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3 storylines for Pitt football in 2018

September 16, 2018
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Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke speaks to the football team before practice last week. The Panthers will face a schedule judged one of the toughest in the nation.

Nationally, there are not many expectations for Pitt this season. They received no votes in the coaches or Associated Press top 25 polls.

The preseason poll among ACC media left Pitt lagging at fifth in the Coastal Division.

The schedule is difficult, and there is little experience at wide receiver, a key position in the high-scoring world of college football.

People remember the upset of Clemson two years ago, but Clemson went on to win the national championship two months later. Pitt went on to go 8-5.

There is plenty of optimism surrounding this year’s team, however, with hopes of an improved defense, a quarterback who looks like a winner and a determined 17-man senior class that is tired of being mediocre.

But most teams have high hopes in August.

Here are three areas to watch as the season progresses:

1. You got coaching stability

Narduzzi feels no additional pressure to win after Pitt’s administration bestowed upon him a seven-year contract that will take him past his 58th birthday (if he lets it).

With that type of security, no wonder. But Narduzzi said he won’t change anything to justify the unprecedented trust chancellor Patrick Gallagher and athletic director Heather Lyke have placed in him.

“I’m the same dude, same guy, maybe a little chubbier, maybe a little balder,” he said. “That’s about it. If you change too much, it’s a bad deal.

“There was pressure in the first year, there’s pressure in the fourth year, there’ll be pressure in the 15th year. I don’t really see it any different.

Life is good for Pitt’s coach, and not just because he hasn’t lost any games yet this year.

“We do what we do. I’m not coaching any different now than I did four years ago, or 15 years ago, to be honest with you.”

He has bosses who like and respect him, more than enough money for his family and the type of talented, experienced personnel that could give Pitt the defense fans were promised four years ago.

What more does he need? More than the five victories he managed last year is a good place to start.

2. Nothing like experience on the offensive line

First-year line coach Dave Borbely, who has coached college football for 38 years at 14 schools, has a good idea what will drive his senior-dominated unit.

“When it’s all said and done, from the time they’re freshmen until their fifth-year seniors,” he said, “they’re going to have about 2,000 hours (invested), and I’ve done the math a long time ago. Spring, winter workouts, lifting, running, practice during the season. Their mentality is they want to win.

“When you have a freshman, even a redshirt freshman, they just want to play, and there’s a difference. There’s a difference in how you approach that. It’s not about having mom and dad hug you after the game and telling you it was great to see you on field, and we got our (butt) kicked. It’s about us winning the game. That’s what having seniors up there does for you.”

Four seniors -- tackles Stefano Millin and Alex Bookser, guards Connor Dintino and Mike Herndon -- will start along with a sophomore center Jimmy Morrissey, who’s entering his second-year as a starter.

Borbely said he’s likes how the backups have made progress in training camp, but the top six are either redshirt freshmen or sophomores.

3. Unusual depth at linebacker

Linebackers coach Rob Harley said this isn’t the first season of his four at Pitt when the team has depth at the position.

“But for the first time, we have a lot of depth,” he said.

The team is so deep at linebacker that Saleem Brightwell, who had the game-changing interception in the 2016 upset of Clemson and started all 12 games in the middle last year, might be a backup on the outside. Coaches are just short of giddy about the return of middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis, which forces Brightwell to move. Plus, Brightwell’s competition on the outside Money spot, senior Elijah Zeise, has drawn praise for his hard work and physicality.

Harley probably won’t make an absolute choice between Brightwell and Zeise. One will start, but the other will play a prominent role.

“Both of them are very smart players,” Harley said. “Elijah picks up things really fast, things we want to work on that day in a meeting, he goes right on the field and executes it.”

But Harley also likes Brightwell’s instincts against the run. “That probably goes back to being a linebacker his whole life.”

Asked how much the fourth linebacker will play, Harley said, “I would like to roll six (into the game).”

“Football has changed, especially in (the ACC). I always say we’re a cross between the Big Ten and Big 12. We’re not super high-tempo. We’re also not line up with two backs and pound you. We’re a little bit in between.

“You get to an eight-play series, I’d rather put three fresh dudes in and let them go after the football, even if it’s just for two plays.”

Pitt might have two competent backups in the middle -- sophomores Chase Pine and Elias Reynolds -- and Anthony McKee, named most improved defensive player in the spring, will back up Seun Idowu, a second-team All-ACC selection at the Star position.

That’s seven for a three-man alignment, but coaches always say you never can have too many good players.

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