First of all, apologies for this coming up as late as it is. Pitt's media day Tuesday went swimmingly, but it didn't end until about 5 p.m., after which I went home, transcribed quotes for hours and pieced together a couple of stories for today's paper. Unfortunately, that left no time to throw together a blog going over all the day's festivities...which brings us to where we are now.
The assembled media got the opportunity to meet with a gaggle of Pitt players and coaches yesterday, including a 20-or-so-minute press conference with Pat Narduzzi. Below are some select quotes and a few scattered notes from that day, as well as a few comments from Narduzzi before today's practice.
On the coaches' relationship with players heading into year two:
“I go back and quote Lee Tressel – they don’t know care how much you know as a football coach until they know how much you care. Our players have seen ‘Hey, these coaches care about us.’ They’re going to stick around.”
On the ability of freshmen to pick up concepts:
“Even some of our freshmen did some stuff today that I was like…I mean, Bricen Garner and Damar Hamlin made a call today and they picked it up like that [snapped fingers]. They understand. They’ve been well coached over at Central Catholic. Seeing them pick it up like that in the second day of shorts was quite amazing.”
“I think we’ve got a bigger, faster, stronger football team, but I think we definitely have a smarter football team. As a football coach, when you can walk in that classroom and you can talk shop with those guys and they understand the language and the verbage, then you’ve got a chance.”
On depth at certain positions:
“We’ve got more competition. When you look at the linebacking core, we’re much deeper. There’s a big competition going on out there at the star position right now. We know Bam can go on the boundary. He’s over there fighting with Elijah and Sean Idowu and Jalen Williams and Anthony McKee. There are some players we didn’t have a year ago that are plugging up holes. At the defensive end spot, we’ve got more playmakers. Last year against Iowa, we didn’t get a rush. Three of the last six plays of that game were quarterback scrambles for yardage that got them to that 50-something-yard field goal. We’ve got more guys who are going to make a play. If Juan Price is on the field at that point, I think it ends in a different way. We do have more guys I think can make those plays.”
On new offensive coordinator Matt Canada:
“Whether it’s [Jim] Chaney or Canada, we have a relationship. I don’t really see it a whole lot different from what it was a year ago. We have our philosophies on what we want to do. When you hire a guy, you have the same philosophies. We just happened to hire a guy I knew a little bit better than the last guy. Matt’s an unbelievable guy. He has a great rapport with the kids. He’s very positive, very energetic. He’s got a great mind. I think you’ll see that come Sept. 3.”
On how much he as a head coach involves himself with the offense:
“I’m going to leave it to him. No one messed with me. Any time you’ve got someone in your ear telling you what to write, you start to second-guess yourself and then you’ve got problems. Then he can always point the finger and say ‘Hey, it’s your fault.’. Matt Canada, Josh Conklin and Andre Powell, as our special teams coordinator, are all capable of making that call. That’s what they do every day. It’s what they prepare for.”
On "The Pursuit":
“It’s just something that we came up with. As a staff, we sit there, we think and try to put words together. Last year, it was ‘Earn the Jersey’. You had to earn the jersey you were wearing and earn the right to wear that Pitt and your name on the back of the jersey. I think they’ve owned that. It’s a lingo we wanted to use and give kids a catchphrase for what we’re doing.”
On how realistic he believes his goal of an ACC division title is:
“I don’t know. I think it’s really realistic. If we don’t think that’s realistic, we’ve got major issues. Anything you want to do, you better put your name on it and you better say you’re going to do it. We were six points away from it last year. I don’t know where you thought we were a year ago, but we were six points away from being in the championship three years ago against Clemson.”
“If you look at the Coastal Division the last three years, there have been three different teams. When I look at it, I say we’re just as good as any of those teams in that championship. We’d like to be there. That’s the goal. That’s the pursuit.”
“Anywhere I’ve ever been, we’ve talked about doing it right now. That’s kind of our attitude.”
On where the team needs to develop more depth:
“Right now, I’d probably say d[efensive] tackle. We’ve got to develop more depth there. One year ago, we were light on d end and we were trying to develop some guys and it took too long.”
On holding practices and scrimmages at Heinz Field:
“When you’re at home, you have to practice in that facility. It’s got to be your home. When you say home, what is home? It’s the place you go every night and put your head on the pillow, right? When you talk about a facility and talk about home, it’s putting your feet and cleats on that field. It’s actually playing the game. We had a great opportunity last spring to get in there, I think three times, which was three more than the spring we had before. Our guys have a little bit more of an idea of what we have to do in that facility.”
