Panther-lair - The 3-2-1 Column: Paris Ford, recruiting stars, FSU and more
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The 3-2-1 Column: Paris Ford, recruiting stars, FSU and more

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In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’ve got three things we know, two questions and a prediction about Paris Ford, Florida State, Pitt’s history with recruiting stars and a lot more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

Some unfortunate midseason news
When it rains, it pours…

Today is Friday, which means it has been four days since the news came out that Paris Ford had decided to leave the Pitt football team.

A lot has been written about Ford’s career at Pitt and his departure. A lot has been written in the last four years and a lot has been written in the last four days. I’ve written a lot, you’ve read a lot, you’ve probably said a lot and we’ve all certainly heard a lot.

So what’s left to say?

I’ll try to be brief. I think that, in this week, we can all appreciate a little brevity.

Paris Ford is a very talented football player who didn’t always play the best “assignment football” but, from the outside, made up for it with exceptional plays that not many of his teammates could have made. His four years at Pitt were tumultuous, but the last 20 games were full of outstanding individual performances.

Over the last four years, the possibility of a premature end to Ford’s career at Pitt was omnipresent. Sometimes it got closer to materializing, other times it shifted away. He is a passionate football player who never hid his emotions, for better or for worse, but his excitement for his team’s success was unquestioned.

When he had his more demonstrative moments, they were almost always because he wanted to have the opportunity to do more to help his team win.

I’m falling away from brevity here, but I’ll sum it up with something I’ve said quite a bit over the last two years:

Paris Ford is one of the most exciting players I’ve seen in 15 years of covering Pitt football. He was truly the kind of player who you had to watch at all times, because you never knew what he was going to do on any given snap.

Now he’s gone, off to prepare for the NFL, and it will be very interesting to see what his career becomes at the next level. For the rest of this season - since there are still four games left on the regular-season schedule - Pitt will turn to redshirt freshman Brandon Hill, who has seen spot duty backing up Ford at the boundary safety position.

That’s not an easy position to play, but it also could be a good fit for Hill, who came to Pitt to be more of an “in-the-box” strong safety than a “center-field” free safety. That position is heavily involved in run defense, so Hill needs to be ready to see some action. He got his first taste of that in the Notre Dame game, when he replaced Ford in the third quarter and finished the game with eight tackles (tying Ford for the team high on the day).

Hill looks like a good option, and it’s going to be interesting to watch his development over the next four weeks. He may not make the big splash plays that Ford did, but he’s a good player and now he’s getting his opportunity.

When it comes down to it, though, Ford’s departure was another blow in what has become one of the toughest seasons in recent memory. From the preseason losses of a couple key starters to the midseason loss of a quarterback to the general disappointment of a four-game losing streak, a 3-4 record and an offense that hasn’t gotten any better, 2020 has not been a banner year for Pitt football.

Ford’s departure was the latest addition to that list.

All those stars
Before we move on to the matter of how Pitt replaces Paris Ford, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and talk recruiting history for a moment.

Ford was the fourth-highest rated recruit Pitt has signed in the Rivals.com era. What’s the rest of that list? Glad you asked:

Baldwin and Johnson were both five-star prospects, but I put Baldwin at No. 1 since he was ranked No. 26 in the nation in his class, while Johnson was No. 31. Similarly, Nix was No. 39 in his class and Ford was No. 51, despite both being 6.0 on the Rivals rating scale.

Rushel Shell was also a 6.0 four-star, and he ranked No. 55 in the nation, so he is No. 5 on this list behind Ford. Here’s the rest of the top 10 after Ford:

Fun fact: Of those 10 guys - the 10 highest-rated recruits Pitt has signed in the Rivals era - only three finished their eligibility with the Panthers. That would be Dorian Johnson, Lucas Nix and Dorin Dickerson.

To be fair, Baldwin, Ford, Whitehead and Boyd all left early for the NFL, so that’s important context since it’s what you would hope to have happen when you’re recruiting players at that level.

Still, if you have followed Pitt football for the last two decades, I have to think that there’s a fair amount of “meh” when you look at that list. There are good players on there, even great players. Baldwin, Johnson, Ford, Whitehead, Dickerson and Boyd had outstanding careers, although a few of them saw the outstanding portions of their careers limited to two seasons or less.

Still, there are some very good players on that list. But if I asked you to put together a list of the top 10 Pitt players since 2000 (roughly the start of the Rivals era), I can’t imagine it would look like that list does. For starters, you would have to include the four obvious guys who aren’t listed: Larry Fitzgerald, Darrelle Revis, LeSean McCoy and Aaron Donald.

I’m guessing James Conner would get some nods, too. Then you have guys like Dion Lewis and Scott McKillop and probably even more that aren’t coming to mind right now. So let’s go back to that list of highest-rated recruits: who is a clear top-10 player from the last 20 years?

