Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi felt close to his roots when he was named Pittsburgh’s new head coach in late December, recruited in the winter and ran his team through spring drills.
Now summer is turning to fall camps. And when the Atlantic Coast Conference staged its media days at the sleepy North Carolina resort town of Pinehurst, Narduzzi must have looked around and said, “We’re not in the Big Ten anymore.”
Narduzzi grew up 70 miles from Pittsburgh in another rust belt steel town, Youngstown, Ohio. The area and Pennsylvania in general has fed talent to the Big Ten for decades. Pitt may be located in the Allegheny Mountains, but the Panthers at their heart identify with the Midwestern style football of the Big Ten.
Pittsburgh’s program has fallen on mediocre times while not living up to that style since the days of Heisman Trophy winning running back Tony Dorsett, so Narduzzi’s task is to adapt his Big Ten-tested scheming to the ACC, where they fling the ball around in spread offenses. The ACC’s last three Heisman winners were Florida State quarterbacks, Jameis Winston, 2013; Chris Weinke, 2000; and Charlie Ward, 1993.
Can you name a recent bruising running back from the ACC?
Actually, yes, and James Conner plays for Pitt, although it should be noted the Panthers are beginning only their third year in the ACC since leaving the Big East. Connor was the ACC Offensive Player of the Year as a sophomore last season with 298 carries for 1,725 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Narduzzi’s focus is defense, but a workhorse running back was part of the Michigan State blueprint that he has brought with him. He referenced Conner’s role with Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ big back that was drafted out of Michigan State.
“We’re going to give the guy the rock,” Narduzzi said at ACC Media Days. “Le’Veon Bell had I think 390 carries one year, his junior year before he got drafted by the Steelers. So if you have a guy that can carry the rock and he’s hot, you’re going to keep giving it to him. We have a stable of running backs we have a lot of confidence in.
“When it’s their time to show, where we need them, they’ll be ready to roll. But you’re not worried about it. You have Player of the Year in the ACC, which I’d be really worried about as far as carrying the ball. That’s what tailbacks want to do. He’d be disappointed and saddened if I said we need to give somebody else some more rushing yards. I want to give him more passing yards.”
Pitt has a returning starting quarterback to throw the ball. Chad Voytik, a redshirt junior, completed 176-of-287 passes for 2,233 yards with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“From my first phone call to him in January, to every meeting I’ve had with Chad, the first thing I’d say, if you said give me one word, it’s leader,” Narduzzi said. “Morning workouts at 5:30 in the morning, there is probably not a more impressive player as far as a leader and competitor. So if I want a guy to touch the ball, it’s that guy. I’m happy with that ball being able to touch that his hands every snap coming from the center. He’s a competitor, going to do everything it takes to win.”
Pitt finished 6-7 with a loss to Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl last year and 7-6 with a win over Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl two seasons ago in the Panthers’ first two ACC campaigns. Narduzzi, the Frank Broyles national assistant coach of the year in 2013, believes his Big Ten defensive fundamentals have been proven against the spread. Michigan State’s defense ranked eighth in the nation last year in total defense.
“I think our defense is built to stop spread offenses,” he said. “It’s something we’ve had a lot of success at doing through the years.”
Yes, Narduzzi feels at home in the Allegheny Mountains, where he is not far from the heart of the Big Ten. The rookie head coach turned down other opportunities to wear the golden whistle until he felt he found the right fit.
“There wasn’t any doubt, I knew Pitt was the one,” Narduzzi said. “It’s got everything. I think you’ve got the ability to do big things here. There couldn’t have been a better fit.”