On how he prevents the Penn State game from lingering too much on players' minds:
“We keep our guys grounded and focused on what we really need to do.”
On the wide receivers:
“They know who they are. They’re run next to each other, they’ve lived next to each other, they’ve hung out on a Thursday night next to each other. They know what the competition is. They do have a chip on their shoulder. They hear people talk about ‘Hey, we lost Tyler Boyd. Who do we have left?’ I think everybody in their right mind should want to be that guy, that next guy who’s going to get the rock. We’ve got to find those guys and I think we’ve got plenty of playmakers out there.”
On Bam Bradley moving from money linebacker to star linebacker:
“It’s not a big adjustment. You’re playing in more space. There are more receivers out there and more area and you’ve got to make more tackles in space. It takes a little better athlete. Bam has really worked his tail off to be a guy out there.”
** In addition to Dewayne Hendrix, he expects James Folston and Rori Blair to provide depth and extra starpower at linebacker to help out Ejuan Price.
** Mike Herndon was moved from offensive line to defensive tackle to help depth at that position.
** Dontez Ford is the leader among the wide receivers.
As for everything from before today's practice...
** Pitt will still hold practices and scrimmages at Heinz Field during training camp. "We're still working on the dates."
On whether there's a certain moment in training camp when he realizes freshmen are ready to play:
“From day one, you see guys do things and you get excited about it. Today’s another day where you’ll find out, just because there’s a little more contact than there was the past two days. Then there’s that point where they may hit the wall. You think ‘Wow, they’re going to play’ and then they hit a wall mentally and fall apart. If the wheels fall off that car, you’ve got a problem there. It’s a process and it’s never going to happen just like that.”
On what makes Dewayne Hendrix a good fit for his defense:
“It’s not about the defense; it’s about the player. Dewayne would fit into a lot of defenses. It’s not just our defense. He’d fit in anywhere in the country. Number one, he’s a fun kid to coach. He’s a super kid. He pays attention to coaching. He was the first one on the bus this morning at the dorm. I was walking out with him at whatever time it was, like 5:50. He’s out there ready to go. He’s the first one over here. Why’s he over here? Because he cares. He’s just a fun guy to coach. And obviously, he’s a talented player. He’s big, strong and physical. But he hasn’t made a tackle for the Pitt Panthers yet. There’s still a lot to prove for him.”
On Zack Gilbert and the other players who are out with medical ailments:
“Everyone of our kids has been great attitude wise. We have coaches around them every day. They’re still engaged, still part of our family. You have to treat it like it’s a knee injury or an elbow injury or a head injury. He’s got an issue we were able to catch thanks to our medical staff. You can look at it in a bunch of different ways. You talk about that attitude, about being thankful and blessed we found out about the situation before it was too late.”
On how they were tipped off to these conditions:
“We’ve been doing this EKG and ECHO for 12 years now. It’s the first time we found anything. You don’t anticipate it. There was nothing on the field where you said conditioning was an issue. George Hill ran a 4.4 [40-yard dash]. There was nothing that made you say…every one of our kids go through that process. Every athlete at the University of Pittsburgh goes through that process. A lot of places don’t do that. I think it’s something the NCAA needs to make sure everybody does just to save lives.”
KEVIN SHERMAN, WIDE RECEIVERS COACH
On his group of players:
“I think we have a talented group. I just don’t think we have an experienced group.”
“It remains to be seen who is going to separate themselves and who is going to take their game to the next level. There are a decent number of guys who are capable of doing that and we have three and a half weeks to figure it out.”
On how outside doubt surrounding the receivers motivates them:
“They’re very hungry, I can tell you that. I remind them every day. People want to know. This is all we’ve got. I ask them every day ‘Who’s going to be the next great receiver in this room?’ I want them to think about that. Who’s going to go out there and separate themselves and be the next great receiver?’
On the depth of his unit:
“That’s the thing. We’re a different team than we were last year. We’re a different offense. We’ve got a lot of different guys that bring a lot of different things to the table. We’re untapped. I’m really excited about this group, to see how they grow, develop and gel as a group in the next three weeks. I really like their attitude, effort and willingness. They’re hungry, I can tell you that. People are questioning them, but that’s part of life. We have to go out and do our job.”
