

Oftentimes, that works out pretty well.

Even if there aren’t too many players left on the roster from the 2015 class, there are a ton from the 2016 group, and those two classes will make up the foundation of this year’s team. I think as many as 11 starters - plus at least a half-dozen more top reserves - on the 2019 squad will come from those two recruiting classes.

Again: players who were recruited and developed by the current coaching staff. There’s value in that - value that Pitt hasn’t been able to enjoy very often over the last 15 years.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Is this the question we’re all overlooking?
Start talking to Pitt fans about question marks for the upcoming season, and you’ll hear the following:

Quarterback and offensive line

That’s about the long and short of it, as most fans and media see those two elements as the biggest causes of concern, or at least the biggest unknowns on the team. And that’s a fair assessment: Kenny Pickett was not great last year and the offensive line that struggled to protect him is replacing four of its five starters.

That adds up to a lot of questions, and the answers to those questions will go a long way - maybe all the way - toward determining the results, successes and failures of the season.

But there might be something else we’re overlooking, a question mark that, for one reason or another, most of us don’t seem to be paying a lot of attention to. It’s not on defense, where the line and the secondary return experience and talent and the linebackers will look to use speed and athleticism to make up for experience.

It’s not at receiver, where the general consensus is that Taysir Mack and Maurice Ffrench can blow up with a well-designed passing game and a quarterback who can get them the ball. It’s not tight end, where expectations have dropped so low that the position is less a question mark than it is parentheses (which is to say, it could be removed altogether and no one would really notice - kind of like this phrase). And it’s not special teams, where Alex Kessman and Kirk Christodoulou look like a pretty effective pairing to man the kicking duties.

No, this overlooked question mark is none of those things. It’s running back, where Pitt’s “RBU” reputation will be put on the line this season with a bunch of unproven players trying to move the ball on the ground.

I think that the “RBU” reputation that developed over the last decade or so is probably part of the reason we’re not talking as much about the fact that the 2019 Panthers’ entire running back corps has a combined total of 412 career rushing yards and three touchdowns. That’s not very encouraging, and yet, nobody seems to be too concerned about it.

I’m guessing that history has something to do with the lack of concern. The last time Pitt entered a season with that little returning production at running back was 2013; Ray Graham’s last season was 2012, and the Panthers had two scholarship backs with any career stats: the previous season, Isaac Bennett rushed for 378 yards and five touchdowns and Malcolm Crockett ran 12 times for 50 yards.

Of course, 2013 brought a freshman named James Conner to the team, and while the bulk of his 799 rushing yards came in four games, he and Bennett combined to put up 1,596 yards and 15 touchdowns between them.

But even that 2013 roster had more returning production (428 yards, five touchdown) than the 2019 roster (412 yards and three touchdowns). An even better comparison is 2009, when Pitt really didn’t have anybody coming back.

That year, the Panthers returned just one running back with any career playing time: Shariff Harris, who came in with a robust 21 yards on 12 carries from the previous season. Chris Burns was a redshirt freshman on that 2009 team, and he and Harris were joined by a host of first-year players, including some guys named Dion Lewis and Ray Graham.

Yeah, they turned out to be pretty good: 2,148 yards and 21 touchdowns.

Those are the two most recent instances where Pitt went into a season with little-to-no running back production on the roster, and they both worked out pretty well.

So is that why we all seem to be so confident that Pitt can just plug some guys in and keep running effectively?

I don’t have an answer to that. The boost to those 2009 and 2013 rosters came from freshmen; can Daniel Carter or Vincent Davis provide a similar jump this year? I kind of doubt it, but that’s not based on anything, really, beyond the fact that Dion Lewis and James Conner were special players. The fact remains that the two upperclassmen on this roster have little on their resumes to inspire hope, the other returning players have short resumes and the incoming freshmen, obviously, have no resumes.

With that in mind, maybe it’s just better to assume that Pitt can do the RBU thing again and just throw somebody out there to rush for 800 yards. Maybe a couple guys.

Could this be the X-factor?
I specifically didn’t get into the names of the current roster’s running backs in the last section because I want to talk about those guys in this one.

Specifically, I want to talk about one guy:

V’Lique Carter

The more I think about this season, the more I think he’s got a chance to be a breakout star. He might not be a 1,000-yard back, but I don’t know if there’s a 1,000-yard back on this roster. But I could see Carter getting 700 or 800 yards to complement another back who puts up 500-700 yards.

AJ Davis could fill that other role. Maybe Todd Sibley could, too. Maybe one of the freshmen could. This just might be a season like 2013 when it’s a group effort - kind of like last year, just without multiple 1,000-yard rushers.

