5 Pitt Freshmen to Watch at This Year’s Spring Game

Well, that was fun while it lasted.

No, not Pitt basketball’s winning streak; rather, the unseasonably mild weather is that of which I speak. El Niño makes me yearn for El Spring Game.

God bless the common sense of Pitt’s new athletic administration for cleaning up that mess. It was so awkward under Steve Pederson it actually made me defend Todd Graham.

The two buttheads butted heads on the relocation of the event. Graham, to his credit, saw marketability in Heinz Field that Pederson did not.

Recruits might not be old enough to fully appreciate names like Dorsett, Marino or Fralic, But they sure as heck know the name Steelers, and they know Pitt as a school that not only shares facilities with them, but also matriculates players to the NFL regularly.

There’s no better place than Heinz Field for these ones to get their start, especially if fans pack the place like they haven’t for Blue-Gold games past. With Pitt boasting an increasingly star-studded recruiting class in 2016, they’ve got good reason to catch an early glimpse of these stars who might shine sooner than later:

Damar Hamlin, Defensive Back –

The Panthers already have a potential All-American at safety for the next two or three seasons. Imagine how much more formidable their secondary will be with two.

That’s not to say Pat Narduzzi can’t make extraordinary defensive backs out of ordinary ones. After all, he did it at Michigan State. And while Pitt ranked toward the bottom of the ACC in pass defense last year, it wasn’t quite the smoldering tire fire we saw under overwhelmed Matt House.

Hamlin was probably the best get of this class. It proved Pitt can still attract top-notch talent locally. The fact a player of Hamlin’s caliber even seriously considered Pitt shows how far the program, and perception thereof, has come in a short time under Narduzzi. Furthermore, it gave the Panthers a hell of a lot more athleticism where it was sorely needed.

@CoachDuzzPittFB didn’t need to pay any attention to his timeline last season to know he needs taller defensive backs. Hamlin, listed at 6’1″, is taller than anyone on his two-deep for the Military Bowl.

His smashmouth style is a perfect fit for Pitt. That jarring hit from the state playoffs (Central Catholic fans know the one I’m talking about), seen at the end of the highlight reel below, says it all.

Could the Panthers boast two ACC Defensive Rookies of the Year in a row?

Chase Pine, Linebacker –

Despite fielding one of the youngest teams in FBS in 2015, Pitt loses three players at the so-called “star” linebacker position, which opens a few doors. In the meantime, this linebacker is already a star to begin with, and he could be the star of this defense someday.

Pine comes to Pitt as one of the top-ranked outside linebackers out of Virginia. Panther Digest, in fact, put him first overall. This made him another outstanding–and difficult–get for Narduzzi, considering the other D-I teams that were after him, not just the two ACC rivals in his own home state.

For those of us who aren’t X’s-and-O’s guys, the “star” linebacker is one who juggles the responsibilities of a linebacker and defensive back. Pine certainly would be athletic enough to handle that. More likely, though, he will be called upon to bolster a pass rush that made Pitt among the national team sack leaders in just Narduzzi’s first year on the sideline.

A couple years ago Anthony Gonzalez, another quarterback-turned-linebacker like Pine, became a mainstay in House’s and then-coach Paul Chryst’s defense. Picture Anthony Gonzalez 2.0–someone who has the same physical tools, but could add a lot more big-play capability to the linebacker corps in the long haul.

Chris Clark, Tight End –

Pitt has enjoyed an embarrassment of riches at this position in recent years, but the Panthers become a little less rich with J.P. Holtz graduating. Clark, however, could be a proverbial cash cow, whenever he sees the field.

He was perhaps the top tight end prospect in the entire country when he entered UCLA, meaning, technically, he’s a freshman already, and also meaning Pitt is pushing hard for the NCAA to reconsider his 2016 eligibility as you read this. Seemingly, he was all set to transfer to Syracuse until, suddenly, he wasn’t.

Some feel his character is suspect, though Clark seems to have his head in the right place regarding his recruitment. Pursuing him was a calculated risk by Narduzzi, who, despite changing offensive coordinators this offseason, will be nonetheless shy about dialing up plays for his tight ends.

Returning starter Scott Orndoff has gotten his Pitt career off to a fine start, and he should prosper again this season. If he has an extraordinary talent pushing him for attention every week, then more power to him–and to the Panthers offense.

Brandon Ford, Offensive Lineman –

This Upper St. Clair standout was one of the first players in the freshman Class of ’16 to commit, so let’s see if his skill ultimately matches his enthusiasm.

