As evidenced at times this season, Pitt’s secondary is still in need of help. A lot of help, if we’re being honest. The Panthers could show that again when they face Syracuse this weekend as the Orange boast a pair of star receivers.
The good news is that true freshman Paris Ford has looked great in practices, according to head coach Pat Narduzzi. The bad? They’re still not planning to play him this season for fear of burning his redshirt.
“Every week, you wanna play him, and every week, I say, ‘That guy’s gonna be great,’ ” Narduzzi said. “But only half a season to a whole season? We’d have to be crazy. You don’t wanna use the guy. He’s gonna be something special.
“If I get to use him, I wanna use him all the time. Yeah, he could be a punt returner right now, but you don’t wanna see him play one time a game, and then he doesn’t know what he’s doing the other times. I wanna get him out there. I think it’s not good for the kid. I’d be selfish if I did that, I think. If it was my son, you don’t wanna waste a kid’s redshirt for a few plays a game.”
There’s a few things here, so let’s look at them.
First, that strategy seems to contradict with how Pitt has used players in the past. In particular, the team burned the redshirt of freshman running back A.J. Davis this year already and, as I wrote earlier, they’ve barely used him. Now, for what it’s worth, Brian Batko who wrote the Ford article, says that Narduzzi expressed some degree of regret in burning the redshirts of Davis and tight end Tyler Sear. So perhaps he doesn’t want to make another mistake with Ford.
If so, that’s admirable and the right approach that all coaches should generally take. I’d argue, though, that Ford’s situation is different that that of Davis and Sear. Pitt has other options at running back and tight end and the need to play both Davis and Sear wasn’t really there. Pitt’s secondary, though, needs help. And if Ford is able to step in and do that, that’s much more of a reason to play him.
One thing Narduzzi mentioned is that Ford is still learning. That’s certainly true. But he also had part of training camp and he’s had the first five weeks of the season. And if you think he needs a few more weeks, maybe you consider playing him in Week 7 after giving him a few more games off. But I’d still maintain that if you can get even five games out of him, it’s worth it to play him.
And here’s why.
Narduzzi heaped a ton of praise on Ford in that article. If Ford turns out to be as good as he sounds, there’s a very real possibility he leaves after only three years, anyway. Remember, a player can leave three years after they finish high school and they don’t need to necessarily play three years. For example, Pitt has had other stars such as Larry Fitzgerald and Lesean McCoy come for only two years after they attended prep school.
If Ford is good enough to do that and leaves after three years, redshirting him this year doesn’t help anyone in particular. It doesn’t help Ford since he could be using this year to get valuable playing time and it doesn’t help Pitt because they’re missing out on his ability, even if it’s only for half a season.
The three-year thing is very real. Junior Jordan Whitehead, for example, is a guy that could make the leap after this season. Pitt at least played him in his freshman year and he made a real impact, winning the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Now, imagine if Pitt had redshirted him. They would have lost that entire year (a year that turned out to be pretty good). At this point, Ford isn’t going to get an entire year in, of course. But half a year is still a lot of game experience to gain and will help prep him for next season.
None of this, by the way, is to criticize Narduzzi necessarily. Redshirts are a touch and go thing and the flow of games dictates whether you can use certain guys or not. I’m sure when Pitt made the decision to play Davis in the opener, they envisioned him getting more carries than he has (he has six on the year and didn’t register a carry in three of the Panthers’ five games). It’s a tricky thing and just one of many issues a coach has to balance.
In general, I’m all for redshirting players. Even the true freshmen that are good enough to play right away are going to suffer through growing pains. But in the case of exceptional players like Ford, redshirting him this year could turn out to be a mistake.