The 3-2-1 Column: Signing Day, the WPIAL and more
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In this week’s 3-2-1 Column, we’re thinking about the second Signing Day, the WPIAL, Wake Forest and more.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
It’s not pretty
So, a recruiting class is in the books (most of it already was in the books, but more on that in a minute). Inevitably, there’s a simple question that I get a lot this time of year:
How did Pitt do?
The answer is never as simple as the question. I mean, for some schools, maybe it’s simple, although I saw some people saying that Alabama had a rough Signing Day despite finishing with the No. 2 class in the country, so maybe nobody’s ever happy.
But when it comes to Pitt’s class, there’s never a simple sum-it-up answer. I have different opinions about every recruit that Pitt landed, so a broad “it’s good” or “it’s bad” seems insufficient to me.
I know I’ve talked before about using a two-step test to evaluate a recruiting class. Basically, you consider whether a coaching staff filled its needs and did so with priority recruits. If you can answer yes to both of those elements, then it’s a successful recruiting class.
And by that measure, Pitt’s 2019 recruiting class is successful. They filled the spots they had with guys they wanted.
But there’s this other nagging question:
Did Pat Narduzzi and his staff want the right guys?
That question is a lot trickier, for a bunch of reasons. For one, it’s far more subjective than the two-step test I mentioned earlier. While you can pretty clearly tell whether a staff filled its positional needs with priority recruits and you can do so objectively, it’s a lot trickier to determine whether those priority targets were the right priority targets.
Ultimately, we won’t know until they get on campus and play - or don’t - for a few years. So we’re left to look at things like stars and offer sheets. And by those measures…there are questions about this class.
Look, I’m not going to bet my life on star rankings. I’ve seen as many go right as I’ve seen go wrong (don’t ask me for numbers to back that up because I don’t have them, but it sounds good). But there’s still something to be said for those ratings and rankings, and by that measure, Pitt’s class isn’t very aesthetically pleasing. There were two four-star commits in the class until Daniel Carter got downgraded to three-stars. Then there was one.
Now the 19 recruits include one four-star, 15 three-stars and three two-stars; that’s good for No. 50 nationally in the Rivals.com team rankings - tied with Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Rutgers.
I don’t know what’s more eye-catching: being tied with Rutgers or having two division champions from Power Five conferences tied for the 50th-best recruiting class in the country. Either way, I can understand why there is some unrest about this class. I think there are some good players in the group, but the class isn’t overflowing with stars or top-ranked recruits, and that’s concerning.
So I’ll say this: Narduzzi knows what’s at stake with this - or any - recruiting class. He knows what he has riding on the success of the class. And for the class to be successful, he and his staff need to have been successful in their evaluations of the recruits.
For now, these were the guys they decided to go with for the 2019 class. We’ll find out in a few years if they were right.
Beyond the stars
Let’s start this section with a rehash of a common recruiting topic:
Do we all get too enamored with stars? Yes. Is there fairly-reliable predictive value in them? Yes.
There we go. I think we covered it. There’s a mountain of evidence that higher-rated players have a better chance of panning out. There’s also a mountain of evidence that lower-rated players are capable of producing at the next level. It’s better to have recruits with lots of stars, but that doesn’t mean you can’t win with guys who don’t have as many.
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s look at Pitt’s class beyond the stars.
For starters, there are four offensive skill players in the class: two running backs and two receivers. The two backs are from Florida and both were productive at top schools. They also complement each other nicely as a thunder-and-lightning duo.
Neither of the two receivers had an offer from Pitt entering last summer, but both worked out for the coaching staff at the June prospect camps; the workout led to an offer for Jared Wayne and laid the foundation for an offer for Will Gipson (the offer would ultimately come after a ridiculously productive senior season at Aliquippa). Both have size, speed and ball skills.
So if we just look at offensive skill, which is an area where Pitt can always use more talent, I think it looks pretty good. Add in Davis Beville, the quarterback who is the Panthers’ lone four-star recruit in the class after having himself a really nice senior season, and you’ve got five guys who should be able to help Pitt’s offense produce points.
That’s a good start.
On defense, I think this is a good group of linebackers. Brandon George is a middle linebacker who could grow into a defensive end. Kyi Wright is an outside linebacker who could play four or five different positions. And Leslie Smith and SirVocea Dennis are outside linebackers who were lightly-recruited but fit pretty well into the unique “Star” linebacker role in Pitt’s defense.
In the secondary, AJ Woods brings speed at corner and Brandon Hill is a playmaker at safety.
