CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Pitt defensive end Ejuan Price tilted his head back and broke into a hearty chuckle over the latest story he was told about the passion of Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi.
Price was seated at a table in a conference room for the ACC Kickoff media days last week at the Westin Charlotte. He had just learned that Narduzzi, Pitt’s second-year head coach, was famous as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator for coming down from the press box to the sidelines in the fourth quarter. He zeroed in players that weren’t performing and rattled their cages.
“Compared to the last couple guys we had that were laid back, he’s amped up all the time,” said Price, referring to former head coaches Paul Chryst and Todd Graham. “The difference has definitely been night and day. He’s a loud talker and high-energy guy. At 6:30 in the morning he’s yelling at the top of his lungs – in a good way, though – at team meetings. That is definitely a wakeup call.”
The Panthers have been spared the scene of a riled up Narduzzi descending from the press box, but that’s only because he’s already on the sidelines as the head coach. The players still feel his wrath when necessary.
“He preaches to us be ready when the gates open, but he’s definitely there for us if we need it,” Price said. “His background is defense, so he’s still in our ears, even though he’s not the defensive coordinator.”
Narduzzi takes in stride the Michigan State stories that make their way back to Pittsburgh.
“I have to stay on the sidelines now instead of coming down for the fourth quarter,” he said. “I really didn’t have to adapt. If you change who you are, then you have problems. You have to be who you are.”
They’re starting to feel they have the right coach in place at Pitt following an 8-5 season that was the Panthers’ most victories since 2010. Pitt was picked third in the ACC Coastal behind North Carolina and Miami in the voting the ACC media.
Prior to Narduzzi, the Panthers hovered around .500. Graham stayed one year (6-7 in 2011) before he left for Arizona State. Chryst stayed three seasons (6-7, 2012; 7-6, 2013; and 6-7, 2014) before he returned to Wisconsin.
Narduzzi certainly came along at the right time for Price, who was granted a sixth-year medical redshirt season in 2016. He played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2011, but then he missed all of the 2012 and 2014 seasons with injuries. He also only played in six games in 2013.
In the 6-foot, 255-pounder’s first season playing under Narduzzi’s attacking defensive scheme, he led the ACC and was eighth in the nation in sacks with 11.5. He also had 19.5 tackles for a loss and a 32-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Price is excited about his second season under Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin as one of eight returning defensive starters. Pitt finished with 37 sacks in 2015, nearly doubling the 2014 total of 19.
“We’re definitely a Narduzzi-type defense in our second year,” Price said. “We’re up tempo; we’re a confident group. He has rubbed off on us.
“We want to be the best team we can be. With talent we have, we have a shot to win every game, in my opinion. But you’ve got to put the work from Sunday to Saturday. If we put in the work, we should be good.”
A secondary that handles one-on-one coverage to free up defenders to blitz is key to Narduzzi’s scheme. The Panthers return three secondary starters: junior cornerback Avonte Maddox, sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead and senior safety Terrish Webb.
Maddox was honorable mention All-ACC and Whitehead third-team All-ACC choice and the Overall and Defensive Freshman of the Year.
But Narduzzi demands a tough personality to complement talent.
“I say this all the time: Football is a tough game played by tough individuals,” he said. “Pittsburgh is a tough city. It’s one of the reasons I took this job. It’s a tough city. Our kids have that blue collar mentality.”
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