PITTSBURGH — Pitt has its quarterback for the 2021 season, of that much we can be pretty certain.
When incumbent starter Kenny Pickett made the surprise move to return to Pitt for a fifth season after an injury-shortened 2020, he made that a pretty easy position to write in ink for Pitt’s depth chart.
The coaches solidified that decision by allowing Pickett to play just three snaps in Saturday’s Blue-Gold game, with his team ending up on the wrong end of a 30-0 rout, partially as a result.
The flip side of Pickett’s return is that Pitt’s quarterback room might have the greatest depth of talent it’s seen in Pat Narduzzi’s tenure.
Behind Pickett, redshirt junior Nick Patti, redshirt sophomores Davis Beville and Joey Yellen and freshman Nate Yarnell have been battling to both become the primary backup to Pickett this fall and cement themselves as his heir apparent for 2022.
That has shifted a couple times since Pickett took the reins. In 2019, Patti was the top backup, and had a key performance in getting Pitt wins against UCF and Delaware. In 2020, when Pickett missed significant time with injury, it was Yellen that got the first and biggest opportunity, but failed to grasp hold of the role.
This spring, it’s been a four-way battle behind Pickett, with freshman Yarnell into the fold. If Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game is any indication, Patti and Beville have done the most to separate themselves from that pack.
With Pickett a team captain on the Blue squad, the Gold team took Patti as the first quarterback take in the intra-squad draft, and his performance on Saturday suggests that was a strong decision, as he led the Gold team to two scoring drives on two chances in the first quarter, while completing 70% of his passes.
If anything, Beville was better when he took over in the second quarter. He completed every one of his passes, leading Gold to two touchdowns, including scoring one on his own on a 1-yard rush.
Patti threw for 133 yards, Beville for 102. Both had passer ratings over 200. Either looked to be capable of manning the helm for Pitt this year if Pickett is unavailable.
“Nick Patti and Davis did a great job moving their offenses down the field,” Narduzzi said. “I think it starts with the leadership in that huddle and in the guys playing for them in there and both of them made plays with their feet when they had to get out of trouble and made some people miss. (Patti) made some plays with his feet and scrambled and made some plays on the run throwing the ball.”
Both Beville and Patti contributed with their legs, as well as their arms. Patti rushed three times for 16 yards and several times was able to scramble within the pocket and find receivers down field, including Lucas Krull on his touchdown.
That lack of mobility is something that seemed to hamper Yellen in 2020, and with mixed-up offensive lines on Saturday, it was certainly an environment that seemed to be more forgiving to Pitt’s more mobile quarterbacks.
“I mean, Joe Yellen had a great spring, he really did,” Narduzzi said. “You know, obviously it didn’t show with the Blue team. You look at it, and you don’t put it on a quarterback. I think the spring game is tough, because he doesn’t have his tools. And who is he throwing to, compared to the other side? So I think you have to throw that in there.”
Yellen’s top targets were Jaylon Barden, Tre Tipton and freshman Gavin Bartholomew, while the Gold squad featured Taysir Mack, Jared Wayne and Krull. All that adds up to a situation that may stretch into the summer and fall, even with Beville and Patti showing more promise on Saturday.
“It may,” Narduzzi said. “I was hoping we’d at least have some good decisions right now. But again, they’ve all showed signs.”
WORTH WAITING FOR
When Krull came to Pitt in 2020, he appeared to be the kind of player the Panthers have been waiting a long time to get: a tight end that can make an impact in the passing game.
When he was injured and lost for the season in the first game last fall, Pitt fans had to wait another year to see the talented 6-foot-6 Krull in action.
If his performance on Saturday is any indication, he’ll have been worth the wait. Krull caught just two passes in relatively limited action, but both were impactful. With Patti scrambling to his left, Krull released up the left sideline and then went down around his ankles to haul in a pass for a first down, and then he won handily at the top of his route on a corner route that Patti dropped in for the game’s first score.
“Lucas Krull had a great day,” Narduzzi said. “Obviously didn’t get many reps like Kenny didn’t. … We’re excited about what that tight end (group) can do. Again, we talk run game, you have to have tight ends in the run game. It’s hard to to run the football without it, so if we can get out there in some two-tight ends on offense and even one really good tight end out there at times, it changes things for defenses and it gives you an opportunity to run the ball better.”
The additions of Krull and Bartholomew — who as a freshman early enrollee was the first overall pick in the split-squad draft — to returners Danny Moraga and Kyi Wright has the Pitt tight end room looking like it can be a difference-maker for the first time in a while.
“I feel like from last year to where we’re at now, it’s just been that chemistry, that unit togetherness and I think it’s just, we’re gonna be extremely explosive with 8 back there controlling the game,” Krull said. “It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
QUIP OF ALL TRADES
Another player that Pitt fans — at least those Pitt fans that don’t frequent Beaver County high school football games — got their first look at was Kentucky transfer M.J. Devonshire.
Devonshire’s versatility was one of the big reasons the Panthers jumped at a second chance to land the Aliquippa grad when he entered the transfer portal, after just missing on him the first time around out of high school.
While Devonshire was initially recruited as a cornerback out of high school and played there with the Wildcats, he took his first reps in blue and gold playing exclusively field safety.