I would say Boyd, for sure. Dickerson was an All-American as a senior, so he gets a vote, even on a small sample size. Does Ford make the cut? Johnson? Whitehead? Baldwin? I don’t think it’s easy to pick.

Developing depth
Okay, back to the matter at hand.

As I mentioned earlier, Brandon Hill is the replacement for Paris Ford at boundary safety, and while it’s never ideal to go from an all-conference player and All-America candidate to a redshirt freshman who has played about 100 snaps on defense this season, there is a slight upside:

While these next four games will shed some light on what Hill brings to the table as a player, they will also give him lot of experience that will be valuable for next season.

That’s small consolation for the loss of Ford, but it’s something. And it’s actually part of a bigger trend that has developed in Pitt’s secondary.

If you turn the clock back to July or August, we talked a lot about the (lack of) depth and the (lack of) experience in Pitt’s secondary. Sure, there was a really strong top line of Jason Pinnock, Damarri Mathis, Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin, but after that, the drop-off in terms of playing time was pretty considerable.

The coaches like to rotate the defensive backs, especially at corner, so we knew the reserves would get some experience this year. But when Mathis was lost prior to the season, the depth got tested a lot sooner than expected.

Now, Marquis Williams has played a ton - 395 snaps per PFF, eclipsing his previous single-season high of 26 - and A.J. Woods has been on the field for 140 plays on defense after not logging any snaps last season as a freshman. Given that Woods has seen 102 of those snaps in the two games since Pat Narduzzi said the coaches needed to rotate more at cornerback, it’s reasonable to think his numbers will continue to increase as the season goes on.

At safety, Hill is about to see a serious an increase in playing time at boundary safety, while Erick Hallett has been a fixture in the Delta defensive sub-package on passing downs. There’s also the possibility of additional playing time for freshmen like Rashad Battle and Buddy Mack, and while those snaps will probably be limited, it all adds up to the same thing:

The players who will be competing for jobs and playing time in 2021 will have built up a fair amount of experience in 2020. That’s a positive, if you’re looking for one.

I suppose we also can’t rule out the possibility that one or more of the senior defensive backs decides to return in 2021. It seems unlikely to me, but I could make a case for any of those guys taking the extra year that the NCAA is offering.

Pinnock could stand to put more on tape for NFL scouts. Mathis hasn’t been able to play at all this season. And Hamlin might as well shoot for a sixth year.

If Pitt can bring back one or more of those players to go with Williams, Woods, Hill and Hallett, the outlook for the secondary next season is going to be a lot different than we thought it would over the summer when a step back was projected for 2021. It still might be a step back next season, but it shouldn’t be as severe as we previously thought.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Who else should we see more of?
We know Brandon Hill is going to be getting more playing time, and I imagine we’ll see some of the young corners quite a bit over the final four games. But who else should get some additional playing time in this last month of the season?

One guy I’d like to see a bit more involved is Jared Wayne. He’s only got nine receptions on 22 targets, which makes for a pretty paltry 40.9% catch rate. But Pro Football Focus hasn’t charged him with any drops this season, and his average of 15.3 yards per reception ranks No. 2 among Pitt receivers with more than one catch (Jaylon Barden getting 68 yards on his lone reception skews the averages a bit, but we’ll talk about him in a second).

Wayne is Pitt’s biggest receiver; he is listed at 6’3”, and he looks like he bulked up over the offseason. The Panthers have a number of receivers who can fill a variety of roles, but there aren’t many who really seem to be cut from the same mold as Wayne. He only has one catch in the last two games despite eight targets, but it seems to me that the Panthers should keep trying to get the ball to him.

I mentioned Barden in a parenthetical aside earlier, and I would like to see him involved in the offense a bit more as well. He had a sensational play for a 68-yard reception in the season opener against Austin Peay, but the freshman from Georgia has only had two passes thrown to him since then - one at Boston College and one at Miami.

Barden’s speed can be a game-changer, and you’d like to think that by this point in the season, he would be ready to get a few more snaps.

Sticking with the offense - because that’s where all the focus is anyway, right? - I don’t think I’m alone in looking to see some new blood in the backfield, too. I know Pat Narduzzi said on Thursday that Vincent Davis and A.J. Davis are still the leaders of that group, but we’ve all seen what those guys have to offer. Maybe it’s still better than the alternatives, but I’m really thinking it might be time to find out more about those alternatives.

Of course, I’m talking about Daniel Carter, Todd Sibley and Israel Abanikanda. Davis and Davis have gotten the most carries this season, and the results have been that Vincent Davis is averaging less than three yards per carry and A.J. Davis doesn’t have a single avoided tackle, according to Pro Football Focus.

Perhaps there are mitigating factors like pass-blocking or injury, but if Abanikanda, Carter and Sibley are competent blockers and healthy, why not give them more opportunities? Pitt’s offense is never far from abandoning the run game altogether - that seems like a viable option in a lot of games - so why not see if one of those three backs can provide a spark?

