PITTSBURGH — After four straight 6-6 regular seasons and just a 1-3 bowl mark during that stretch, the University of Pittsburgh football program needed a serious change.
Enter former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. He makes his Panthers debut against Youngstown State Saturday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field, and the pressure got to him earlier in the week.
“Had to go out and see Rob (Blanc, Pitt’s athletic trainer) yesterday to get some Tums,” Narduzzi said. “That’s normal game week for a football coach, get Tums to make yourself feel good.”
There’s a lot for Narduzzi to feel good about this year, especially on offense, with second-year starting quarterback Chad Voytik, wideout Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner leading a possibly explosive offense.
However, Tyler Boyd was suspended for the YSU game due to an offseason DUI arrest, so other wideouts such as Dontez Ford, Zach Challingsworth, Elijah Zeise, Jester Weah and freshmen Quadree Henderson and Tre Tipton could all be key performers against the Penguins.
“Zeise has had a great camp, and you look at some of these depth charts and where they are won’t necessarily be that by game day,” Narduzzi said. “We still have a lot of days to go. Challingsworth and Zeise are both going to give us a lot time on the field. That’s for sure.”
None of the other receivers has much, if any experience, so YSU could get a lot of Conner to the left, Conner to the right and Conner up the middle.
“I can be a hard-nosed runner, but still with speed and great hands,” Conner said. “I’m just trying to put it together and have no weaknesses.”
Conner, who had just five catches last year to go with 1,765 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, is expected to be more involved in the passing game. Voytik is glad to get his star running back more involved.
“If we’re moving the chains, let’s keep it rolling and stay positive” Voytik said.
Along the offensive line, fifth-year senior Artie Rowell should be all the way back from a knee injury and could start. But if he can’t, Alex Officer will take that spot. Redshirt freshmen Brian O’Neill and Alex Bookser will be the tackles, while redshirt junior Adam Bisnowaty could be out with an injury. Junior Dorian Johnson and redshirt frosh Mike Herndon are the guards.
Defensively, Pitt’s defense is ready to bounce back from a disappointing finish in the Panthers bowl loss after the unit allowed 29 fourth-quarter points.
“I think the defense has a lot to show the world, and we’re ready for that challenge,” Pitt cornerback Lafayette Pitts said. And he believed the unit was a much different one this season, even though many players return.
“Just the way we came together, the way we run to the ball, the way we hustle,” Pitts said. “I think it’s different from previous years. A lot of guys are fighting for each other, not just themselves.”
Pitts, a fifth-year senior and fourth-year starter, heads a secondary that includes sophomore Avonte Maddox at the other corner spot, sophomore Pat Amara and freshman Jordan Whitehead at strong safety and redshirt junior Reggie Mitchell at free safety.
Shakir Soto, K.K. Mosley-Smith, Tyrique Jarrett and Ejuan Price are across the defensive line, while the linebacking corps is composed of Nicholas Grigsby, Matt Galambos and Mike Caprara or Bam Bradley.
Ryan Winslow and Chris Blewitt are the punter and place-kicker, respectively.
After opening at home with YSU, the Panthers have three straight road games at Akron, Iowa and Virginia Tech, which is the first ACC game for Pitt.