I know there’s more to the program than what happens on draft day, but what would it mean if, like some people are saying, you have nine guys drafted over that weekend?
Narduzzi: That would be unbelievable. It’s all about developing players. Our coaches do a heck of a job teaching our kids and we’ve done a great job recruiting them. So it’s a point of respect for our program and what we’ve done, as far as players. Certainly, you’d like to have a lot more Aaron Donald’s, but we’ve got a great group of players that worked out today. 16 of them; I was just as impressed with our ’19 guys and what they did. I think it’s even harder coming from 2019 and coming here a year later and doing a great job. I mean, Amir Watts was impressive, I thought. I think Amir Watts is going to be in a camp.
That’s why you coach: to give these kids an opportunity at the next level, and it would be a great credit to our recruiting department and our coaching staff and everything we do here at the University of Pittsburgh.
How was it having Jaylen and Paris back around the facility and around the guys and in that atmosphere?
Narduzzi: It was awesome. It was great to every one of those guys back. Those guys are family, they’re guys we love and it was great to Saleem Brightwell, everybody back. I don’t know how often it happens – I had a few scouts talk to me today, they didn’t go to any other pro days and have the ’19 guys have an opportunity to be at Pro Day. That’s the family we have. Whether they played last season or not, whether they opted out or not, it doesn’t matter. They’re ours, they’re our kids, they’re our players and they’re forever Panthers.
With Jaylen’s 40 on the bench, were you surprised at all by that?
Narduzzi: Well, the bench didn’t surprise me at all. It all depends on trainers. He’s been away from us for a year. I can’t say I’m shocked by it. I think it was a slow turf. I think if you guys walked out there and stepped on that turf and probably stand there for a lot longer than you could in the past. I think it was a slow turf, so I think anybody that ran a 4.6 or a 4.45 might have possibly run a 4.3. So I think it was a slow surface because it’s really soft. But it comes down to being a football player. I think the tape will speak for itself. I know everybody loves to have the 40 time and the vertical and all of those and the bench press, but when Jaylen went through and ran through the defensive line drills with Coach Partridge and Joe Cullen of the Jaguars, that’s what he does: he’s a football player.
Two questions: the first one is, how much do you as a coaching staff take pride in the fact that, of these guys who are probably going to get drafted, very few of them were seen when they came in as ‘can’t-miss’ – you know, you don’t have any five-star guys, maybe a couple like Paris and Damar who were four-star guys, but some of these other guys were a lot less heralded and you’ve been able to get the best out of them and put them in position to succeed. And second, how much do you feel like your position alongside the Steelers helps prepare your guys for the NFL?
Narduzzi: I’ll start with the last part of that question. I don’t know if the Steelers are going to help get your guys ready for the NFL. It’s nice to look over there – sometimes I think it makes your guys start to drift over to, ‘Hey I want to be over there playing with them’ instead of locked in to what they should be doing that’s going to get you there. So to me, it’s a great scene. Coach Tomlin’s my favorite NFL head coach. That guy’s the guy, and happy birthday to him this week. But it’s not going to develop them. What develops them is our coaches, our players and our system, and I think that’s the important thing. And again, I’ve said this every recruiting year, we talk about, oh we got a great recruiting class and all of that; it doesn’t matter, okay? It’s, how hard are they going to work, how coachable are they, how knowledgeable are they? And that will take you the long run. I’d rather have that smart guy that’s going to play the right way and he’ll play in the NFL because he does all the little things right, as opposed to the five-star guy that’s not going to do all the detail things right. But our coaches develop our players and our system and our culture develop our players to go to the NFL. That’s my goal as a head football coach. You’d like to win every football game, but ultimately you want to try to give these kids opportunities. That’s what’s going to carry them on for the rest of their lives. Our job is to put them in position to make plays on the field and then physically get them to where they are and develop them in the offseason. What Coach Stacchiotti’s doing this offseason is important. Do you see it that next year? No, but it’s year after year year, the development in the weight room, the development in those classrooms and on the field with your position coaches are critical. That’s what it’s all about. We talk about getting three-percent better – I mean, you get three-percent better every day for a year and then two years and three years, you’ve gotten a lot better. So those stars really don’t matter, and all of those recruiting things – that’s why they call us coach, it’s our job to develop football players. That’s our job. We’re not always going to get that elite guy, that five-star guy; we’re going to take what we’ve got and we’re going to mold them, we’re going to make them bigger, we’re going to make them stronger, we’re going to make them faster. I know that’s a cliche, but we’re going to make them smarter. We’re going to coach these guys on the fine details, whether it’s a backpedal, a press technique, a blitz, a block up front, a throw or route-running or your ability to make plays with the ball in your hand, that’s what it’s all about.
