PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Pat Narduzzi never lost hope. Not during the early days of the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the one that cost the Pittsburgh coach valuable spring practice time. Not during the middle of summer, as nearly half of the FBS decided to hold off on playing during the fall.
Narduzzi, however, understands he's probably in the minority, even in his own locker room. A quick survey as the Panthers began preparations for Saturday's season opener against Austin Peay provided all the proof he needed.
''I asked our staff the other day, might have been Sunday, 'How many guys thought we'd get to game week?''' Narduzzi said. ''There wasn't too many hands raised up in the air. But we are here.''
Where exactly ''here'' is, however, remains somewhat of a mystery. The scattershot nature associated with the 2020 season means the Panthers didn't find out they were hosting the Governors (0-1) until the final days of camp, narrowing significantly the window they usually have to prepare.
Entering his sixth season, Narduzzi is bullish on a team that went 8-5 last season and returns seven starters from a group that tied for the national lead in sacks. It's telling of the depth Narduzzi has built along the defensive line that All-American Jaylen Twyman's decision to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft rather than suit up for Pitt is merely an inconvenience and not a massive blow to the team's prospects. Keyshon Camp and Rashad Weaver both return after missing last season due to injuries.
Still, Narduzzi is wary. The Governors were ranked 13th in the Football Championship Subdivision preseason poll and already have a game under their belt, a 24-17 setback against Central Arkansas. That gameday experience might be one of the few advantages Austin Peay has over the Panthers. And for all of Narduzzi's optimism, he's well aware it will mean nothing when his team runs onto the field.
''We can play against us and hit each other all day, but until they go out in the game when the lights go on in Heinz Field, which we haven't had an opportunity since November to get into Heinz Field,'' Narduzzi said. ''That's going to be a whole new deal.''
While the Panthers have largely avoided any COVID-19 issues - save for a brief one-day scare last month when several players complained of symptoms that turned out to be the result of being in a padded practice for the first time in nine months - Narduzzi knows he could arrive at the stadium on Saturday morning dealing with a positive test that could force him to scramble.
''They've all got to be ready,'' Narduzzi said. ''They know that. Our third team has got to be ready. Everybody's got to be ready. It's a sudden change at any point if something crazy happens. Not only the guy that tests positive, but the tracing that goes along with that can hit you worse than the guy testing positive. You're never feeling comfortable.''
The Governors are coming off an 11-4 season in 2019 but were forced to regroup when head coach Mark Hudspeth resigned for personal reasons in July. Associate head coach Marquase Lovings took over on an interim basis, and he expects his team to take a significant step forward after letting a halftime lead get away against Central Arkansas.
Finding a way to help his receivers get open against an aggressive Pittsburgh secondary that Lovings said will provide ''moustache'' coverage because they'll play so tightly is an important part of the process. Austin Peay quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall completed just 14 of 31 passes in the opener. Lovings hinted those numbers weren't strictly on Oatsvall.
''Our receivers have got to do a good job of getting open and creating separation,'' Lovings said. ''We've got to find solutions to those problems, and we will.''
MIXING IT UP
Pitt went from a run-dominant offense to one of the most pass-happy groups in the nation last season under first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. The Panthers averaged just 118 yards on the ground, only 11 teams in the FBS fared worse.
Narduzzi is hoping for better balance this year and hopes a face will emerge from a crowded backfield that includes A.J. Davis, Daniel Carter and Todd Sibley Jr.
''We're going to find out who gets hot and who is making plays,'' Narduzzi said. ''We'll find out who our starter is. If a guy gets in there, trips, falls down, he's probably not going to see the next series. It's going to be who shows up at game time, game day, and gets the work done. But I got trust in every one of them.''
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