Every great college program has an identity.
If you close your mind and picture a great Miami Hurricanes team, you’ll probably think of a defense so full of athletes that offenses won’t have ever have an inch of space to work in, not to mention a nose for the football.
If you consider a great Wisconsin Badgers squad, you’ll likely think of a five-man, corn-fed offensive line that may as well be a series of bulldozers as it grades away defense.
A winning Florida Gators team brings to mind an offense overflowing with skill position talent and a coach that doesn’t mind running up the score.
What does a winning Pitt Panthers program look like? Frankly, it’s hard to tell. Pitt had some success under Dave Wannstedt and Walt Harris in the early part of this century with vastly divergent schemes. The one position that stands out about the successful Pitt teams of the last century is probably offensive line.
But this is a completely new Pitt program, with very few ties to Pitt’s recent past, let alone its actual past, and it’s also a team with a different focus. Quarterback guru Mark Whipple was not brought in to make stars of Pitt’s offensive line, but to help lead conservative head coach Pat Narduzzi to a 21st-century offense.
If there’s a position that feels like it has the chance to be the hallmark of a successful Narduzzi-led team, it’s the defensive line.
The Panthers had a strong unit in 2018, when Dewayne Hendrix, Keyshon Camp, Amir Watts and Rashad Weaver patrolled the neutral zone. When Camp and Weaver missed 2019 with injuries, Patrick Jones II and Jaylen Twyman stepped up into stardom, while players like Deslin Alexandre, Habakkuk Baldonado and John Morgan earned significant roles.
This season, Pitt is expecting to eventually get Camp and Weaver back, though they missed the season opener in COVID-19 protocol. Twyman has moved on, but Thomas Jefferson alum Devin Danielson looks stout at defensive tackle and Westinghouse grad Dayon Hayes impressed late in Saturday’s game as a true freshman.
Even with Camp, Jones and Weaver all expected to leave for the NFL after the 2020 season, Pitt’s roster looks deep and talented along the defensive line, even before factoring in the impressive haul Narduzzi, defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and Pittsburgh recruiter Cory Sanders have coming in the Class of 2021.
Four-star Central Catholic defensive tackle Elliot Donald, the consensus No. 6 player in the state and four-star West Mifflin defensive end Nahki Johnson, the No. 9 player in Pennsylvania, were joined on Thursday by the state’s No. 12 player, three-star Baldwin defensive tackle Dorien Ford in committing two Pitt.
That’s three players in the Top 15 in the state and the three best defensive linemen, all in the same class. That’s not rebuilding. It’s not even reloading. It’s upgrading an arsenal that was already one of the ACC’s best.
Pitt’s top contributors over the last few years not all been top talents. Rivals called Jones and Weaver two-star prospects. Baldonado didn’t have a Power Five offer until a few weeks before his signing day and had played one season of football in this country before coming to Pitt.
The binding tie there is the incredible job in both recruiting and development by Pitt defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. Partridge joined the Pitt staff in 2017 for his second run in Pittsburgh after serving from 2003-07 under Harris and Wannstedt.
Pitt’s defensive line has the potential to be one of the best in the country, both this year and for the rest of the foreseeable future, and success on the defensive front has the potential to be the reason for some of the best results on the field Pitt has had in recent memory.
They’re not a dynasty yet, unless you count winning the Quick Lane Bowl last December as part of Pitt’s great teams. But they have one of the ingredients ready to go.