The guys today, these are guys you recruited and coached the last few years, what does it mean to you to see them standing on the precipice of a professional career and does it make it a little more special, just because you’ve been through whole shebang with this group of guys?
Narduzzi: It’s special, no matter what. I wish I was here for an Aaron Donald pro day. It’s special whether it’s for one year, okay, whether it was our first year here or the sixth year. It’s funny – you helped him get there, even if it’s one year. DJ Turner didn’t have as productive a career in all his years at Maryland that he had in one year; that’s our job, to put them in position to make plays. And again, it doesn’t matter, one year, three years, four years, six years, which will be Tre Tipton, maybe seven years next year for Tre on Pro Day. But you take satisfaction that you helped him get to that point. You know, Pro Day is huge. The sad part is, the season ends, whether it’s after a bowl game or after a COVID final season, and the kids leave you. You lose your children. Then all of a sudden they come back for this day. We had a nice lunch yesterday together and it’s just bringing your teammates, your players back. I love each and every one of those guys. To have them back is fun. It sounds like a lot of them are hanging out here for the next few weeks again, which is outstanding. They’re going to be here working out with Coach Stacchiotti, and that’s what we want. That’s the family atmosphere have at Pitt. That’s our guys. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s awesome. It was fun to watch them out there today, enjoyed it, you’re praying for each of them last night, just hoping that they have a great day and each one of them really did in their own way.
Obviously the numbers can be important for those guys, but how about those conversations you have with scouts and coaches; how much can that help a player?
Narduzzi: It can help a bunch. They’re out there taking notes. I got them before the whole thing started and they’re not going to ask any questions because nobody wants to give out secrets. But the little things, the guys that take the time, the really good ones, they’re going to pull you aside. I mean, Phil Kreider grabbed me – I won’t reveal any of the information there, but was like, ‘Coach, I got a question for you’ and pulled me over. Again, the guys that do a detailed job like Phil, they want to know everything. And anybody that doesn’t try to grab the head coach’s ear at Pro Day – because, I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t get many phone calls, because they know the head coach is going to – it’s like, anytime I try to hire a receiver coach or a linebacker coach, everybody’s got a resume and then the references are at the bottom or on the third page or whatever it is, and I never call the references because I know the references are going to tell me good stuff. I’m always going to tell people good stuff about – but it’s all the inside little bits and stories.
I’ll tell you a Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones story, and some of the scouts are like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never heard of that before.’ I’d never heard of it either as a coach. But they go down to the Senior Bowl and they call Coach Partridge a couple days before they go down to the Senior Bowl, and they’re like, ‘Coach, can you send us all the offensive tackles that are going to the Senior Bowl on both teams so we can watch videotape?’ They wanted to study the game. They wanted to study that guy: what’s he do well, is he susceptible to a speed rush, bull rush, inside moves, how’s his hands, is he going to punch early, punch late – all the details they’ve learned with Coach Partridge…So it’s all of those little stories. Some of the scouts, when I tell them that story, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I love that.’ Because they’re students of the game, and that’s the important part.
Along those same lines, it’s a unique year for the draft in that there were so many players who opted out last year. I’ve seen some NFL execs say that made the Senior Bowl a little more important. I think Kevin Colbert even said if two guys are close, you go with the guy who played more recently. How many questions have you been getting about that and do you expect to get more about that as teams try to do their due diligence on players they haven’t seen in awhile?
Narduzzi: I think they’ll make their own determinations as far as who opted and how to herd them. I do know this: we highly recommend guys not to opt out. It is hard to play the game of football. It’s not like basketball, it’s not like baseball where you can go out and have batting practice and you don’t need anybody else. You can hit it out in the outfield, we don’t know if they caught it or not. But football is a hard game to play by yourself. It’s a team game and it’s something you can’t train for. Some of our guys did an outstanding job of training for the drills. And everybody’s got a different trainer so you just don’t know where they’re going and what’s going to happen. But, you know, that’s the situation there.
Damar Hamlin, when a lot of people talk about him around Pitt, it’s not just what it does on the field but what he does off it. He’s a leader – a lot of players mention that – what about Damar makes him a special player and prospect?
Narduzzi: Damar is special. He had a great day today. He made a lot of money today, just in every respect. But what makes Damar special is, first of all, his family. His mom and dad are supportive of him, they’ve helped him, they raised him the right way, they’ve helped him really just taking him all the way to Pitt when he got here as a freshman. And Damar is so smart. He’s so smart. To me, that’s what makes great players. I start off by talking about the intelligence part: he is so smart. He knows what’s going on ahead of time, and again, 40 time doesn’t really matter, your bench press doesn’t matter – when you have knowledge, and that word is up all over our building, Damar is a smart guy that knows what’s going on. He knows what he’s doing, he knows what the opponent is going to do most of the time, and obviously he’s athletic enough and fast enough to go make plays. He’s just a tremendous person and a tremendous student of the game.