Damar Hamlin’s departure for the NFL leaves a big hole at the position for the Panthers, and that’s a position that is one of the most physically demanding on Pitt’s defense. The field safety is frequently responsible for playing in isolated off-ball coverage against slot corners in Pitt’s quarters scheme, as well as coming up in run support at times and playing back in deep halves or thirds on passing downs.
While Erick Hallett was Hamlin’s top understudy last year, he missed all of this spring with an injury, so Narduzzi took the opportunity to get Devonshire a ton of reps by slotting him into the position. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s where he’ll stay, but a solid audition this spring could certainly give him a head start at securing a starting role this fall.
“We know we’ve got to find a way to get him on the field,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve got to find a way to continue to progress him through the defensive terminology and just doing everything exactly the way we want it done.”
He also didn’t rule out a move back to cornerback at some point, though Pitt’s secondary is arguably deeper on the outside, with Damarri Mathis coming back from injury after missing all of 2020, Marquis Williams and A.J. Woods both looking to build from experience gained last fall and Rashad Battle pushing that whole group for playing time.
“M.J. can play corner or safety,” Narduzzi said. “I think he could do both. We wanted to put him at the safety position this spring and then we may move into a corner, who knows? Because I think he can play that as well. He’s fast and athletic and probably maybe more natural there. With Hallett being out this spring, we thought we’d put him and Jud (Tallandier) and let those guys battle it out with PJ O’Brien at the field spot.”
Devonshire’s versatility doesn’t end there. He was a prolific kick and punt returner in high school and was Blue’s punt returner on Saturday, though the kicks were not returned live.”
He also played a little bit of wide receiver, making one catch on a deflected ball. Narduzzi was hesitant to give a full endorsement of the idea of Devonshire being a three-phase player, as Pitt has done in the past with players like Jordan Whitehead.
“We’ve got to get him 100% solid at safety, but M.J. is a great athlete,” Narduzzi said. “He can make plays, he’s shown he’s got great ball skills. So I think that’s why the they threw him on offense, to see if they could get him get him a couple catches. … Again, it’s 15 days as the safety and 30 overall, as far as the coaching in between and all the video sessions we’ve had watching practice tape. So, I think he’s where he needs to be after 15, but he’s got to be a lot better as we get into fall camp and moving into the season.”
MAN IN THE MIDDLE
Like most college football teams, Pitt suffered some significant losses to the NFL following the 2020 season.
Hamlin, Paris Ford and Jason Pinnock are no longer in the secondary. Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver will no longer terrorize quarterbacks. Even kicker Alex Kessman has moved on.
Among the biggest changes will be a lack of Jimmy Morrissey in the center of the offensive line. Morrissey was a four-year starter at center for Pitt, so it’ll be a bit strange to not see No. 67 in the middle of the Panthers’ line.
But for all four years that Morrissey was a starter, his backup was Owen Drexel. Drexel, now a redshirt senior after a long time waiting his turn, performed well on Saturday, regardless of which quarterback was taking his snaps.
“Owen’s really learned from Jimmy and he does a great job,” Narduzzi said. “He leads the offense. He leads, they call themselves the hogs and he’s been leading on the field. It’s his position right now to lose. So he just continues to play at a high level.”
The only other center on scholarship is freshman Terrence Rankl, so Drexel’s real competition at the spot would have likely come from sliding right guard Jake Kradel over a spot. That would in turn open a guard spot, perhaps for Blake Zubovic, who missed Saturday’s game, or Matt Goncalves, who can play guard or tackle, but was the top pick at the latter spot.
Drexel turning out to be a quality starter is the easiest solution, though, and leaves Pitt’s three returning starters at their natural positions, while transfer Marcus Minor is expected to replace Bryce Hargrove at left guard.
The situation in defensive secondary coming into the spring shook out as stated above, with Mathis set at one corner, Brandon Hill taking over for Paris Ford, Williams and Woods competing at the other corner and Devonshire getting a chance at field safety with Hallett.
But Hallett wasn’t just Hamlin’s backup last year, he was also the team’s Delta package fifth defensive back. That position has largely been manned by safeties in Narduzzi’s tenure at Pitt, with players like Hallett and Dennis Briggs manning the spot in the past.
But on Saturday, sophomore corner Rashad Battle put his name into that hat with a strong in-the-box performance. The corner had a game-high seven tackles and two sacks as a pass rusher, something that not too many corners have been allowed to do in Pitt’s scheme.
“We put him into that position to be able to blitz because he’s really smart,” Narduzzi said. “I think he’s got the ability to be that. He told me he had two sacks today. … He’s been good. He’s got a chance to be you know, that Nickel back, as well as some other guys. He missed a few days during spring being banged up. So it was good that he was able to finish strong and gets reps, With the the amount of days he missed during spring ball in the middle, he’s really made a great comeback. He had a great scrimmage last week, and it looked like he was pretty productive (Saturday).”
Battle could push Williams and Woods and certainly looks to be in line to grab some playing time after Mathis moves on. But the Delta spot could be an opportunity for him to get some work in right away.
It’s interesting that Narduzzi called it a Nickel, and not Delta. Perhaps, due to limited depth at safety, Pitt will play more 4-2-5 (3 CB) Nickel as opposed to the 3-3-5 (3 safety) Delta they have in the past. That would make Battle an even more likely possibility for more playing time in 2021.