I keep coming back to Carter, though. I know his production last year was pretty much limited to the Duke game, when he ran seven times for 137 yards and two touchdowns. I know that the rest of his 18 carries and three receptions produced 74 yards. I know that he was a one-trick pony last season and all of his production came on sweeps.

I realize all of that.

But I think he is going to have a few new tricks this year. Nothing fancy; I just expect him to be lined up in the backfield more after an offseason of learning to actually play running back. And if he took to Andre Powell’s teaching well, I think he could be the dark horse to lead Pitt’s running back room.

I also think we should keep an eye on Mychale Salahuddin. He played just three games last fall before suffering a season-ending injury, so he enters 2019 as a redshirt freshman and while he might not be 100% - we won’t really know until training camp starts, and probably not really even then - if he can get to 100% by midseason, he can be an asset.

Salahuddin was one of the gems of the 2018 class and he’s a dynamic playmaker. Like Carter, he only saw work on sweeps in his limited opportunities last season, but a year of seasoning can go a long way.

I don’t mean to totally dismiss the “old guys” (Sibley and AJ Davis) or the “young guys” (Carter and V. Davis), but it seems to me that Carter and Salahuddin, when he’s healthy, probably have the most upside of anybody on the current roster.

JUST ONE MORE THING...

A few more actually, as signs of actual college football have begun to appear…

The ACC held its annual Media Days or Kickoff or whatever they call it this week, and aside from talk of plans for the conference’s network and all the general platitudes that coaches offer at these types of events, there was some hard evidence that the season actually is drawing near.

The hard evidence came in the form of the media guide. Pitt released its 2019 edition on Wednesday, and there was a fair amount to dig into.

The first thing that draws attention - and the most non-permanent page in the 220-page book - was the preseason depth chart. Now, a preseason depth chart is perhaps even less relevant than the “reflect what happened two weeks ago” two-deeps that Pitt releases during the season, but it’s an official document provided by the coaches, so it’s worth examining.

As such, here are a few observations:

- I can’t count too many surprises in the listed two-deep, and whatever surprises may exist tend to be names that don’t appear, rather than the order of the names that do appear. Like my X-factor, V’Lique Carter; he’s not on the depth chart, but I don’t know if I would have expected him to be. If you had asked me on Tuesday, I probably would have said I’d expect to see Davis and Sibley listed on the preseason two-deep, which is what ended up happening.

- Jerry Drake’s absence is a little more surprising. The redshirt sophomore offensive tackle was the talk of the spring two years ago when he arrived as an early enrollee and impressed the coaches enough that there was some discussion of him making the two-deep in the season. Instead, he redshirted in 2017 and played in just five games last year.

Now he’s not even on the preseason two-deep despite Pitt needing to replace both of its starting tackles from a year ago. The reserve spot at right tackle - which is where Drake has been playing/practicing - went to Belle Vernon’s Blake Zubovic, a redshirt freshman who has flipped between guard and tackle.

- Speaking of the offensive tackles, I know there’s a lot of consternation about the fact that Pitt is trying to fill both spots this season and won’t have much in the way of experience to do it, but I think there’s a hidden upside here: of the five players in contention - Drake, Zubovic, Carson Van Lynn, Gabe Houy and Carter Warren - four are redshirt sophomores and one is a redshirt freshman.

Assuming the two starting tackles come from that group, Pitt could be positioned to have a pair of three-year starters at tackle in 2021. That’s a good place to be.

- We’ll have to see how Michigan grad transfer Nolan Ulizio fits in. He’s not on the depth chart because he just arrived this summer, but he’s coming to compete at right tackle and while you want the best man to win, the most ideal option for the Panthers in the long run is to have one of the younger players win that job. In my opinion, at least.

- We’ve talked about this before and it will continue to be a storyline throughout the season, but the depth at defensive end is going to be tested this year. The starters - Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones - should be good, but there are question marks behind them, since none of the reserves has really done anything. John Morgan and Deslin Alexandre are the listed backups, and they’re joined by Kaymar Mimes and Habakkuk Baldonado; those four have a combined six tackles and one tackle for loss between them, and none really has significant playing time on his resume.

Weaver and Jones are going to be counted on for a lot of production, but the players behind them will have to step up.

- We wrote all spring about the many moving parts at linebacker, and that’s still the case. Mostly, it revolves around Saleem Brightwell and Phil Campbell; the former can play middle linebacker (where he’s listed as the starter) or Money linebacker, and the latter can play Star linebacker (where he’s listed as the starter) or Money. Plus, Florida grad transfer Kylan Johnson isn’t listed yet because he arrived this summer, and he’ll be in the mix somewhere, too.

- As to the secondary, I think that if Dane Jackson, Jason Pinnock, Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford stay healthy all season, Pitt will be just fine back there.