Most of Ford’s offers came from Group of Five schools. That reminds me a little bit of this other local two-way lineman who, once upon a time, played for WPIAL Quad-A rival Penn Hills and excelled, but didn’t get many Division I looks from high-profile programs.

I wonder whatever happened to that guy?

Of course, I’m not ready to call that an apples-to-apples comparison yet. The point is, Ford has a lot of respect around these parts, and with plenty of polished players returning to Pitt’s offensive line, he’s a talent with whom Narduzzi and his staff can take their time.

As is the case with Clark, the more guys the Panthers have at that position who are equally capable of playing first-string quality football, especially early in their careers, the more likely they’ll be able to move the ball with greater consistency going forward.

Thomas MacVittie, Quarterback –

On the other hand, considering Pitt put its offense at the mercy of an unproven quarterback–and a transfer, at that–last year, maybe we should downplay the inconsistency a tad? Nate Peterman still has his job for now, but we’re all anxious to see what MacVittie can do, because finding the right QB for Pitt has been like Spinal Tap trying to find the right drummer.

I’ll admit my interest in scouting MacVittie this spring is somewhat personal. Pitt football media director E.J. Borghetti likes to playfully jab at my Cincinnati ties; thus, for me, it would be delightfully ironic if one of that area’s most terrific high school talents fulfilled prophecy and became the program’s next great signal-caller.

Some of our country’s best athletes have come out of Moeller (the name Griffey, for one, ring a bell?). That’s where MacVittie, one of the nation’s most highly touted pro-style passers, played through injury, piled up yards, piled up points and, most importantly, piled up wins.

Of just the same importance, he did all that without turning the ball over. MacVittie threw for 22 scores and was picked off just once as a senior. What more could Narduzzi want?

What more could Pitt fans want?

(Featured image courtesy of Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)
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But How Do You Really Feel, Mr. Barnes?

The hardest part of the transition from the Big East to the ACC for Pitt fans has been the adjustment to the new normal. Pitt football is becoming a bigger fish in what was already a bigger pond. Pitt basketball, on the other hand, is becoming a littler fish in a big pond, trying in vain just to tread water. Just not long ago, it was almost sunk–at home–by a team that had lost ten in a row.

Ten. In a row!

Scott Barnes has done right by Pitt football in the relatively short time that has passed since he first set foot in Oakland, and his continued (increased) investment, financially and emotionally, is of utmost importance. As much fun as it has been over the years to watch Jamie Dixon’s Panthers at their peak, football will always be what puts food on the table. Any other athletic director at any other top-tier NCAA school will attest.

But a good basketball program is equally important to brand growth, and you don’t need to be a Coach K, let alone a Coach Dixon, to surmise that. Duke and North Carolina, using intra-conference examples, have certainly improved their stead on the gridiron, but when we hear those names, we immediately think one thing: hoops. The show those teams put on, especially when they meet on the same floor, like they did this week, is usually as good as any the ACC has to offer.

I may not have had the opportunity to attend Barnes’ recent “Town Hall” event, but there’s one burning question for Barnes I still need to have answered.

How can Pitt basketball do better?

Furthermore, can it do better as long as Jamie Dixon is still here?

Barnes has satisfied me with just about everything that’s come out of his mouth. His next big PR test is to come forward with an honest macro evaluation of Dixon’s program, and practical ideas of how to make it better.

One good one already hinted at has been making Pitt’s non-conference basketball schedule more competitive. Barnes wants the Backyard Brawl back in more than just football, and putting WVU back on the basketball slate would be a good first step. If nothing else, Pitt can draw inspiration from the ‘Eers, who needed a couple years to find their footing in a new league of their own before becoming a national power again.

Another thing of less, yet somehow, equal, significance has been Pitt’s gradual phasing-back-in of “The Script.” Although men’s basketball (to say nothing of women’s basketball) is one Pitt program that has a generally positive association with the block “PITT” lettering, The Script is one of the hottest new–well, old–logos in college sports.

Barnes didn’t get to where he is by being stuck in the past, or by being oblivious to it. He was one of the faces in the record crowd at The Pete when Pitt got humiliated by perennial ACC contender Virginia. He knows why Dixon is under siege. It used to be that The Pete was a house of horrors for anyone but the home team, and that Pitt could always go toe to toe with the Hoos, the Heels and the best of the rest. Both those things have changed on Dixon’s watch, so he has to shoulder some blame.

