Pitt football head coach Pat Narduzzi has developed quite the resume as a defensive specialist. After losing several valuable contributors from last year’s stout Panther defense, Narduzzi has a chance this year to prove his coaching prowess by overcoming adversity to produce one of the nation’s strongest defenses in 2020.
After a slow start in his first two seasons as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, Narduzzi took a leap forward in the 2006 season. The Bearcats posted an 8-5 record, despite an ineffective offense, thanks in large part to Narduzzi’s defense holding opponents to 19.6 points per game.
As defensive coordinator at Michigan State, Narduzzi built a defensive juggernaut. His squad gave up 13.2 points per game in 2013, the third lowest of any FBS team, earning Narduzzi the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. Since he became Pitt’s head coach in 2015, Narduzzi’s defense has become better every year.
Building off of a 2019 season that saw the Panthers emerge as one of the ACC’s toughest tests on a weekly basis seemed inevitable. Pitt would bring back more talent than it lost, and their top weapons would only develop even more over the offseason. But two key losses in August changed the narrative of Pitt’s defense heading into its Sept. 12 season opener against Austin Peay.
Pitt defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman haunted ACC offenses the entire 2019 season. His 10.5 sacks, 41 tackles and 12 tackles for loss earned him All-American honors, with heavy expectations for his 2020 season. But Twyman announced in August his decision to opt out of the season to declare for the 2021 NFL draft, leaving Pitt without its best player.
“This isn’t about COVID-19,” Twyman said in a statement he posted on Twitter. “This is about my family’s needs, now and in the future.”
Narduzzi immediately pointed to players that could potentially help fill Twyman’s role.
“We’ve got depth on the d-line,” Narduzzi said. “It’s just another one of those ‘Hey. I got an opportunity.’ Look what Deslin [Alexandre] did with his opportunity last year. Look what Patrick Jones did with his opportunity.”
Narduzzi, a self-proclaimed optimist, isn’t blindly trusting his team’s depth here. Pitt lost junior defensive end Rashad Weaver to a torn ACL weeks before the 2019 season kicked off, and junior defensive tackle Keyshon Camp in the first game. Did Pitt’s defensive front crumble afterwards? They did the opposite, exceeding any expectations placed on them even before Weaver’s injury, finishing with 51 sacks to lead the nation.
Pitt returns Weaver and Camp healthy this year, as well as preseason Bednarik Award candidate Patrick Jones II, so they still have multiple explosive pass rushers capable of a leading role. Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Devin Danielson, someone Narduzzi has frequently brought up in this summer’s press conferences, appears to have the power to take advantage of the opportunity in Twyman’s absence.
As Pitt’s defensive front worked to overcome their loss, the secondary took a lethal blow. Pitt announced a season-ending “non-football” injury to senior cornerback Damarri Mathis last week.
Mathis, who started in 10 of Pitt’s 13 contests in 2019, played a huge role in a secondary whose 16.1% forced incompletion rate ranked second in the nation last year.
“We are certainly disappointed for Damarri,” Narduzzi said. “Fortunately, he still has a redshirt season available in addition to the eligibility relief the NCAA will provide this year.”
Without Mathis, Narduzzi will have to dig deep into a position in which Pitt lacks experienced depth. Marquis Williams looks to be next in line at the cornerback position, but he’s only played in 12 games for Pitt, mostly in a special teams role. Suddenly, Pitt’s defensive back situation appears much less reliable than last year.
Pitt’s defense has made this year’s goal clear. Last year they emerged as one of the nation’s best units, and this time around they want the top spot.
“We wanted to be a top-10 last year, now we want to be the number one this year,” Weaver said. “That’s always the goal. If you aren’t trying to be the best, then what are you out there working for, honestly?”
Narduzzi’s defense has used injuries and setbacks as motivation to defy expectations in years past. We’ll see how they respond to their latest blows when they take the field Sept. 12.
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