Panthers starting over (again) with Pat Narduzzi
PITTSBURGH (AP) James Conner had his doubts about Pat Narduzzi. They were unavoidable.
New coach. New system. New way of doing things. The reigning ACC Player of the Year had grown pretty comfortable in former coach Paul Chryst's run-heavy system. And now here was a newcomer, in charge for the first time in his career, ready to revamp a program that seemed revamped out.
''I was a little iffy,'' Conner said. ''Coach Chryst's system worked great for me.''
Then Narduzzi started talking. During one of his first meetings with the Panthers after taking over for Chryst last winter, Narduzzi put together a presentation that highlighted just how close Pitt was to a breakthrough following a fourth straight season of finishing either 6-7 or 7-6.
''He showed us our stats and what could have been,'' Conner said. ''He was like: `Guys you are right there.' He installed that determination in us, the realization that we can achieve big things.''
And do it quickly.
The longtime Michigan State defensive coordinator and part-time handyman is no stranger to rebuilding projects. As far as the Panthers go, however, he figures the foundation is already set after inheriting one of the youngest rosters in the country. Narduzzi's main goal this fall to convince a group that includes Conner - who set a school record with 26 total touchdowns - and wide receiver Tyler Boyd that Pitt is not tethered to the mediocrity that has defined Pitt for the better part of three decades
''We just need to do our job and do it the right way,'' Narduzzi said. ''I'm not worried about the past. I'm worried about the future. Where are we going tomorrow?''
The Panthers hope to go up in an ACC Coastal Division that has had four different champions in the last four years. To get there they will rely heavily on Conner and Boyd, as good a running back/wideout duo as there is in the country.
''There's different styles of getting them the ball, but we're going to get them the ball,'' offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said.
It will be the quickest path to respectability. Here are some of the obstacles the Panthers will face along the way:
Narduzzi will begin his tenure the same way Chryst did: against Youngstown State. The Panthers lost to the Penguins decisively four years ago. This time, Youngstown State brings in head coach Bo Pelini, who is trying to revive his career after flaming out at Nebraska. Pitt then plays five of its next six games on the road, including games at Akron and Iowa, both of which beat the Panthers at Heinz Field to thwart early season momentum after a 3-0 start.
Narduzzi faced his first real challenge during the offseason when Boyd and defensive lineman Rori Blair were both pulled over for DUI and subsequently suspended for the opener. While Narduzzi developed a reputation as a player's coach at Michigan State, he learned limits from his father Bill, who coached at Youngstown State and elsewhere.
''If curfew is at 11, don't come home at 11:01,'' Narduzzi said.
Michigan State's revival under head coach Mark Dantonio began with Narduzzi creating an aggressive, physical defense that became one of the nation's best. He hopes to recreate that success at Pitt, where defensive coordinator Josh Conklin will be in charge with more than a little input from his boss. The Panthers ranked a respectable 34th in yards allowed in 2014 but created just 14 turnovers, tied for 113th in the FBS.
HANGING WITH CHAD
The well-traveled Chaney is used to breaking in new quarterbacks. He likes what he sees in Chad Voytik, who is somewhat undersized at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds but was able last year to stick his nose in difficult places. Narduzzi is encouraging Chaney to let Voytik loose and throw more deep balls after spending most of 2014 focusing on short and intermediate routes before letting Boyd do most of the work from there.
Even with the coaching turnover the Panthers managed to hold on to safety Jordan Whitehead, the top-ranked recruit in the state last spring. Whitehead has already inserted himself into the mix for playing time, perhaps on both sides of the ball. ''I definitely feel that I could help out,'' Whitehead said. ''Hopefully the coaches see my talent, and that I can prove myself.''
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