Pitt’s 1st depth chart has surprises at wide receiver, cornerback

September 19, 2018

Pitt receiver Taysir Mack runs after a catch during the spring game May 14, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said his team is ready to start the season. The opener is Saturday at Heinz Field against Albany, a FCS team coached by former Duquesne coach and Pitt assistant Greg Gattuso.

But the identity of the opponent doesn’t matter.

“I think they’re ready to hit a different colored jersey,” Narduzzi said Monday during his first in-season news conference.

His defense, probably the stronger of the two units, was exposed to 38 offensive formations during training camp, “not including shifts and motions,” he said.

“We will be prepared for anything they give us,” he said.

Injuries have been minimized, probably through a combination of luck and serious weight-room conditioning.

“It’s been one of the healthiest fall camps we’ve been involved in,” Narduzzi said, knocking on the wooden podium he was standing behind.

But what about the lineup? He believes a roster stocked with 14 starting seniors will know where to go and whom to chase when the ball is snapped. But are there enough playmakers to make a difference?

Narduzzi issued his first depth chart of the season, and here are five thoughts it inspired:

1. Wide receiver is hodgepodge

It’s assumed the names in bold type on the weekly news release -- Aaron Mathews, Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Tre Tipton -- are starters, although Narduzzi downplayed the significance of that.

“Some guys are in bold? I don’t read the bold,” he said.

He makes a good point because two wide receivers with explosive athleticism, freshman Shocky Jacques-Louis and Maurice Ffrench, are listed as backups.

But Indiana transfer Taysir Mack, whose eligibility was confirmed amid modest fanfare late in camp, wasn’t on the list at all.

“Probably just a typo,” Narduzzi said, tossing a pen to a reporter, ordering him to add Mack’s name. “It’s the problem you have when your depth is good.”

Mack is an important piece of the passing game, so it’s hard to believe Narduzzi merely forgot to write his name on the season’s first depth chart. The coach is well aware who Mack is and what he can do.

“Here’s the thing about Taysir,” Narduzzi said. “He can play in the slot. He can play the boundary (cornerback), which is where Kenny (Pickett, the quarterback) likes him, and he can play to the field (lined up against another defensive back). He can move all over the place, intelligence-wise.”

Is Mack hurt? Narduzzi doesn’t talk about injuries, especially so close to the first game.

But if there is an issue, Mack’s playing time will be limited Saturday.

2. What’s up at cornerback?

Junior Dane Jackson started 12 games last season and returned interceptions for touchdowns against Syracuse in 2016 and in this year’s spring game.

But Narduzzi felt compelled to use the word ‘or’ at cornerback: senior Phillipie Motley or Jackson.

“If Phillipie is playing well, we’re going to roll with him,” Narduzzi said. “You play like you practice, and you practice like you play. If Phillipie does what he did for the last 20 practices, we expect a great year.”

Narduzzi, like most coaches, is partial to seniors. “Seniors have to have the best season they ever had (to win a championship),” he said.

At the other cornerback, sophomore Damarri Mathis is listed as the starter over Paris Ford and Jason Pinnock.

“Paris’ (progress) is going like this,” Narduzzi said, raising his arm. “Paris an energetic guy. I can’t wait to watch him on the field. He’s energetic, and he plays with emotion. I think the game is a game of emotion. I just have to make sure we keep him under control. He’s wild. I love that part of him.”

3. Matter of indecisiveness

Narduzzi placed ‘or’ tag on only four starting positions, indicating both men will play. Equally? He’ll let the games speak to him in that regard.

Aside from cornerback, there are ‘ors’ at running back (Darrin Hall or Qadree Ollison), defensive tackle (Keyshon Camp or Amir Watts) and money linebacker (Elijah Zeise or Saleem Brightwell).

4. Practice matters

Motley, Mathis and Tipton are three examples of players who started camp as backups on the depth chart but played well enough to, perhaps, open the season in the starting lineup. Remember: Those players whose names are in bold still must go through a week of practice, starting Tuesday.

5. Versatility matters

Speaking of guys who caught the coaches’ eyes this month, sophomore Chase Pine is listed as a backup at defensive end (behind Dewayne Hendrix) and middle linebacker (behind Quintin Wirginis). He will be an important part of the mix on a defense that appears like it can survive when injuries inevitably occur.

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