No. 24 Pitt hosts Rhode Island, Narduzzi’s alma mater

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pat Narduzzi has always been a fixer. A project guy. It doesn’t matter if it’s painting an office or slowly building a program, the Pittsburgh coach is always drawn to something that keeps his hands or his mind busy.

Rhode Island gave him a chance to do both.

Narduzzi spent three years playing for the Rams in the late 1980s as a linebacker who got by more on moxie than talent. The son of a coach, Narduzzi admits he had an 8-millimeter film projector in his dorm room so he could go over game tape. He returned to his alma mater in the mid-1990s as a position coach and then a defensive coordinator, a relentless bundle of energy who didn’t have an “off” switch.

“It was just one thing after another (with him),” said Pitt running backs coach Andre Powell, who first met Narduzzi when both were on staff with the Rams. “I’d go to his house and he’d be like, ‘Hey, I cut a hole in the wall and put in a closet.’ He was just always on the go, always thinking.”

Fast forward a quarter century and not much as changed for Narduzzi. Mentally anyway.

“He’s the same guy (now),” Powell said before adding with a laugh, “except he had abs (back then).”

The 56-year-old Narduzzi is still geared toward thinking about what’s next, one of the reasons he’s not particularly interested into turning Saturday’s game between the 24th-ranked Panthers (2-1) and Rhode Island (2-1) into a football version of “This is Your Life.”

The visit by the Rams is a way for Narduzzi to repay the school for all of it done for him, yes. And his memories of his 10-plus years in the Ocean State are fond ones. But when the ball is kicked off, he’s going to be focused on making sure Pitt doesn’t stub its toe against an FCS program before Atlantic Coast Conference play begins next week against Georgia Tech.

“I think our guys are mature enough, they understand,” Narduzzi said. “They’ve learned from the past.”

It certainly looked that way last week at Western Michigan. On the road for the first time with a third-string quarterback, Pitt avenged an upset home loss to the Broncos in 2021 by grinding out a 34-13 victory.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Nate Yarnell threw for 179 yards and a touchdown, though Narduzzi indicated USC transfer Kedon Slovis should be available. Slovis served as Yarnell’s backup last Saturday after sustaining an undisclosed injury in the first half of an overtime loss to Tennessee on Sept. 10.

Narduzzi joked the coaching staff might have to tie Slovis up to keep him off the field, though a little bit of Slovis might go a long way for the Panthers, who have rediscovered their ground game after relying heavily on former quarterback Kenny Pickett over the last few seasons.

Junior Israel Abanikanda currently leads the ACC in rushing with 307 yards, including 133 against Western Michigan on 31 carries.

“As the game went, he got stronger,” Powell said. “He got stronger when you could tell the opponent was wearing down. You looked out there at him and he wasn’t fatigued.”

Abanikanda’s emergence has come with sophomore Rodney Hammond out indefinitely with a lower-body injury, though Vincent Davis — buried on the depth chart after a sluggish training camp — added 81 yards against the Broncos.

It’s that kind of depth that may be the biggest difference between the Panthers now and the program Narduzzi inherited when he took over in December 2014. Pitt is dealing with injury issues along the offensive line, at wide receiver — leading pass catcher Jared Wayne’s status is unknown after he left the Western Michigan game after taking a high hit — and elsewhere and still look like a legitimate threat to defend the ACC title they won a year ago.

Narduzzi is encouraged but also a little anxious. Last week was promising. But it was last week. As always, he’s fixated on what’s next.

“We have to keep going, keep progressing,” he said. “ We’ll find out where we are here in a few weeks.”

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