Pitt modernized its offense over the winter. The growing pains will be felt for a while

Published Apr. 13, 2024 6:29 p.m. ET

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pat Narduzzi spent most of his first nine seasons at Pittsburgh building a program whose identity reflected its coach's old-school values.

Physical. Defense-oriented. Run-heavy. Narduzzi took pride in his team being an outlier of sorts in a game growing ever more innovative — especially on offense — by the season.

Then came last fall and a 3-9 finish in which nothing worked. The Panthers couldn't score. Couldn't pass the ball effectively and couldn't run it well enough to make up the difference.

The result was Pitt's worst season in a quarter century and a reckoning too. Narduzzi overhauled a significant portion of his staff and replaced offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti and his pro-style approach with Kade Bell, a 31-year-old who turned Western Carolina into one of the most prolific offenses in the FCS.


The injection of youth and fresh ideas has invigorated both Narduzzi and the Panthers. Yet that newness also comes with the kind of growing pains that have been on display most of the spring as Bell tries to get the Panthers to play faster, something that can be tricky when you're essentially learning a new language.

While things have been rocky at times during Pitt's 15 allotted spring drills — with the first few practices being particularly “rough” according to offensive guard BJ Williams — there have also been signs of progress.

Quarterbacks Nate Yarnell and Eli Holstein are processing what they see more quickly. Wide receivers are figuring out where they need to go and when they need to be there. The learning curve that felt intimidating three months ago is starting to level out.

“(I've) taken a huge leap,” Yarnell said Saturday after Pitt's annual Blue-Gold scrimmage. “From day one to now is unrecognizable. For me and the whole team, we're playing so much faster and so much more confident. We have a long way to go but I'm sure we're going to be there by the time fall hits.”

After finishing dead last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in points and yards, the Panthers have no choice but to learn and get better.

Yarnell will head to training camp atop the depth chart but will likely face a push from Holstein, an Alabama transfer who was a top-100 recruit when he signed with the Crimson Tide.

Whoever is behind center will oversee a scheme that will offer a stark contrast to the more conservative approach long favored by Narduzzi. The notable exceptions were during the 2016 season when the Panthers averaged over 40 points and 2021, when Kenny Pickett finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting while putting up record-setting numbers through the air.

Pitt's long history of producing NFL-capable running backs is one of the reasons the Panthers consider themselves “RBU.” Yet that approach will get an overhaul in 2024 as Pitt tries to rebound in the new-look ACC.

Bell, whose wide-open approach while calling the plays at Western Carolina helped the Catamounts lead the FCS in total offense last season, favors an up-tempo approach and four wide-receiver sets designed to spread the field and let the playmakers get the ball in space.

“It's a whole new ballgame,” Narduzzi said. “It's different stuff. All the quarterbacks did a good job of picking it up. They've got a lot to put together.”

They've also got to find a way to walk a fine line. Yarnell, voted the ‘best teammate’ by his peers this spring, wants everything to be perfect right now, even if he knows that's asking for far too much at the moment.

“We're still so far away,” he said.

Yarnell, who began last season as the third-stringer before eventually taking over when Phil Jurkovec and Christian Veilleux failed to produce, will spend the next four-plus months buried in the playbook hoping to be fluent in what Bell is asking by the season opener against Kent State on Aug. 31.

There is plenty to learn, even though Yarnell pushed back a little bit when told Narduzzi described him as a “gambler.”

The way Yarnell sees it, while so much of what he's being asked to do is new, there are a few constants no matter what offense he's in. He's got to take care of the ball. And he's got to build a foundation of belief in the huddle.

If he can handle those two things, the rest of it is just details. On those fronts, he believes he's in a good place.

“I know I can rely on the guys on the team,” he said. “And they know they can rely on me.”


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