Sibley has averaged 4.2 yards per carry on his 13 rushing attempts this season, and PFF credits him with six avoided tackles. Carter is a big back has 42 rushing yards on eight carries. And Abanikanda probably has the highest ceiling of any back on the roster.

If Vincent Davis and A.J. Davis are the best pass blockers among the running backs, then use them on obvious passing downs. But those other backs seem like they deserve an opportunity.

Can Pitt win a winnable game?
This is a thought I come back to a lot with regards to Pitt:

If the Panthers can just win the winnable games in any given season, they position themselves for a solid base of victories. When they have simply beaten the teams they should beat, or at least the teams they are better than a toss-up against, they have been at or above eight wins pretty consistently.

The fact that they have just three eight-win seasons since 2010 is an indication of the obvious: Pitt hasn’t done well enough in the winnable games.

Forget the upsets of Clemson and Miami; this program can build a consistent level of success by winning winnable games. And when you see those years since 2010 that have dipped below eight wins, there are almost always multiple winnable games that got away.

2011 - Rutgers, Cincinnati
2012 - Youngstown State, Connecticut
2013 - Navy, Georgia Tech
2014 - Akron, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Duke, Houston
2017 - Syracuse, North Carolina
2018 - North Carolina, Stanford
2019 - Miami, Boston College

And that doesn’t even include games like Iowa in 2011 or Notre Dame in 2012, where Pitt had a chance to win what would probably have been something of an upset.

Now, seven games into this season, we’ve seen two examples to further the case in N.C. State and Boston College. And that brings us to this weekend’s game at Florida State. The Seminoles are not good this season. They’re 2-4 in their first year with Mike Norvell as head coach, and whatever momentum they thought they were getting with an upset of North Carolina was quickly extinguished when Louisville blew their doors off by 32 points.

And not just that, but FSU might be the right kind of team for Pitt to be facing. For all their reputation, the Seminoles’ defense has been a sieve this season. They rank last or next to last in the ACC in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. They haven’t really stopped anyone since the 16-13 loss to Georgia Tech to open the season - even Jacksonville State scored 24 against FSU - and the Seminoles’ other opponents have scored 52 (Miami), 42 (Notre Dame), 28 (North Carolina) and 48 (Louisville).

Now, Pitt’s offense is probably worse than any of those four teams, but this weekend’s game will present an age-old question:

In a battle of weaknesses, can a bad offense beat a bad defense?

It’s no guarantee, but Pitt should have a good chance to move the ball against Florida State. And if that happens, I think the Panthers have a good chance of winning the game, especially since FSU’s offense is based on running the ball, and we all know what Pat Narduzzi thinks about stopping the run.

So this is a winnable game for Pitt. Can the Panthers pull it off? They’ll have a shot.

ONE PREDICTION

Somebody will get their hopes up
When you have a matchup of two struggling teams - some would say “bad” teams, if that’s how you want to frame it when you’re talking about a 3-4 team vs. a 2-4 team - there’s a funny thing that happens.

One team wins, obviously, and in all but the most extreme cases, the fan base for that team will walk out feeling some type of way.

Usually what will happen is, one of the struggling teams will struggle more in the matchup of struggling teams, and the team that struggles a little less will do some things that actually look good. And in spite of any previous evidence to the contrary, fans will start to think that, ‘Hey, maybe they’ve got a little something going here.’

It’s not a lot to hang your hat on, but it can happen - those brief flashes when your team looks better than it has all season, due largely to the quality of competition.

Right now, in the first game of November, Pitt and Florida State are both looking for any signs of optimism and positive momentum. And the Panthers and Seminoles are both about to face an ideal opponent.

Because for as bad as Pitt’s offense has been, FSU’s defense has been equally awful. And vice-versa. So this game is a chance for one of those units to have at least one day where it’s not the clear weakness of its team.

Pitt’s offense hasn’t been a strength all season. It hasn’t been the primary driver behind any of the Panthers’ three wins. But this game could be an opportunity for things to open up a bit.

Along the same lines, FSU’s defense hasn’t been a strength all season. It hasn’t been the driver behind any of the Seminoles’ two wins. But this game could be an opportunity for that unit to put in a strong performance.

The possibility always exists that both sides of this one could lay an egg, in which case we could be looking at an ugly 12-10 slugfest. But I’m guessing one of those units - Pitt’s offense or Florida State’s defense - will have a good day, relative to the body of work thus far in the season.

The question, then, is which side shows some promise in this game. My prediction is that one fan base will come out of this game saying, “Hey, maybe [insert Pitt’s offense or Florida State’s defense here] isn’t so bad.” And while that might be false hope, it’s at least something for two fan bases that haven’t seen a lot of encouraging signs from their favorite teams this season.