So even if you split the difference on Dennis and Smith, you’re looking at roughly nine guys who seem to have pretty good upsides for the college game. Then you get into the defensive line, with one tackle and four ends; that latter group is important as a restocking for the position but also as a potential “feeder” into the spot that will likely be the biggest point of contention with the class:
Pitt signed two offensive linemen in this class and both are tackles. There’s three-star Matthew Goncalves and two-star Liam Dick. Goncalves has the better star rating but Dick has the better offer sheet, with Louisville, North Carolina and Washington State also in contention. Both players are of the body type that Pitt has been targeting: long, lean tackles who probably could have taken some snaps at tight end in high school. Offensive line coach Dave Borbely seems to want big athletes he can mold into offensive tackles, and that’s what these two look like.
The consternation, I presume - other than the star rankings - comes from the fact that there’s only two of them. But this class could very well come to be defined by positional versatility, and the offensive line is likely going to see a numbers boost from that.
Pitt signed four defensive ends in this class, but at least one of them could move to the offensive line. Ditto for tight end signee Jason Collier. I think in two years (or less) we’ll look back at the 2019 class and record at least four offensive linemen coming out of it; for now, there are two.
The Panthers obviously need those guys to pan out. I’ve talked about this before, but it feels like a day of reckoning is coming for this program and its current leadership and its efforts in recruiting and developing offensive linemen. At some point, probably in the very near future, Pat Narduzzi and his staff are going to need to produce a viable, multi-year offensive line that can be the foundation for offensive success. The fate of the Narduzzi era will likely be determined by how successful they are in that regard.
Ultimately, that will come down to the evaluation and development of linemen who were signed in the last two classes (2017 and 2018), and Goncalves and Dick and anyone else from the 2019 class will either be a continuation of the success those two classes produce or a last-gasp effort to save the situation in three years.
But I digress.
I think there’s a good amount to like in this class. There are some question marks, too. Narduzzi and company identified these recruits as the ones who can keep Pitt in contention for the Coastal Division and ACC title; we’ll see which guys pan out.
The worst disappointment yet
A brief aside from football recruiting…
The night before Signing Day this week, Pitt went to Wake Forest for what looked like the Panthers’ best chance at getting their first road ACC win since Feb. 8, 2017. The Deacons are not good this year. They were one of the only teams behind Pitt in the conference standings - Wake had one win, Pitt had two - and they’re one of only two teams in the ACC with a losing record right now.
Going on the road is tough and winning on the road is tougher, but Pitt went into Tuesday night with a real chance to pull one off. The Panthers even favored to win the game.
And…you know the result.
A loss was going to disappointing no matter how it happened. When you look at any of Pitt’s losses this season - well, maybe aside from North Carolina and Duke - every loss was disappointing because every loss had at least a stretch where you could see how the Panthers could win.
By that measure then, Tuesday night’s loss wasn’t any more disappointing than the losses that preceded it (at home against Syracuse and at Clemson). Except, we all know that it was more disappointing, and not just because Wake Forest was a team that Pitt really probably should have beaten.
It was more disappointing because the win was there. It was in their hands. Danny Manning wasn’t turning to Jeff Capel at the end of that one and invoking Vin Diesel (“You almost had me? You never had me”); rather, he was probably thanking his lucky stars that he got out of the game with a win.
That’s not to say that the Panthers dominated the game. They didn’t. They had a modest two-point lead at halftime and trailed by seven with five minutes to play. It’s a credit to Pitt that the team battled back from that deficit and took a two-point lead in the final 45 seconds.
I guess Xavier Johnson’s missed free throw on the front end of a one-and-one with 19 seconds to go was probably first big oh-no play (although he missed two more in the final 2:09; hitting any one of those could have made the difference, but that one with 19 seconds left was the key). And then came the Wake Forest offensive rebounds: there were three, to be exact, and as fluky as they might have been, they gave the Deacons chance after chance as time ticked away.
Finally, Jaylen Hoard sent the game to overtime with a last-second tip-in. You already know how things went after that.
Of course, there are a million moments from earlier in the game that could have changed the course of events. Pitt missed eight total free throws (not just those three by Johnson in the final 2:09) and gave up 18 offense rebounds (not just those three in the final 19 seconds). But basketball is unique in that, as long as things aren’t out of reach in the final minutes, you can make up for the mistakes from the first 38.
You just have to make the right plays. You have to hit the absolutely-must-make-it-to-close-the-game free throw. You have to grab the end-their-final-hopes-and-dreams rebound. Those are the things you have to do to win. And if that’s something you can learn to do, something a team becomes adept at over time, then this young Pitt team is clearly still learning.
TWO QUESTIONS WE HAVE
What’s up with the WPIAL?
Another Signing Day, another question about the local recruits and why so few of them seem to be picking Pitt.