I wanted to ask about Jason Pinnock. You’ve said that you put your corners on islands and you’re proud of that. He had some very impressive numbers today; what can you say about his journey and what you saw from him today and how proud you are of him?
Narduzzi: Obviously we’re really proud of Jason. Like I said, everybody’s got a different avenue and a different path. We put those guys on islands. I couldn’t be happier for Jason. I knew coming into today – and testing is testing, football is football; let’s get that straight. Some guys are going to test really well, some guys aren’t going to test as well. But when you talk football players and testing, two different things. Like, Paris Ford is a football player. He isn’t going to test really well sometimes, and again, the turf or whatever it is. But when you look at Jason Pinnock, I knew. If you said, tell me one guy the scouts are going to go, ‘Who is that guy?’ I was in the locker room with Chris Ash, the old head coach at Rutgers and now the secondary coach with the Jaguars, we were kind of walking through the locker room there because he had to go to the restroom and I said, ‘I want to introduce you to someone, you want to meet this guy because you’re going to notice him out there and ask me why I didn’t talk about this guy.’ But he had an unbelievable day. But it doesn’t shock me. Probably almost 40-inch vertical jump, ran a 4.4, catches the ball well. He’s a football player, and in the right system, that guy’s got a – that guy made some money today. I’m happy for Jason. He’s a super kid and he’s really smart, too. Another guy that’s really smart. We all have our ups and downs during the season, we have our good plays and our bad plays, but that guy’s a really good football player and he’s a really good student of the game as well.
You sort of mentioned this already, but who was the one guy today who had the NFL scouts running to you saying, ‘Tell me more about this guy.’
Narduzzi: They knew about a lot of guys, so probably Jason Pinnock, I would say, if I had to say one. They knew about Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver and Jimmy Morrissey; they knew about those guys who played in the Senior Bowl, were invited to the Combine, were All-Americans. I’d probably say him and DJ Turner, the other guy. And also Amir Watts. I think Amir Watts did some great things for himself. Those were the guys you got a lot of questions like, you know, ‘Tell me about this guy.’
How’s practice going?
Narduzzi: Two shorts days. Two shorts days, it’s going good so far. But we had two days in shorts, tomorrow we go pads. It gets real tomorrow. Everybody’s got a plan until they get hit. But I’ve been real impressed with a lot of guys. Again, tomorrow is hump day: we get over number three and we get to number four, we’re one day better than last year. Every day is so important and I want to make sure our guys stay safe with COVID. I saw Boise shut things down today or yesterday, I know Ohio State shut down for a little bit, I don’t know if they’re back up and running. But I don’t want to lose a day. We need the development, we need every period, every second we can get during practice, and I think that’s going to be the important thing. So it’s going well so far, we’re healthy but we’re in shorts and the pads go on and tomorrow will be fun. We don’t do much changing of the depth chart until the pads go on and it’s the real evaluation. We’re out there trying to evaluate off of shorts and, ‘Man, he looked good there, the tailback’s running through clean, nobody’s trying to tackle him’ and our guys have done a great job being smart and not trying to be the hero and tackle a guy in shorts.
There are some drills that don’t necessarily apply to what guys do. Like, who cares what your quarterback’s broad jump is or what your offensive lineman’s 40 time is. But did anybody surprise you with something that is maybe outside what is generally considered to be their athletic specialty?
Narduzzi: Not really. You look at Jimmy Morrissey, he had like a 32-inch vertical jump. It was pretty explosive for an offensive lineman. I think he vertical’d higher than some of the skill guys that were there, so that’s impressive. I mean, the testing doesn’t necessarily show up on the field so I don’t know what the correlation is there. As an NFL club and president and GM and head football coach, you want as many great athletes as you can get, and obviously the testing will show you what type of explosive athlete they are. There’s so many things they look at, and I think the number one thing is, just watch them on the field. Watch them play football. When the ball is snapped between the white lines is really what matters. I talked about shorts practices the last two days, and when you go out there, it’s a timing day, it’s a finesse day. It comes down to sometimes who’s got the best trainer. Did you have the best football trainer or the best combine trainer? Combine results and football results are two different things and the football results will show up in August and September for some of these guys.
Here in Brazil, we have a totally different football, and during the COVID season in Brazil, we didn’t have enough football. How was it at Pitt to go through the season with all the problems – you can’t go to the field, now you can – how was that process?
