Plenty of change in Panthers’ program

PITTSBURGH — Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi was pleased with the Panthers’ development this spring after the 15-day drill session concluded on Saturday with the annual Blue-Gold scrimmage.

“Our intensity was good and the confidence was high on both sides of the ball, so that’s huge. The offense thinks they can move the ball and score touchdowns and the defense thinks they can stop people,” Narduzzi said. “The team had great enthusiasm and effort (during the spring). They picked up on some new installments and developed a good base of what we want to do.”

The linebacker corps underwent a complete rebuild this spring. All three starting linebackers from the beginning of last season are gone. Narduzzi feels the linebackers, and the whole team, improved on and off the field with the help of modern technology.

“I think (the linebackers) are fast but I hope they’re as smart as they are fast. Speed is one thing but the intelligence and knowledge is another thing. We worked on making the right play every time,” Narduzzi said.“Things are different than they were ten years ago. Now every player has an iPad and I got texts (this spring) from players looking for the video from practice.”

Redshirt junior linebacker Phil Campbell was moved from safety to linebacker to bolster that position and has excelled in the transition. After every spring, the team names the most-improved players, called The Ed Conway Award, on each side of the ball. Campbell took the defensive honors along with redshirt sophomore defensive back Paris Ford.

“Phil (Campbell) really showed playmaking ability at linebacker this spring. His speed and athleticism will be great strengths at that position,” Narduzzi said. “Paris (Ford) made outstanding strides this entire offseason. He matured and developed into a real force for us defending the run and pass.”

Ford arrived at Pitt as a cornerback but was never able to make the impact expected of him early-on. He was transitioned to safety this spring and excelled at the position change.

“Right now, (Ford) is a starting safety. He’s always been fast and a playmaker, but now he’s figured out the knowledge process, Narduzzi said. “He had a tremendous spring along with Phil Campbell.”

Linebacker coach Rob Harley feels teaching fundamentals including showing proper technique, was important this spring, especially when a player has moved to another position.

“We’re going to find the best three (linebackers) and we’ll see whatever shakes out,” Harley said. “When they can taste playing time and maybe starting, you see which players separate themselves from the pack and who emerges as leaders and wants to take the over the reigns. That’s the best part of spring ball.”

Redshirt junior Elias Reynolds was forced into action as the starting middle linebacker halfway through last season after redshirt senior Quintin Wirginnis suffered a season-ending injury. He returns as the most-experienced linebacker.

“(Reynolds) was forced to take over the reigns last year. That was huge for him. He can draw from that experience. That gives him more power and stronger knowledge,” Harley said. “He never had to lead. That’s where he’ll make his biggest strides.”

Redshirt junior Chase Pine and redshirt sophomore Cam Bright excelled this spring in trying to secure starting spots in the fall.

“I went back and forth playing outside and inside (linebacker). I’m excited for the opportunity,” Pine said. “It’s a little different since all the older guys who brought us up are now gone.”

Bright also sees the difference since so many veteran and previous starters have moved on. He looked forward to the competition this spring will all three starting linebacker spots are up for grabs.

“We’re trying to step up and do our part,” Bright said. “Competition was tight, especially with Phil Campbell coming over (to linebacker). I worked on playing with more consistency and being efficient at my position.”

Redshirt senior wide receiver Tre Tipton and redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Carter Warren won the Ed Conway Most-Improved Player Award on the offensive side.

“We are looking for a big senior year from Tre (Tipton). He is fully healthy and, with continued progress, can be a huge asset in our passing game this fall,” Narduzzi said. “Carter really seized his opportunities this spring. He did an outstanding job and put himself in position to earn a starting job at tackle.”

The development of Carter was important as the only returning starter on the offensive line is center Jimmy Morrisey. The offensive line was another rebuilding process that started this spring.

“As young as the offensive line is, they’re ahead of where they were after last year’s spring,’ Narduzzi said. “They’re all good athletes. We want to see them progress.”

Pitt entered this spring with a new offensive coordinator, Mark Whipple, which added a learning curve to the offense. Narduzzi sees Whipple as an excellent addition to the team. Whipple has coached for almost 40 years, including with the Pittsburgh Steelers as quarterback coach from 2004 to 2006.

“He fits in great. He’s been a lot of places,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t know if he sleeps at night. He’s worked his tail off and he seems to be enjoying it here.”

His immediate impact of being a passing game guru was felt at Saturday’s Blue Gold annual scrimmage. The quarterbacks combined for 36 completions on 58 attempts for 425 yards and three touchdowns.

The Blue Team, led by returning starting quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for 125 yards and two touchdowns (both to Tipton) with ten completions on 14 attempts. Freshman (early enrolee) Davis Beville completed 13 passes on 17 attempts for 157 yards.

“I’ve been impressed all spring with Coach Whipple and Chris Beatty (the new wide receivers coach) and what they brought to the game,” Narduzzi said. “Our intentions going into the spring and coming out of the spring was to improve our passing game. We wanted to take more shots.”

However, the running game netted only 11 yards rushing in the Blue Gold Game. The Panthers do not return a starting running back from last season. Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall both moved on after each rushing for over a thousand yards last year.

Pitt starts next season with a bang by hosting ACC foe Virginia at Heinz Field on Aug. 31. Besides re-tooling the linebacking corps and offensive line, the running backs’ performance will no doubt be a focus during the fall’s preseason camp.