(That’s just an opening sentence to this section of the column; I promise we’ll have more context than that.)
Pitt signed just one WPIAL player in the 2019 recruiting class; that was Aliquippa receiver Will Gipson. I looked back over the last dozen classes and couldn’t find another Pitt class with only one WPIAL recruit. And to be honest, I really didn’t need to do research on that because I already knew the answer. Hell, I could probably guess that there hasn’t ever been a Pitt recruiting class with only one signing from the WPIAL. Maybe back before the world war.
The first one, I mean.
Even some of Pitt’s leanest years in the WPIAL surpass this year’s haul. Todd Graham’s pieced-together group in February 2011 still had three from the WPIAL. In 2014, Pitt had a bad year, losing top targets like Dravon Henry and Montae Nicholson and Shai McKenzie and Chase Winovich and Malik Hooker and still signed seven out of the WPIAL.
Even in 2017, which was probably Pitt’s worst year in the WPIAL aside from the Todd Graham Experience, what with the losses of Lamont Wade and Josh Lugg and Kurt Hinish and Donovan Jeter and David Adams and CJ Thorpe, the Panthers still got four WPIAL recruits.
This year: one.
So that’s a number that doesn’t look good (we sure do talk about perception a lot, don’t we?). But it’s not the only number that matters. There’s another one I would submit for your consideration:
That’s how many WPIAL recruits Pitt offered in the 2019 class. Six. And that’s the lowest number I could find in the last dozen or so recruiting classes; I stopped looking at 2008 because I feel confident in assuming Pitt offered more than six WPIAL kids every year before that.
There were big numbers in the last 10 years, too. Dave Wannstedt’s staff offered 19 WPIAL kids in the 2008 class and 17 in the 2010 class. The 2012 class, with some offers from Graham and some from Paul Chryst, saw 17 WPIAL recruits get scholarships from Pitt.
In fact, from 2008-2018, there were only three classes that saw Pitt offer less than 10 WPIAL kids, and they were all in the last four years: 2015, 2016 and 2018. So either Pitt is taking less interest in local kids or there are fewer Power Five-level kids in the local area.
I think there’s a chance it could be the second option. If you look in the class of 2019, eight WPIAL players signed with Power Five schools. That’s all: eight. There were three or four other recruits who claimed, at one time or another, an offer from a Power Five school, but those situations changed and those recruits signed with schools outside the Power Five.
So if there are only eight Power Five prospects coming out of the WPIAL and Pitt didn’t even offer all eight of them, it’s probably not much of a surprise that the Panthers’ final tally of WPIAL recruits in the class is low.
But one? Only one kid is going from the WPIAL to Pitt? Even if the overall numbers are low, that seems…extra low.
Of the five WPIAL kids Pitt didn’t get, the Panthers were probably never really in contention for at least three of them, and they lost the last remaining target on Signing Day when Aliquippa four-star cornerback MJ Devonshire announced for Kentucky. That one particularly stung, since Kentucky started pursuing him just a few weeks before Signing Day, whereas Pitt - despite criticism of being too late - offered him late last spring.
That’s how the 2019 recruiting cycle ended for Pitt (save for some grad transfer targets), and we’re left with more questions about the Panthers and their local recruiting base. I’m guessing things won’t look much better a year from now; the WPIAL in 2020 could be even lighter in Power Five offers than it was this year, although I would expect to see Pitt get more than one recruit from the area.
Is it all a numbers situation, though? That seems like a cop-out, a cover for something deeper. But the reality is, Pitt has never “owned” the WPIAL. When Wannstedt offered 19 kids from the WPIAL in the 2008 class, he only signed 10 of them. Two years later, he only signed six of the 17 WPIAL prospects he offered. And that was Wannstedt, the guy who was supposed to lead Pitt’s retaking of the WPIAL. Even he was missing on a lot of targets.
There’s a convergence point here: if the numbers in the WPIAL dwindle and Pitt continues not getting all of the top players, then it’s going to keep looking worse. It’s one thing to miss on a bunch of WPIAL prospects when you still end up signing six or seven or eight. But as the area continues to be a rather hotly-contested battleground, it’s tough to produce many numbers when there aren’t as many prospects to go around.
Did December kill February?
It might have.
Signing Day was on Wednesday, and if not for the Devonshire commitment, you might not have noticed it at all. It was as quiet as can be, worlds removed from the tension, angst and excitement that used to dominate the first Wednesday in February. It was a day that the whole year was built around; everything led up to it, starting with the day after Signing Day.
It really was that big of a deal - big enough to crash the Rivals.com network on multiple infuriating occasions. Now, it’s not quite the same thing. The excitement for Wednesday wasn’t there, save for a few patches in different spots around the country as each school filled its final few spots.
