Pitt looks poised for big strides this spring

Over the next few weeks, we'll be chatting with each ACC coach to go over the highs and lows of 2017 and take a look at what's in store for spring practice and the season ahead.

Next up, Pitt's Pat Narduzzi, whose Panthers missed a bowl game but enter 2018 with a bit of momentum from a strong finish.

Did it feel like the season ended too soon -- literally and figuratively, given the way you were playing down the stretch?

Narduzzi: Any time you don't get to go to a bowl game - I've been to a bowl every year since 2002 except two years. I think 2005 was the last time I'd not been to a bowl game. But we made strides throughout the year. Young football team, and it's amazing how young we were to start the season off, and three of our older guys were one-year grad transfers. It's amazing where we came from, but we had a lot of young guys grow up.

Obviously it starts at that quarterback position. When you play three quarterbacks throughout the year, you're going to have problems. I think we settled on a guy with Kenny Pickett at the end of the year that gives everyone great optimism. People are talking about how we've never had a guy be a three-year starter, and right now as spring ball approaches, it looks like we have an opportunity to do that.

Turning the reins over to Kenny was a process. What went into that, and what did you see from him when he was out there that offers so much encouragement?

Narduzzi: We knew he was a very talented quarterback coming out of camp. We had a grad transfer in Max Browne come in, so we thought we had an older guy with some experience. But when he went down and got hurt against Syracuse, as I looked at him and tried to put his shoulder back in place, and he's screaming, I'm thinking, for us to win, we had to play Kenny Pickett eventually. But we had to get him off the scout team and get him some reps. He played some against NC State the next weekend and they blitzed him about every down. We needed to find out where he was. Shawn Watson did an unbelievable job with his development from the day he arrived. Kenny, physically could probably do anything we wanted the offense to do a year ago, but we knew he'd be a lot better as the year went on. We didn't want to put him out there too soon and destroy his confidence. We wanted to be careful how we did it, and I think it all worked out the right way. Wins and losses, it didn't. But for the future, we did it the right way.

And he was close to being 3-0 over that final run.

Narduzzi: You look at our last three games, and we should've won the North Carolina game, and we fumbled at the 1. They returned it 60-some yards and kick a field goal. We go to Virginia Tech to play, and Kenny in a 2-minute situation, throws to Jester Weah, who peaks back just enough to get taken down at the 1. We had four downs from the 1 to win the game and either one of those games, we win and we're in a bowl game. But with a freshman quarterback, I think the future looks bright.

The struggles of the running game at times were really the biggest departure from traditional Pitt football. How's the backfield shape up for 2018?

Narduzzi: Our backfield is looking really good. Darrin Hall returns, and I think offensive football starts with running the ball. There was a time in the middle of the season where we couldn't run it like we wanted to. We went back to basics and got it cleaned up. That happens sometimes with a new coordinator where you're still figuring out who you are and what you can do. We've figured that out, and that will go a long way in 2018. I'm happy with where our backfield is right now. Qadree Ollison. A.J. Davis has a ton of potential. And Mychale Salahuddin, he just adds to it. We weren't just going to take a guy. We were going to take a great one, and I think we got a great one.

There were some real struggles with the pass rush, but you return two fifth-year seniors on the line. Could that weakness turn into a strength for 2018?

Narduzzi: It starts with continuity at coaching, and we brought in Charlie Partridge, who has done a great job at developing who we have in that room. As the season went on, if you look by quarters, the first three games vs. the last three, there was a lot of headway we made. Dewayne Hendrix, James Folston -- they got better. We were just talking about how we need to get more sacks, and I think with those guys, things are certainly looking up. And depth-wise, I think it's as strong as I've seen a unit in my last 10 years of coaching. I feel really good with the guys we have in that room. And defensive line, I think can be a strength for us next year.

You have more veteran experience on the line, but looking at the secondary, there's a lot of young talent that, if it develops, that looks like it could be a really good group.

Narduzzi: We've got to progress, and a new secondary coach and a new defensive coordinator. But we only lost one DB in Avonte Maddox to graduation. A very talented kid. But we lose him, and he was the heart and leader of our defense. We lost Jordan Whitehead who left early for the draft. But our depth at linebacker is much better, and with Dane Jackson and Damarri Mathis, and we brought in four corners who I think have a potential to come in and play for us. We'll find out which ones. Will it be one or two of those four? We can bring two along that can help us next year as well.

How about Paris Ford? He came in late and redshirted. How did he progress away from game days?

Narduzzi: He's so happy he redshirted. He wanted to play so bad during the season. He was in my office all season saying, 'Coach, come on, let's go. I'm ready.' And then after the season, he said, 'Coach, I'm so glad I didn't play.' He's going to be a great player for us. In practice, at punt return, kick return, playing on scout defense, he gave everyone chest pains with what he can do, how much energy he has. He plays with an attitude that will help the entire defense be better.

And the other guy back there that really had a great year that is really getting his first offseason is Damar Hamlin. He'll come into the season as a starter at free safety. He's smart. He's had some injury problems and really didn't practice much even in preseason camp, but he's having a great offseason and we expect big things from Damar.