Panther-lair - The 3-2-1 Column: Recruiting tests, depth questions and more
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The 3-2-1 Column: Recruiting tests, depth questions and more

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In this week's 3-2-1 Column, we're thinking about Pat Narduzzi's recruiting tests, issues with depth and more.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

The biggest test of Narduzzi’s recruiting
I’ve used at least one superlative related to the offensive line for this season, calling Dave Borbely the most important assistant coach on the staff in 2019. I gave him that title because he’s going to have to completely rebuild the line with inexperienced players around center Jimmy Morrissey.

The big change to the offense this offseason was hiring Mark Whipple to fix Kenny Pickett and the passing game, but if that’s going to work, it’s going to be a result of Borbely coaching his tail off.

But success up front isn’t all about coaching; it’s about the players, too, and so we’ll add another superlative to the situation:

This year’s offensive line will be the biggest test of Pat Narduzzi’s recruiting at Pitt.

Every single linemen on the roster was recruited by Narduzzi’s staff (every single player on the roster, regardless of position, was recruited by Narduzzi, but we’re emphasizing the line here). They’re all his players, and now Pitt’s offensive line is going to be 100% made up of players Narduzzi and his staff brought here.

So if the key to winning this season is getting the offense back on track and the key to getting the offense back on track is improved play from Pickett and the key to improved play from Pickett - or at least one of the main keys - is effective play up front and all of the players who will be asked to perform up front are Narduzzi recruits, well, I think you’ve got one heck of a litmus test for Narduzzi’s recruiting.

By the numbers, Narduzzi’s offensive line recruiting doesn’t jump off the page. None of the offensive line recruits ranked higher than a three-star prospect out of high school. Jerry Drake Jr. was probably the “most recruited” among the group, as his offer sheet was among the most impressive of any recruit Narduzzi has signed, but even he was a 5.5-rated three-star (in what was probably an under-evaluation, although time will tell).

In his first four recruiting classes - we won’t count the 2019 class since those guys aren’t on campus yet - Narduzzi signed 16 players. That includes two grad transfers and one junior-college player; we’ll count them because they were additions to the roster who came by way of Narduzzi’s staff.

That group of 16 players has combined to make 21 total starts on the offensive line in the last five seasons. 14 of those came from Stefano Millin last season as the grad transfer from Kent State started every game at left tackle.

That leaves seven starts among 15 players in four years.

Pitt's offensive line recruiting since 2015
Class Player GP Starts 2019 status

2015

Tony Pilato

12

0

Transferred

2015

Alex Paulina

0

0

Transferred

2016

Brandon Ford

15

0

Active

2016

Bryce Hargrove

15

3

Active

2016

Justin Morgan

0

0

Dismissed

2016

Zack Williams

0

0

Did not enroll

2017

Jerry Drake

5

0

Active

2017

Owen Drexel

2

0

Active

2017

Brandon Hodges

8

3

Graduated

2017

Gabe Houy

6

1

Active

2017

Carson Van Lynn

12

5 (at tight end)

Active

2018

Carter Warren

0

0

Active

2018

Chase Brown

2

0

Active

2018

Jake Kradel

0

0

Active

2018

Stefano Millin

14

14

Graduated

201

Blake Zubovic

0

0

Active

To some extent, you’ll have that kind of delay with offensive line recruit. You’d like to have the depth to let guys redshirt and develop, and Narduzzi came into a situation with a solid corps of inherited linemen. But that well officially ran dry when Alex Bookser’s eligibility ran out; now it’s all on this staff’s recruiting, evaluation and development.

One test Narduzzi has passed
Narduzzi’s about to get an important grade in a crucial position, but there’s one test that I think he has passed:

Cornerback recruiting

When Narduzzi was hired, the cornerbacks weren’t exactly considered to be a strength of the defense. It’s a bit funny to look back on that now, since Avonte Maddox, Lafayette Pitts and Ryan Lewis were on that 2015 roster and have been hanging around in the NFL since they left Pitt.