Of course, the cause of that diminished excitement is that Wednesday was Signing Day, but also the second Signing Day. And maybe this world’s just not big enough for two Signing Days.
I thought it was just Pitt that had a quiet Signing Day this week. The Panthers had limited scholarship spots in this class and signed 18 guys in December, so it made sense that February would be a little less eventful. Even last year, there were only four new signings to announce on the second Signing Day, and this year was less than that, with just two.
We knew that going in, and with Devonshire as the only target really hanging in the balance, there was never going to be much suspense. SirVocea Dennis and Nolan Ulizio were on board and would be officially announced Wednesday morning, and that was it for the day.
But it wasn’t just Pitt who had a quiet day on Wednesday. Looking around the ACC, very few schools picked up many commitments from high school players between the two Signing Days. Just looking at high school and JUCO prospects, the four teams with coaching changes - Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami and North Carolina - all had four or more, with the Cardinals getting a whopping 10 in that stretchbut they were on the high end.
Syracuse and Virginia Tech got three each. Clemson got two. Boston College, Pitt, Virginia and Wake Forest each got one. Duke didn’t have any; the Blue Devils’ class was set on Dec. 19 and that was it.
Even with Louisville adding 10 post-Signing Day commitments, UNC getting eight and Miami, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Florida State securing four each, the 14 teams in the conference averaged just three new commitments per game - and eight ACC teams got three or fewer.
That was the case across the country, and it wasn’t just a matter of lower-ranked recruits signing early to secure their spots. 88 recruits in the Rivals100 signed in December. That included 93% of the five-star prospects in the class (all but two).
All told, 85% of the 391 four and five-star recruits in the class of 2019 signed in December. That means there were 59 four and five-star recruits in the entire country left for post-Signing Day recruiting.
That’s not much, and when there aren’t a lot of big-time prospects on the board making their decisions, the hype decreases. Which is what happened on Wednesday.
Now, that Wednesday in December was pretty exciting. No question about that. It felt like the old February Signing Day, just two months early. But as long as schools keep filling up 85% or more of their classes in December, the first Wednesday in February is going to become less and less exciting.
JUST ONE MORE THING…
The better part of something
I was going to go off with a reference to that old proverb about discretion being the better part of valor. But then I looked it up online and found out that Shakespeare didn’t really mean it the way I mean it, so in order to avoid alienating the countless Shakespeare scholarship who frequent the site, I won’t use that quote.
So I’ll just say this:
Sometimes it’s better to play it cool. Sometimes you may have some things you want to say, some things you want to get off your chest, some things that you wish people could hear so they would understand just a little better.
And sometimes, you just have to eat those words and keep them private.
Everyone has those moments and everyone has their own way of reacting to them. Some keep things close to the vest and some shoot from the hip.
I think it’s safe to say that Pat Narduzzi is part of the latter group.
We’ve seen it a number of times over the last four years. He has made plenty of comments about officiating - he even got fined after the Virginia Tech game in 2016 when he said the Hokies receivers were pushing off constantly - and he has had plenty of less-overt shots since he got to Pitt, little subtle digs meant to just release a little steam from under the lid.
On Wednesday, he released a little more with this quote.
“I don't care where they're from. We're going to recruit the heck out of our backyard. We spend a ton of time in the schools from Ohio to New Jersey, and we're going to we'll get the ones that want to come. I want guys that love Pittsburgh, okay, and that's what it comes down to. You either love Pittsburgh and you want to stay here and play for your city or you don't. And if you don't, I'm good. We wouldn't win with you anyway. It's beautiful.”
So this is where you would find a gif of someone nodding, nodding, nodding, nodding and then cringing. Because that last line - not the one that says “It’s beautiful;” the one before that - is cringeworthy.
Take that line out and the sentiment is fine. Really, the overall sentiment of the comment is fine. If you don’t want to stay home and go to Pitt, don’t stay home and go to Pitt. Go where you want to go.
Nothing wrong with that. But adding in that last bit, saying that Pitt “wouldn’t win with you anyway”…that’s rough. Maybe a bridge too far (yes, I used that reference wrong, too; I don’t care). And when you’re speaking those words roughly four hours after a local kid chose to go away from home…that’s extra rough.
I’m not begrudging Narduzzi anything; if that’s what he wants to say, then say it. I just wonder if that’s a line he’d rather have back.
Probably not, because that’s who he is: he says what’s on his mind, or at least as much as he thinks he can get away with. And I admire his candor in a lot of situations (although he spends just as much time on the other end of the spectrum being completely secretive). But maybe a little less id, a little less shooting from the hip wouldn’t be such a bad thing.