He also knows Dixon is a prisoner of his own success. Jamie built and maintained credibility Pitt basketball would not have had otherwise, and he put competitive, watchable teams on the floor year after year despite not necessarily attracting the nation’s top scholastic talent. He set the bar so high it’s that much easier to get down on him for his comparatively mediocre postseason record, let alone the mediocre results of his first few ACC campaigns.

Barnes rightfully acknowledged that success not long after he took the job, but he did it passively. He did it long before this Pitt squad showed signs of coming around in December, only to start going Jekyll-and-Hyde in January all over again. How does he feel now that anything gaudier than a bottom-of-the-bracket NCAA Tournament berth for Pitt seems outlandish?

Dixon may never have a fair fight again as long as he coaches here. In the Big East, he had to compete with a few Hall-of-Fame coaches. On the recruiting trail, he had a plan, which included building a pipeline to talent-rich New York that brought the program some of its best players, he stuck to it and it worked. Pitt was a tough team that worked its way to the top by outworking its Big East brethren. In the ACC, half the conference consists of Hall-of-Fame coaches, and the other half are, at minimum, competent recruiters with their own established recruiting bases. In the ACC, everyone works hard.

Pitt can’t just outwork teams anymore. It has to outwork and, for lack of a better word, out-talent its competition. History, both on the court and on the recruiting trail, proves Pitt will rarely be in a position to do the latter, which partially explains its early tournament exits. Aforementioned ACC powers–established ACC powers, mind you–like Duke and UNC will always have the first and best shot at the best players, especially in established ACC territories.

Nevertheless, the Virginia game, for one, proved that Pitt’s old ways can still work in its new surroundings. It doesn’t have to be a skilled team with grit. It can be a gritty team with enough skill to win. Unfortunately, not only has Dixon clearly not found the right players to pull that off in the ACC, but the ones he has found haven’t responded well enough to his coaching. A team takes on the personality of its coach, and these Panthers seem to handle discomfort about as well as Dixon does, which isn’t saying much.

But the program’s biggest dilemma was created long before Barnes was hired. Even if his trigger finger were itchy, he couldn’t change bench bosses in the foreseeable future, thanks to the lovely parting gift Steve Pederson left us:

He has to work with Dixon for now. He doesn’t have to like it. Does he? If he can’t change what might be the root of the program’s problems, how can the program be salvaged in the meantime?

Barnes can spin straw into gold on the gridiron. As AD at Utah State he drummed up interest in a previously middling mid-major football program that began winning consistently during his administration, and even boasted a long-shot Heisman candidate in Chuckie Keeton.

That happened because he surrounded himself with the right people and, like any AD, got what he paid for. He’s already surrounded himself at Pitt with Pat Narduzzi and a coaching staff that has re-energized the football team, ramped up its recruiting success and revolutionized its marketing. He’s already announced plans to put more money into the product than his predecessor, which shouldn’t be too hard, considering the direct correlation between Pederson’s dismissal and the uptick in donations to Pitt Athletics.

Does this mean Barnes will put big bucks into expanding Dixon’s recruiting base? Does this mean Dixon, whose recruiting success hasn’t been the same since Barry Rohrssen bolted, will have new assistants soon?

I don’t doubt for a minute Barnes knows football. However, his livelihood, as well as his previous athletic experience, is basketball. It’s time for him to put that passion to good use.

It’s time to hear a plan for Pitt basketball that involves more than Scripts, uniforms or Zoo taunts.

(Featured image courtesy of Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Popchock on Film: “Hail, Caesar!” Teases, But “Deadpool” Delivers

For those of us unfamiliar with the title character, and those of us who are relative novices to Marvel folklore in general, Deadpool is a film that could be charitably described as different. But even for devotees and comic geeks wanting more than the same old origin movie, it is anything but “same old.”

Deadpool scores big time with its shameless fourth-wall demolition, literally, right from the opening credits. Be prepared for some of the most well-produced credits you’ll ever see in this genre. Ryan Reynolds, almost as quickly, scores big time with Morena Baccarin, who has previously scored points with me for her portrayal of Dr. Leslie Thompkins on Gotham. Just as she tries to bring out the best in Detective Jim Gordon on that program, her role in Deadpool makes us sympathize with a vigilante who insists upon being unsympathetic.