But Maddox had to learn how to overcome his height, Pitts had to get better at playing the ball and Lewis was a reserve until his senior season. And beyond those guys, Pitt didn’t have much depth at corner: Phillipie Motley, Dane Jackson (as a freshman) and Malik Henderson - that was pretty much it.

Given Narduzzi’s preferred style of playing defense, that wasn’t going to cut it, and his emphasis on improving the position was clear from the start. In the 2016 recruiting class, which was Narduzzi’s first full class, a quarter of the 24 prospects who signed with Pitt projected as defensive backs, with at least half of those getting an initial shot at cornerback.

In the next class, Pitt signed two corners, and in the 2018 class, four more joined the roster.

Now, not all of those nine or 10 players over three classes stayed at cornerback; a few moved to safety and some are no longer on the roster. But what remains from the 2016-18 classes - plus 2015, which produced Jackson - has turned Pitt’s defensive backfield into a formidable unit.

Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Randy Bates have said that Jackson, Jason Pinnock and Damarri Mathis are “three starters;” all three saw lots of playing time last season and will see more this year. And the haul from the 2018 class still has two players at cornerback - Judson Tallandier and Marquis Williams - two players with contrasting physical statures but comparable ceilings.

And that doesn’t even include Damar Hamlin, who came to Pitt as a cornerback and played there during his freshman year before moving to safety and becoming a foundational piece of the defense.

Narduzzi hasn’t hit on every cornerback he recruited; the 2016 class, in particular, hasn’t produced a lot outside of Hamlin. But building the depth to the point where the coaches are getting multiple seasons out of Jackson, Pinnock and Mathis is pretty solid, particularly since the latter two will be back next season.

If there are any “benefit of the doubt” positions with Narduzzi - and I know there probably aren’t - I would think cornerback is one of them.

Get some respect
Going back to the offensive line for a second…

One player I didn’t include when talking about the linemen Narduzzi has recruited since 2015 should probably be mentioned.

Jimmy Morrissey joined Pitt for the 2016 season as a walk-on center from La Salle College High School out in eastern Pa. He went on scholarship the next season when he won the starting job at center, and it seems to me that he can drop the “former walk-on” tag any time now.

I talked about this on the podcast at the start of the week: in terms of overrated storylines from last season, the concept of Morrissey as a former walk-on definitely deserves recognition.

Pro Football Focus rated him as Pitt’s No. 2 offensive lineman last season; he graded out right behind right guard Connor Dintino. Ask people around Pitt, though, and you’ll get that in reversed order. As Borbely put it this week:

“I thought a year ago he was our best offensive lineman, and I still think that.”

That’s not just Borbely revising history. People around the program said that throughout the season, and those who really studied the tape said that the line took more of a hit than most realized when Morrissey was suffered a season-ending injury at the end of the Wake Forest win that cost him the final three games of the year.

And yet, it still pops up from time to time: “former walk-on Jimmy Morrissey.”

He’s on scholarship and he plays like he’s on scholarship. At some point, guys who walk on and then get a scholarship shed that qualifier; nobody has referred to George Aston as a former walk-on in years, unless they were mentioning his past as a way of praising the work he has put in.

The fact is, Morrissey is a key part of the offense. With four new starters on the line, he’s going to be even more important than he was last year for the work he’ll do in helping the new guys get it down. He’s going to be Pickett’s best friend and he’s already positioned as one of the leaders on the offense and the team.

As he enters his third year as a starter, Morrissey is one of the keys to Pitt’s success this season (if you follow that whole train of thought from the other section about the offensive line in this column). He needs to get healthy, of course, but if he can hit the ground running in August, the Panthers’ chances against Virginia and beyond go up considerably.

TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE

Where’s the depth at defensive end?
As we talked earlier about recruiting tests and which ones Narduzzi has passed and which ones he hasn’t, my gut-reaction was to put defensive end recruiting in the first category. It seems like Pitt has signed a bunch of ends under Narduzzi and that group should be well-stocked.

Then you look at the roster and the Scholarship Board and…

The projected roster for 2019 has 10 scholarship ends on it. But that includes four arriving with the 2019 class. And it also includes redshirt freshman Noah Palmer, who has been getting work inside at defensive tackle. Take off Palmer and the incoming freshmen, and you’re left with five scholarship ends returning to the roster.

That’s…not a lot. Particularly when only three of those guys - Rashad Weaver, Patrick Jones and Deslin Alexandre - have any real experience. And even within that group, only Weaver and Jones have played all that much; Alexandre played 74 snaps on defense last season, with 40 of those coming against Albany and Central Florida. His other 34 snaps were spread over seven games; he didn’t play against Penn State, North Carolina, Syracuse, Notre Dame or Stanford.

There’s not a lot of experience returning, and the two-deep is going to have to be filled out with at least one redshirt freshman. So where’s the depth at defensive end? As we’ve often said - and it will be repeated a lot this season - the roster is all Narduzzi’s; has he under-recruited the defensive end position?

Well, let’s look at the classes again.

Pitt's DE recruiting since 2015
Class Player 2019 status

2015

Allen Edwards

Graduated

2016

Zack Gilbert

Medically disqualified

2016

Patrick Jones

Active

2016

Rashad Weaver

Active

2017

Deslin Alexandre

Active

2018

Habakkuk Baldonado

Active

2018

Kaymar Mimes

Moved to tight end

2018

John Morgan

Active

2018

Noah Palmer

Active

It’s not hard to find the issue. The staff clearly didn’t do well enough in the 2017 recruiting class, and if you’ve been on this site for awhile, you probably have very distinct recollections of that recruiting cycle. Pitt only signed one defensive end in the class but it wasn’t for lack of trying; Alexandre was among seven defensive end prospects who visited Pitt that winter, but the other six all went elsewhere.

There’s a larger conversation to be had about the 2017 class being a point where a lot of fans started souring on Narduzzi’s recruiting, but even if we stick to the narrow focus on the defensive ends, it’s not hard to see the misses:

Victor Dimukeje went to Duke. Kofi Wardlow went to Notre Dame. Guy Thomas went to Nebraska. And TyJuan Garbutt, Nathan Proctor and Zion Debose went to Virginia Tech.

I know you remember those last three, but Pitt had all six of those guys on campus for official visits, and a year after having a high success rate on official visitors, the staff struck out on all of them other than Alexandre.

Get one or two of those guys and the depth situation for 2019 looks quite a bit different. Instead, Narduzzi and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge are going to have to hope a young player like John Morgan is ready to step up into a considerable role.

Do numbers really matter?
Aaron Donald’s always around Pitt’s facility, and if he’s not there training, his picture is everywhere, so you’re never too far from memories of him and how he performed when he was a Panther.

Donald was dominant, of course, putting up numbers that haven’t been matched by any defensive players since - regardless of position. But the position part of that isn’t unimportant; Donald was ridiculously productive from a position that doesn’t always put up stats. Over the course of two seasons, he had 47 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks.

That’s an absurd amount.

Donald is an outlier, of course, but it still begs the question: how much production can be expected out of the defensive tackle position? Because in the five seasons since Donald went off to become the best player in the NFL, Pitt hasn’t gotten a whole lot out of the interior defensive line.

In 2014, 2015 and 2017, only one defensive tackle had more than two tackles for loss. Last season, Shane Roy, Amir Watts, Keyshon Camp and Rashad Wheeler all had more than two TFL’s - but none of them had more than three.

Interestingly, 2016 was probably the best season for defensive tackle production in the last five years as Shakir Soto, who moved from defensive end, led the charge with 46 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks and Jeremiah Taleni added 5.5 TFL’s and three sacks. None of the other four seasons since Donald left can come close to those numbers.

So what should we expect from the tackles this year? And do the numbers really even matter? The defensive tackle position isn’t exactly one that is known for its stats; those guys are often asked to simply eat up blocks and open lanes for the linebackers to make plays. But Partridge talked this week about Pitt being a “vertical charge attack” defense - meaning the tackles are supposed to get up-field and make plays.

