With the Pitt Panthers offense in search of big plays, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi found a bit of a spark Saturday against Notre Dame by turning to the defensive side of the ball.
Freshman safety Jordan Whitehead made his debut on the offensive side of the ball Saturday against Notre Dame, carrying the ball four times for 27 yards, scoring a pair of touchdowns.
Getting Whitehead involved in the offense is something Narduzzi has been contemplating for a while now, but finally decided to pull the trigger on the experiment last week.
“We made the decision last week when I told Coach [Jim] Chaney, ‘You got him,” said Narduzzi. “Of course Coach Chaney was like, ‘Huh? I do? Really?’ But he’s been begging for him and earlier in the season we just couldn’t afford to do it.”
But while Whitehead provided the Pitt offense with a spark, the impressive part is that he was his usual self on the defensive side of the ball, leading the Panthers with 11 tackles.
The fact that the freshman has picked things up so quickly helped prompt the move.
“He had so much he needed to learn on defense,” said Narduzzi. “But at this point, I think he knows what he is doing on defense. He has a pretty good grasp of what he has to do back there. We had some reps up in camp where we put him in there. It’s been a slow process but again, we’re focusing him on getting good at one thing and then instead of watering it down, I think he can do everything well. I think that’s key.”
Producing on the offensive side of the ball is nothing new for Whitehead, who was a dominant offensive player in high school, scoring 35 total touchdowns during his senior season at Central Valley.
Lining up on offense against Notre Dame brought him back to those high school days.
“Coach was just telling me that ‘he’s going to run it,” said Whitehead. “He was serious about it and I knew he was and when I got my chance I was just trying to make something happen. Scoring my first college touchdown was nice. It was kind of like high school again. I was comfortable being back there.”
You will likely see more packages involving Whitehead in the upcoming weeks as I am sure he will get a few more reps on the offensive side of the ball.
The fact that Reggie Mitchell is returning from injury gives Pitt added depth in the secondary as Pat Amara will likely slide over to strong safety when Whitehead needs a breather.
One thing Whitehead brings to the Pitt offense is speed, something that for the most part Pitt really lacks. But despite that added element, don’t expect to see Whitehead shifted to the offense full time.
The Panthers really can’t afford to get by on defense without Whitehead, their leading tackler. So for the short term I would expect to see him in the offense here and there as Narduzzi won’t overdo it.
“No. I think he’s a great player on defense, too,” said Narduzzi. “He’s made a ton of plays back there and if we don’t have him back there then I wonder what the yardage and points looks like. He’s a guy that I think can do a little bit of both—a lot of defense and a little bit of offense because I still have a lot of faith in Qadree [Ollison], Chris [James] and Darrin [Hall] and the quality of those guys to go get the tough yards. It’s a change-up.”
The one concern there is with playing a kid like Whitehead on both sides of the ball, is potentially tiring him out throughout the course of a game.
While the Panthers could really use the spark on offense, they can’t have perhaps their best defender worn out come the fourth quarter.
That is a line Narduzzi is going to have to carefully balance.
“It is a concern of mine,” Narduzzi said. “I think a safety is a little bit different of a guy than a receiver. Safeties are contact players anyway, not to say that receivers are not contact players. They block a little bit but they don’t come down and smack you in the hole. Jordan had a couple nice tackles on Saturday but he’s a physical player compared to a receiver. He’s more like a tailback safety as opposed to a wide receiver/cornerback. A different animal I’d say.”
If Whitehead has shown anything throughout his first nine college games, it is the fact that he is not only a playmaker, but he is also a kid that is very prepared to do his job.
That approach won’t change now that Whitehead has some extra responsibilities.
“I’m comfortable with the defense now,” Whitehead said. “I still have to make sure I do a little bit of extra study work every day, making sure I know the defensive side. Offense wasn’t too much and Nate Peterman helped me out.”
One thing is for sure and that is it will sure be exciting to see what Whitehead is capable of.
On either side of the ball.
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports