Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi’s plans for a smooth start to training camp were knocked off course Friday when he suspended three players and dismissed a fourth — three of the four from a struggling defense that can’t afford disruptions in practice time.
Junior safety Jordan Whitehead of Central Valley and senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis of Fox Chapel were suspended for the first three games, including high-profile, nonconference meetings with Penn State and Oklahoma State. Narduzzi said in a statement that the players violated team policy.
In addition, senior defensive end Rori Blair of Upper St. Clair was dismissed permanently for “conduct detrimental to the program,” and starting right guard Alex Bookser of Mt. Lebanon was suspended for the opener against Youngstown State after a DUI arrest in May.
The disciplinary actions make five this year at Pitt. Senior Jeremiah Taleni, who was expected to start at defensive tackle, was dismissed from the program this spring.
Whitehead, a second-team All-ACC selection last year and conference rookie of the year in 2015, is the most significant loss.
Coaches were planning to move him from strong safety to free safety to shore up a leaky pass defense. He has been the team’s surest tackler and one of its most valuable defenders over the past two seasons.
When Whitehead finally is eligible to return Sept. 23 at Georgia Tech in the ACC opener, he will have missed six consecutive games and seven of 12. He missed the final 3 1⁄2 last season after breaking his arm at Clemson. He also did not play Oct. 1 against Marshall, although Narduzzi declined to offer an explanation at the time.
Wirginis has been a backup for his entire Pitt career, but he was set to begin competing with sophomore Saleem Brightwell for the starting middle linebacker position when players report to camp Monday. Wirginis has four career sacks in 38 games (no starts).
Blair recorded 10 sacks while making 20 starts since 2014, and was listed as a backup to Allen Edwards in Narduzzi’s pre-camp depth chart.
He also did not play in the Pinstripe Bowl last season in what was described as a “coach’s decision.” Additionally, he was suspended for the 2015 opener after a DUI arrest.
Bookser, who started all 13 games last season, was charged with eight vehicular offenses after hitting two parked cars in Oakland on May 14.
“Our program’s foundation will always be built on discipline and personal responsibility,” Narduzzi said in a statement. “These are highly disappointing situations, but I am hopeful that each of these young men will be better, stronger and wiser after taking accountability for their actions.
“Alex Bookser will sit out the season-opening game and has also been subject to internal disciplinary measures and accountability. I’m confident he will make better decisions moving forward.
“In addition to sitting out multiple games, Quintin and Jordan will continue to be held accountable to internal standards of conduct.”
NOTE: Former Canon-McMillan and Pitt offensive lineman Alex Paulina, who left the team after last season, has transferred to Waynesburg.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.