Narduzzi: Bring all your good players over here. Come to Pittsburgh. We’ve got a lot of jobs. The economy is outstanding. We have great high school coaches. Bring all your young guys over here so I don’t have to travel too far to find them. But it obviously wasn’t easy. It was a challenging season. It was a challenging summer leading into the fall. But we’re fortunate at the University of Pittsburgh to have some of the best medical help in the country. I think UPMC, which is the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center here on our campus in the city of Pittsburgh, gave us a huge advantage. We were able to keep our kids safe and still play the game we love. I think that’s the critical thing. It was rough early, when you talk June, July and August, and I think our kids had a lot of question marks as far as, ‘What’s going on? We’re not going to be able to play a season, we’re not going to be able to do this.’ And as the leader and head coach, we were just persistent and got everybody going in the right direction. I felt more like a traffic guard as far as just making sure the masks were on and we were socially distanced in our building and we tried to do things as safely as possible. And that’s how we were able to pull a season off. So it can be done. Some people can do it better than others. It just comes down to the details and we tried to focus on the details.
DJ Turner put up really good bench press numbers and had a great year for you guys. He said he almost came back for next year.
Narduzzi: I thought we had him back. I thought he was going to come back. But we’re happy for him.
I just wanted to ask, when teams are looking at him and saying he just had one year, what do you think he can bring right away to someone’s offense in the NFL?
Narduzzi: He wasn’t planning on doing this, but I had him go out and catch some JUGS for punt return and kickoff return, so he went outdoors with some special teams guys in the back fields there, just to do some of those. I think he can bring a lot to the table. I knew we were getting a really good receiver, obviously he was very productive, but the things he does when he gets the ball in his hands are special. You guys saw how he was built: he’s got legs like a linebacker, he runs like a receiver and the things he can do with the ball in his hands are the most impressive thing. He runs great routes. Coaches were impressed with the route-running and the soft hands and his ball skills, but then he’s got the element on special teams. You don’t really draft return guys, but when you look at what he can do on the field as a receiver and also what he can do in the return game, that was a surprise to me and I think it will be a surprise to a lot of NFL teams. Is he slippery as maybe a McCloud with the Steelers? No, but he’s hard to get down because he’s a running back with receiver skills.
How do you think Jaylen projects best as far as where on a defensive line and in what system?
Narduzzi: It’s hard to say. I think, talking to him a couple weeks ago, he was working with a 3-4 guy. I think he’s a 4-3 defensive tackle. In our system, that’s what I think he is. Could he be a 3-4 4-technique? Probably. Is he going to be a nose tackle in the NFL? I don’t know. I don’t know if he wants to get that big. There’s some of those guys – he’s not Siragusa. Tony was a little bit bigger space-eater in there. I don’t know as much about the 3-4 and what you want in that defense as I know in the 4-3. But there are a lot of things he can do. The thing about Jaylen, he’s so smart that he will master wherever they put him at. But he’ll get drafted by the team – we’ll find out if he goes to a 4-3 team or a 3-4 team. And the thing about 3-4 teams in the NFL, they’re a 3-4 usually against two-back, two-tight end teams, and as soon as they spread it out, they’re going to a four-down like we are in our base. So I think we’re kind of different: we go to the 3-4 on third down. And it’s really not a 3-4 – by numbers, it is, but the style and what we’re trying to get out of it, it isn’t. But I think he can do a lot of different things and I think he’ll master whatever they want him to do. Someone’s going to draft a great football player and an incredible person, regardless of – that’s their decision to make of where he’s going to fit. But I think he’s a 4-3 defensive tackle.
How do you see Jones and Weaver transitioning to outside linebacker?
Narduzzi: I think both of them can do that. They both stood up and played linebacker, if you flip on that Florida State game. So both of them could be 4-3 defensive ends, both of them could be 3-4 edge rushers and probably designated rushers because of their pass rush ability. Both of them have the ability to be able to drop in coverage. Both of them are smart enough, very intelligent guys, to be able to drop and understand where they’re supposed to be; they’ll study the game, which they haven’t had extensive knowledge in that. But people would be crazy to drop either one of those guys off very often because they need to go hit the guy that’s the most important player on the football team, the quarterback, and those guys are pass-rush specialists.
Is 40 bench reps the most you’ve seen in person?
Narduzzi: Yeah. I almost fell asleep watching them all, there was so many of them. It’s like, is this thing almost over? Jaylen, he loves the bench press. He loves that bench. I don’t know, what’s the NFL record?
I think 49 is the NFL record.
Narduzzi: Who did that?
I don’t know.
Narduzzi: I bet there haven’t been five guys in the last 10 years who got into the 40’s. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t watch, I really don’t care about the bench press much myself. But 40 was amazing and he obviously got real excited about it, too.