If that’s the case, do the Panthers have the players to do it? Camp and Watts are back as fourth-year players and will likely be the starters, but both have question marks. Watts has played every year of his career but has little production to show for it; Camp redshirted in 2016 but has missed time each of the last two seasons due to injuries.

Wheeler’s out of the mix for 2019 after moving to offensive guard, but redshirt sophomore Jaylen Twyman might have as much potential as any of them. He has continued to develop his body and looks like he could be on the verge of a breakout; last year, his 10 quarterback pressures ranked third among tackles, according to Pro Football Focus - ahead of Watts and 14-game starter Shane Roy.

Watts, Camp and Twyman will get the bulk of the reps and be expected to put up the numbers. They won’t need to do much to have career years - or to set five-year marks for Pitt.

JUST ONE MORE THING

Looking to make some travel plans? Let’s talk about Pitt’s destinations for this fall, in case you’re looking to hit the road with the Panthers.

Pitt’s got five road games this season”

Sept. 14 at Penn State
Oct. 5 at Duke
Oct. 18 at Syracuse
Nov. 2 at Georgia Tech
Nov. 23 at Virginia Tech

Not a lot to choose from there, but each has its ups and downs. Except Syracuse; there are no ups with the trip to Syracuse. It’s a drive that’s just long enough to be annoying, it’s in a town that is perpetually gray and it’s in a dome, which is just weird.

Actually, that last part isn’t so bad. The Carrier Dome experience is unique, and while I wouldn’t necessarily want to watch seven games there every year, it seems like you’re much closer to the action in that building. It’s kind of like the difference between a concert in an arena and one in an amphitheater; outdoors, the sound can go a lot of places, but inside, there’s nowhere for it to go. You hear every hit and can see things much more clearly, at least from my perspective.

Admittedly, this is influenced by the fact that the press box is closer to the field and open, so the media experience of the game is a little better than at a lot of places. Conversely, my negative opinion of the drive there is also personal, as I’ve gotten multiple speeding tickets on the damn New York State Thruway.

But let’s start at the beginning with that September trip to State College. Look, I know that nobody wants to go to Happy Valley. That trip has its appeal, though. For one thing, it’s an easy drive - 22 to 99 and you’re there. Traffic will be a mess but that’s the downside of having a lot of people at a game; Pitt would love to have those traffic problems.

And you have to think about this: the game this September will be the last one Pitt plays at Beaver Stadium in a long, long time. Hate Penn State all you want, but the rivalry is great, and this is your last chance to experience it in game form for the foreseeable future.

The Duke trip a few weeks later, though - that’s one you’ll be able to experience for awhile, and to be honest, it’s a pretty unremarkable experience. The stadium is nice enough and the drive isn’t bad if you break it up (I’ve done the whole eight hours - okay, seven and a half - and that’s a haul). But I can’t say I’ve found much of interest in or around Durham. I’ll have to try again this year.

I would say similar things about Virginia Tech. The drive is better by a couple hours and Lane Stadium is cool if it’s rocking, which it hasn’t been in the last three times Pitt played there, but overall, I haven’t found much to do around Blacksburg. That’s probably because it’s virtually impossible to find reasonable lodging around there, so I’ve usually stayed an hour or so away.

The best trip on Pitt’s 2019 road schedule, by far, is Georgia Tech. Yes, you have to fly, and that’s a downside, but the upside of that downside is that it’s really easy to find cheap direct flights to Atlanta. And once you’re there, you’re in Atlanta, where there are plenty of things to do and public transit can get you anywhere. The MARTA system will even get you to the game if you stay in the city. Between Pitt games and Rivals.com conferences - there have been a few of those in Atlanta - I’ve been to the city a bunch of times in the last six years, and I’ve never had a bad or even uninteresting time. I’m a big fan of Atlanta. Georgia Tech’s stadium isn’t half bad either.

So if you’re only going to one road game this year - or Penn State and one road game that’s beyond two hours - I would recommend saving up for the flight to Atlanta.