Mark Whipple

FILE - This Aug. 2, 2019, file photo shows new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple during an NCAA football practice in Pittsburgh. A preseason poll has projected Pitt to finish 4th in their ACC Coastal Division after being the division champion last season. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

PITTSBURGH – Pat Narduzzi is feeling good about Pitt’s offense. Perhaps most importantly, he’s happy with the play of quarterback Kenny Pickett.

“First of all, he’s throwing the ball on time, making quicker decisions,” Narduzzi said before Thursday morning’s practice. “We had a blitz period yesterday – and our defense has been pretty good at blitzing – but our offense picked up all the blitzes. (Pickett) got the ball out quick. There was one play yesterday where he was looking to the left, didn’t see what he liked, he went all the way back and threw a dart to Taysir Mack on a comeback that was, like, big-time.”

Much of the season hinges on the improvement of Pickett and the passing game, and Pitt hired offensive coordinator Mark Whipple to take the offense to the next level. Whipple’s offenses are known for having potent passing attacks, something Pitt sorely needs. Pickett threw for 1,969 yards and just 12 touchdowns in 2018. 

Some of that can be attributed to Pitt leaning heavily on its exceptional running game last season, but this year brings an inexperienced backfield and therefore a greater need for the passing game to shine. 

As he begins his second season as a starter, Pickett says he’s learned some things from last year. 

“I’ve become a lot stronger mentally – handling adversity and knowing how to bounce back and rally the team and getting behind my teammates. I think my leadership is taking the next step.”

Another area the offense is looking to improve from last season is on the offensive line, which has four new starters this season. Last year’s edition excelled at opening up holes for the running backs but struggled in pass protection, allowing Pickett to be sacked 33 times. 

Pickett is confident in the players tasked with keeping him upright this season, saying he’s seen a noticeable improvement in the offensive line since training camp began two weeks ago.

“The communication is a lot smoother,” Pickett said. “Protection’s been great. I’ve been trying to get the ball out faster too, to help those guys out.”

As camp has worn on, the offensive line battles have begun to sort themselves out. 

Sophomore tackle Carter Warren and junior guard Bryce Hargrove have been manning the left side of the line at practice. Jimmy Morrissey – the lone returning starter – remains at center, while the right side of the line has featured sophomore guard Gabe Houy and tackle Nolan Ulizio, a graduate transfer from Michigan. 

Warren – who has never played in a college game – will be charged with protecting Pickett’s blind side this fall. Despite Warren’s lack of experience, offensive line coach Dave Borbely has faith in him.

“He’s going against some pretty good players here every day,” Borbely said when asked about Warren’s lack of experience. 

“He’s got a few things to clean up. Right now, he’s doing a great job. How he’ll perform with 40,000 people in there at night against different colored jerseys, we’ll see. 

“There’s only one way to get experience, and that’s to play. I have a lot of confidence in him.”

Though Borbley said backup tackle Carson Van Lynn is pushing Warren for the starting job, he still praised Warren’s talent.

“He has the most natural ability, not only as left tackle, but as a lineman,” Borbley said. “He has more ability – raw ability – than anybody in the building.”

Borbely also discussed how he came to other decisions along the line. Houy was listed on the preseason depth chart as the starting right tackle, where he started one game last season. 

“Before we got Ulizio, I thought (Houy) would be the right tackle,” Borbely said. “Nolan’s done a good job, and I like how Gabe’s playing in there (at right guard). “He’s smart, he’s extremely tough, and he does everything right.”  

As the offense continues to take shape, Narduzzi says one thing is for sure: Whipple has the reins to do as he pleases. 

“I’ve learned to let those guys coach,” Narduzzi said of the coordinator positions. “Offensively, (Whipple’s) going to run it. It’s his show.”

Amanda Filipcic-Godsey covers Pitt football for CNHI Pa. Sports.

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