Pittsburgh has a two-fold objective at quarterback this spring: work on identifying a starter while also building depth.
In that regard, coach Pat Narduzzi feels his team is in a much better place than at any point since his arrival in late 2014. During a recent phone conversation, he recalled his first spring practice as Pitt head coach in 2015. The Panthers had only two scholarship quarterbacks: returning starter Chad Voytik and 2014 signee Adam Bertke.
Once Nathan Peterman and Ben DiNucci arrived on campus later that year, the numbers went back up. But they had fluctuated over the last two years, after Voytik and Bertke both transferred. Now this spring, Pitt has four scholarship quarterbacks taking snaps: transfer Max Browne, along with DiNucci, Thomas MacVittie and early enrollee Kenny Pickett.
It’s one thing to be on scholarship, of course. It’s another to have the experience to be able to play. And that’s what Pittsburgh found out in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl to end last season. Peterman took every single meaningful snap in 2016, mostly because Pitt was involved in so many close games.
When he got hurt in the bowl game, DiNucci came in. He threw two interceptions and finished 3-of-9 for 16 yards in the 31-24 loss to Northwestern. Peterman threw every other pass that season.
“We’ve got more quarterbacks that can actually get in a game and maybe do something. Last year, we were just too young,” Narduzzi said. “What happened to us in the bowl game, we didn’t have another guy to put in there once Nathan went down. Our backup comes in and throws two picks, so it’s a problem where you can’t play a backup all year, and he gets thrown in a big bowl game and doesn’t get it done.”
One more plus to the four scholarships sharing the reps during spring practice: they are evenly spaced out, class-wise. Browne is a senior; DiNucci is a redshirt sophomore; MacVittie is a redshirt freshman and Pickett is a true freshman.
That is the type of set-up that is ideal for any position, most especially quarterback. While it is true Pitt has relied heavily on transfers to fill the void over the last several seasons, the hope is that coaching stability will now lead to more recruiting successes and players being developed in the program.
Part of the reason Pitt was so devoid of quarterbacks when Narduzzi arrived was because of the revolving door at quarterback.
Remember, Voytik was recruited by an entirely different coach when he came to Pitt, then played for two others. Peterman was brought on board as a transfer to create competition and depth. He took the starting job from Voytik a few games into 2015, but depth was hampered again when Voytik decided to transfer at the end of that season.
Headed into 2016, there was an abundance of quarterbacks in the meeting room (including transfers Manny Stocker and Bo Schneider). But MacVittie was redshirting and DiNucci was coming off a redshirt season himself. It became clear during practice that Peterman was the only quarterback reliable enough to take snaps in a game, especially considering Pitt played in seven games decided by a score or less. Even before the bowl game, Pitt went after Browne to help solidify the position with a player that had some game and starting experience.
Even if Browne wins the starting job, he will only be at Pitt for a year and the Panthers need to solidify their future at a position that has lacked stability and depth. Peterman and Tom Savage before him ended up being NFL-caliber players. Moving forward, it would be ideal for Pitt not to have to rely so much on the transfer route for the quality it desires at the position.