Reynolds’ character reminds me of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. He’s so stuck on himself it comes off funny, albeit borderline obnoxious, and his warped moral compass, at the end of the day, still points him in the right direction. Unlike conventional comic book movie protagonists, however, he doesn’t fight for truth, justice or the American way. Essentially, he fights for himself, but he fights for himself for a noble reason: returning to the love of his life, and with it, a return to relative normalcy. Furthermore, Deadpool doesn’t have the book smarts of a Tony Stark, but his street smarts and uncanny philosophies are quite amusing. You could even go outside the Marvel universe and say there’s a streak of Batman in him–a do-gooder too skeptical to be a team player, despite the pleas of those special guest X-Men present.

Other than Deadpool’s snarky disposition, the most pleasant surprise in this movie for me was director T.J. Miller putting himself in a supporting role as the wisecracking bartender who helps a physically and emotionally scarred Wade Wilson name his new alter ego. I remember him best as Jay Baruchel’s sophomoric friend in the Pittsburgh-based romcom She’s Out of My League, and his humor is a bit more wry here, but it works.

A sequel–a prerequisite for any big-budget superhero flick these days–might be risky due to the law of diminishing return. Reynolds, to some, may have been forgettable as Green Lantern, but he goes straight to the opposite end of the personality spectrum in Deadpool. He is as glib as he is intense, and a little bit of Deadpool goes a long way.

The violence is graphic and wholesale, and, above all, indiscriminate. Audiences outside the target ones will argue it’s oversold, and understandably so. The dialogue, especially between Deadpool and his counterparts, is as raw as raw can be. All things considered, I’m stunned the lines dropped by Miller in this interview didn’t make the cut:

Indeed, Deadpool will say things you thought you’d never hear, and it makes you see things you can’t un-see. Yet you won’t be able to take your eyes off it.

"Hail, Caesar!" posterHail, Caesar! is a movie that says one thing and, ultimately, does something wholly other. As Colin Trevorrow said while making Jurassic World, the first step toward commercial success is assembling a Murderer’s Row of actors; without the right cast, you fail before you start.

To wit, the first thing that attracts you to this movie is the names on the marquee. George Clooney has his perpetually universal appeal. Scarlett Johansson, the aesthetically-pleasing Avenger, makes an eye-catching faux Marilyn Monroe. Josh Brolin effectively slips into his main character, the head of a fictitious movie studio in the early 1950s. Jonah Hill, whom I loved as much in Superbad as I did in Moneyball, has proven he can play both straight and not-so-serious–which he does.

Once again, one of the movie’s most pleasant surprises is not necessarily on the marquee. Wayne Knight (“Hello, Newman”) portrays the background extra who plays an integral role in the plot, which centers on the kidnapping of Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, the A-list star of an epic movie with religious undertones in which the studio is heavily invested.

While the kidnapping is something you see coming, if you’re pre-judging this movie strictly on what you see in its ads, the political reason behind the kidnapping that is later revealed are something you don’t see coming at all. In hindsight, it’s a sign of the time in which the movie is set, but it’s also a loose end Hail, Caesar! does not effectively tie up.

Clooney’s captors try to push him off an ideological ledge; however, after defending their ideology to Josh Brolin, the latter’s count-your-blessings-and-shut-up defense seems to work a little too well. We don’t get to see the consequences, if any, of Clooney’s temptation. We are asked to take for granted he lives happily ever after, which, knowing that era of show biz, is too big an ask even if you’re asking your audience to suspend disbelief.

On the plus side, we now know Channing Tatum can tap-dance–am I right, ladies? His moves are quite impressive. The fleshing out of his character is not. There is a link between Tatum and the kidnappers, but the fate of his musically inclined Burt Gurney is as strange and nonsensical as it is ambiguous. By the end of the film, there is no sense of urgency by the bad guys toward Clooney’s escape, nor is there any urgency toward regaining the lost ransom money demanded for his safe return.

I appreciate how Hail, Caesar! satirizes the absurdity, or, at least, the perceived absurdity of the Hollywood lifestyle. There is phoniness, there is talk of arranged relationships, and there is a performer horribly miscast. The funniest part is when a pretentious director played by Ralph Fiennes tries to mold a cowboy picture star played by lesser-known Alden Ehrenreich into a more debonair leading man, sans Southern drawl. But perhaps the Coen Brothers had more star power than they knew what to do with, as the climax they build to just seems to fall flat.

Hail, Caesar! didn’t suck. It also didn’t make me feel guilty about seeing it for free.