Pitt football fans hoping for a Ben DiNucci start at quarterback for this weekend's Oklahoma State game aren't likely to get their wish. After the Penn State game, head coach Pat Narduzzi declared starter Max Browne will keep his job and he reaffirmed that this week at his weekly press conference. But a change from Browne to DiNucci might not be far away if Browne struggles this weekend and, while it's early, Narduzzi has experience with early-season quarterback change.
During an unimpressive opener against Youngstown State in 2015, Narduzzi benched starting quarterback Chad Voytik and gave reps to then backup Nathan Peterman. In the game, Voytik was only 9-14 for 72 passing yards and also had one touchdown and one interception. Part of that was surely that Narduzzi doesn't mind giving backups early playing time. This season, for example, he said he wanted to get DiNucci some reps in the team's opener but couldn't because the game was too close. But the stage was set for a quick exit by Voytik.
Voytik kept his job for the second game against Akron but was quickly replaced by Peterman in the second quarter. After that game, Narduzzi talked of a two-quarterback system but that was a mostly hollow statement as Voytik's playing time was nearly over. Voytik appeared only briefly after that as Peterman was given the reins as the starter in the third contest against Iowa and never looked back, holding the job for that year as well as 2016.
The move paid off and proved to be the right decision.
Peterman went on to become a solid quarterback for the Panthers and was ultimately drafted by the Buffalo Bills this year. He has already vaulted himself to the top backup spot on the team and has a seemingly bright future in the NFL. Voytik, on the other hand, could never get going.
As expected, he transferred out of the program at the end of the season. He dropped down out of the FBS and was initially considering a move to Eastern Kentucky. But with competition for that job expected to be heavy, he eventually decided on Arkansas State where his chances to play would be better. Voytik got off to a slow start there and was subsequently benched by the third game. He played sparingly the rest of the season ending a disappointing final year in college football.
That's not to say that a similar move would work in Narduzzi's favor. DiNucci provided a nice spark, particularly with his legs, in getting light duty against Penn State. But he also isn't as experienced as Peterman was when he replaced Voytik and also wasn't nearly as heralded as a recruit.
Now, while I think Browne should get more time, DiNucci certainly offers his share of benefits. Most importantly, he's significantly more mobile than Browne, who is your prototypical pocket passer. And if DiNucci winds up being the guy next season, getting him game experience this year would be a tangible way to shrink the learning curve.
Still, Narduzzi needs to be wary of such a switch for a couple of reasons.
First, Pitt has thrived off of landing capable grad transfers. When one comes here with the expectation to start, if you yank the job from him early, it could send a negative message to future transfers expecting playing time. No one should be given anything, obviously, but when grad transfers leave their present school for a final year elsewhere, it's almost always to secure more playing time. The grad transfer route has been an exceedingly good source of players for the team and you'd hate to see that hampered.
In addition, if Narduzzi makes a move to DiNucci and he struggles, the coach would be forced to go back to Browne and he would have lost valuable reps while sitting. That might not be as big of a deal with more experienced guys, but keep in mind that Browne hasn't played much himself, despite being a senior. He barely played his first two seasons at USC, attempting only a few passes, and last year, was benched after only three games. Browne needs all the time on the field that he can get.
For now, Browne is the guy and that's probably the way it should be. However, if Narduzzi makes a move to DiNucci this weekend against Oklahoma State, it wouldn't be the first time he's made an early change. And given the success of it before, it give Narduzzi even more reason to keep Browne on a short leash.