On receivers' chemistry with quarterback Nate Peterman:
“That’s something we’re still working on. We’ve improved on it from the spring and summer. But you throw in three new freshmen and the chemistry and timing and everything is still a little off. We’re getting there. Nate has confidence in our guys. With Dontez, Quadree and Jester, he’s pretty comfortable with those guys, and Zach, as well. We’re just trying to find five or six guys who can be consistent and do it on every play.”
** Outside of Dontez Ford and Quadree Henderson, he said Rafael Lopes, Jester Weah and Tre Tipton have really stood out to him.
** Sherman mentioned that, while they're young, he has two "monster-type guys" in freshmen Aaron Mathews and Ruben Flowers, aka big, physical wideouts.
On how tired they are of hearing questions about the wide receivers in wake of Tyler Boyd's departure:
“I know what we’re capable of. We have receivers who can go out there and make plays. We can go out there and make it happen.”
“I feel like there are a million other things I could be worried about other than what someone thinks I’m capable of or our receivers are capable of. We know what we’re capable of. We’re the ones here putting in all the work. The coaches know what we’re capable of. They trust us to go out there and make it happen.”
“What really matters is we’re going to have to bring in some wins to this program. It just isn’t about how we can replace Tyler. Can we get to a better bowl game? Can we win more games? Can we put Pitt back on the map? That’s the focus.”
On the transition to new coordinator Matt Canada:
“It’s pretty similar. It’s going to be that way with different coordinators. They’re going to have to utilize the talent we have and that’s what they’ve been doing, figuring out what certain guys can do. That way they can move guys around to different places and get the ball to players who should have it in their hands.”
On where the receivers are with Nate Peterman:
“We made a ton of progress throughout the spring and summer workouts, especially the summer. We’re out there running through our offense. Everyone is studying hard and learning different schemes. As a unit, we’re a lot further ahead with this new offense than we were going into the bowl game last year.”
On how much motivation comes from doubt:
“We all believe in ourselves and we know what we’re capable of doing, as individuals and a group. You’re not going to be here at the University of Pittsburgh if you don’t want to get better every day. Every one of us wants to get better every day. We’re all self motivated.”
On new offensive coordinator Matt Canada:
“Canada obviously brings a different urgency to the offense, with a more upbeat personality.”
JOSH CONKLIN, DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
On getting more players involved in the pass rush:
“The biggest concern for us that we’d like to get ironed out is we’d like to get a little four-man pressure. We’d like to be able to get some guys more involved. When you have an addition like Dewayne Hendrix at defensive end, who has some pass-rushing ability, and a guy like Allen Edwards, that will allow you to free up Juan Price and let you do some different things and try to create some mismatches on the offensive line. We’re looking at some different personnel groupings and all of that stuff right now. You would like to free up some guys and not make yourself one-dimensional by just having a handful of guys that can get pressure.”
On Dewayne Hendrix:
“Obviously it’s based on practice right now, but we have some high expectations. As the season goes on, he’ll only get better.”
“He was in a position before that just wasn’t a good fit for him. This was kind of a restart. It was a new start. I think he has enjoyed that and enjoys our style of defense. I feel like, for him, being able to come out and do the things he needs to do. He has been productive in practice; now it’s time to be productive in a game. That’s only going to add to his leadership moving forward. He has a strong presence in that room right now, which is encouraging to see.”
On how unique that is to see those qualities from a relative newcomer like Hendrix:
“Because he hasn’t played a lot of reps, he’s handled it the right way. It’s not like he came in and thought he was the guy. He went down to the scout team and just did his deal for the whole fall. He came into spring ball and didn’t expect to have a job. He just kept working. He was looking at this year, for him, as his year to get back in the game and really start to establish his mark at Pitt and have a breakout year the year after.”
On altering the pressure the defense applies this season:
“I think we ran too much pressure last year. We’ve got to do a better job of pulling in what we want to run. We’ve actually scaled it back a little bit, especially these last two days and last spring, of really getting to the basics as far as our base defense and fundamentals and techniques and getting everybody sharp on all of that just so we’re a little more comfortable with our base defense.”
On the progress he sees from year one to year two in his defense:
“People don’t want to hear this from the outside because people want results right now, but it’s simple – the consistency within a staff, having all your coaches there, really allows you to be able to develop all the skills you have within each coverage, with each technique and with the fundamentals of a given skill set. To me, it’s huge. You’ll see a marked improvement, maybe not from the naked eye, but from the coaching staff, we’re seeing major improvements already in day two, even from where we were in the spring. The progression with where we’re at right now is pretty good, but the expectation is for us to be a lot tighter and for us to play our defense a lot cleaner than it was last year. That’s just the knowledge, that just takes time. That takes guys getting a lot of reps at it.”
