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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The perfectionist in Pat Narduzzi will never be satisfied. The pragmatist in the Pittsburgh head coach understands molding the Panthers into consistent contenders in the ACC will take time.
"You would like to go undefeated and go 13-0," Narduzzi said. "You just have to take one step at a time."
Pitt took a significant one — maybe more than one — in 2015. Fueled by their first-year coach's optimistic intensity, the team picked to come in sixth in the ACC Coastal Division instead wound up second behind North Carolina on its way to an 8-5 finish following a 44-28 loss to Navy in the Military Bowl on Monday.
Not bad for a group that saw 2014 conference Player of the Year James Conner go down for the season with a right knee injury in the opener, the first but not the last setback for Conner, who was diagnosed with cancer in late November. The running back vowed to return in 2016 and took a break from treatment to walk out for the opening coin toss against the Midshipmen.
"His battle is not over, it has just begun," Narduzzi said. "He's a strong, strong kid."
Conner's absence provided an early glimpse at the future. Freshman Qadree Ollison was named ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,121 yards and 11 touchdowns. Freshman safety Jordan Whitehead earned ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year by leading the Panthers with 108 tackles while also providing a shot of adrenaline whenever he lined up in the offensive backfield, averaging 10.2 yards per carry.
Perhaps just as importantly, Pitt played with a level of competence and swagger that signaled a significant culture shift at a program that spent four years treading water around .500. Narduzzi wasn't afraid to take chances — yes, that was a fake punt in the fourth quarter of a tie game that set up the winning score against Syracuse — and the Panthers avoided the befuddling missteps during Paul Chryst's responsible but unremarkable tenure that prevented Pitt from truly breaking through.
Four of the Panthers' five losses came to ranked teams, and the other was against an emotionally charged Miami. Narduzzi credited the leadership of the seniors who kept the locker room together in the face of change and embraced their new coach almost from the instant he walked through the door.
"I told (them) they laid the foundation," Narduzzi said. "We've done a lot of great things this year."
Including engaging a fan base that had grown tired of watching Pitt spin its wheels. The Panthers were relegated to a second tier bowl due in part to concerns over the ability to sell tickets, then went and sold their allotment and then some for the showdown with Navy.
Consider it tangible proof of the energy Narduzzi produced with his mix of affable no-nonsense chatter and a coaching style that kept his players engaged. The depth chart was in constant flux, a point of pride for Narduzzi as he guarded against complacency. That constant battle for precious playing time could have divided the team. It did the opposite.
"Coach Narduzzi did a great job of bringing us together and making us a family-oriented group," defensive end Darryl Render said.
A group that will have different faces next year. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd is weighing his options but it seems unlikely he will return for his senior season. The offensive line will lose center Artie Rowell. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney — who helped turn graduate transfer Nate Peterman into a solid if not always spectacular starter — already bolted for the same job at Georgia.
The 2016 schedule includes visits from Penn State and Marshall and a trip to Oklahoma State, as well as the ever-in-flux ACC Coastal Division. Narduzzi's first year set the bar high. Rowell is confident it can be cleared regardless of who is in uniform.
"We're no longer a part of this family," Rowell said. "The good part of it is that this family is just beginning."
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