** Because Pitt will be facing a lot of spread teams this season, he plans on implementing something he used while at The Citadel, which was using hockey-style substitutions for his defensive line.
“We kind of want to do that as much as we can because there isn’t a big drop off between the ones and the twos. We want to get fresh guys out there so they can play hard and play fast. This is going to be a huge part of it. These teams want to go fast and take a lot of plays. It just adds up over the course of time.”
On "The Pursuit":
“It’s about being the best you can be every single day. The Pursuit is more about, when we walk out of the locker room and we see that sign, taking that attitude to practice and letting all those pieces come together so we can finally get to the point we want to be.”
On the adjustment to Pat Narduzzi and Josh Conklin's defense last season:
“The system itself wasn’t too difficult. We play a pretty simple defense. They just try to get us in the best position to make plays. They want us to be able to use our athletic ability. It’s really not too complicated. We have a few different things we do that we try to do really well.”
On how realistic he believes "The Pursuit" is:
“It’s 100 percent realistic. There’s no reason why we can’t shut down any team in any league right now. We’re confident on defense and over on offense, I know they’re ready.”
“With [Paul] Chryst, I feel like he was scared to say it. Last year, coach Narduzzi came in and was like ‘We’re here, we’re ready to win and we’re just going to get after it’.”
On the aggressive mindset of the coaching staff:
“We truly believe we can win and we’re going to win. At this point, it’s not even them telling us. I feel like every player on the team believes we’re going to go get it this year.”
On having a year of experience in the defensive system:
“The biggest difference is the comfort level, not only with the players, but with another year of getting to know the coaches. We’re 100 percent bought in. I think everybody is on the same page.”
“They’re a really diverse group of coaches. They put their best athletes in the positions where they do things well to make plays. They’re not stubborn. If you say you’re a speedy edge guy, they’ll put you in positions where you can be a speedy edge guy. That’s what I like.”
On how difficult it was to see the news of Justin Moody's career-ending injury:
“It’s very difficult. You know how the schedules work. We do everything together. I see them all day every day and even outside of practice, we’re hanging out. When I see a guy I’ve grown to love like Justin Moody, in a situation like that, it definitely weighs on me. I’ve got strong faith. Even though it’s looking grim for them at the moment, out of my faith, I think he’ll play again. I’m not going to give up on him that quickly. I’m hoping, in some type of way, he’ll make a comeback whenever his time is due.”
“They don’t have to get reintroduced to anything because they never left. They might not practice, but if you look out there at practice, they’re all out there. We’re not missing them because they didn’t go anywhere. Their role might be a little different, but as far as that goes, they know they’re a part of the team, we love them and they love us back. There’s not much lacking there.”
On how much credence players give to mantras like "The Pursuit":
“I think players really do take a lot of pride in it. It’s not even just coaches that come up with something. Coach Narduzzi is always asking the players for input.”
On how his life has changed since his freshman season and dealing with fame on campus:
“You don’t want to brag about that, but that’s cool for somebody to know who you are. If somebody asks me to take 20 seconds out of my day, I do it.”
** When I asked him what drives him after such an impressive debut season, Whitehead said it's things like watch lists. He hadn't heard of the Jim Thorpe Award until he appeared on the watch list for it. Now, that helps push him.
“That right there makes me want to get there. Whenever I work and I feel a little lazy, I think of the Jim Thorpe Award or something like that.”
** There's "no pain" in the knee he had surgically repaired in June. He's all good.
On the coaching staff setting bold preseason goals and how that compares with the previous staff:
“If you don’t speak something into existence, then it’s not going to happen. If you have a mindset of ‘Well, I hope it happens’ or ‘I’d love for it to happen’ but you don’t really say ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it and this is the work we’re going to put in to get there’ I don’t feel like it becomes real. With him setting these goals and making them firm to the media, it’s like ‘Okay, now that I’ve said this, it’s what we want. Now we have to go get it’. It gives us a hungry mindset to go chase our team goals.”
** He said the transition from money linebacker to star linebacker hasn't been too difficult. The main difference, Bradley said, is that the star goes to field, money goes to boundary. The star sees more two-wideout, three-wideout sets while the money sees it a whole lot less. Against Iowa, for example, they’d be in the box doing the exact same thing, but with the spread teams, the star has more space to cover.