After 11 days off for spring break, Pitt hit the field at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side, and after a slow, sloppy start, head coach Pat Narduzzi said the offense and defense rounded into form for a good showing in Practice No. 4.
The quarterback battle between Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti is the biggest story, but Narduzzi said the running backs stole the show indoors on Tuesday. “I haven’t seen our run game look like that for a couple of years, I think you guys will eventually be impressed there,” Narduzzi said after practice.
There are still 11 sessions left this spring, including the Blue & Gold Spring Game on April 9, so while there’s still a lot to be determined, let’s run through Narduzzi’s thoughts after session four.
An Invigorated Running Game Will Lead to “Two-Dimensional” Offense
Kenny Pickett is gone. Well, actually he’s back in Pittsburgh, but he will not be leading Pitt’s offense in 2022. With Pickett heading out and a new leader taking the position for the first time in years, Frank Cignetti Jr.’s does point to a renewed interest in the run game.
“Yeah, I think so,” Narduzzi said. “I mean, you don’t have Kenny Pickett back there. Obviously, in making the (offensive coordinator) hire, I thought the run game was going to be more important. … I think the run game is going to be more important for us this year. You guys have seen the run game a little bit, but it’s gotta get better like we’ve tried to get every year for the last three years.
“We’ve got some weapons on offense, I think, and when you can be two dimensional — you got an offensive line that can not only protect the quarterback but also generate a run game, then the offensive line is critical.”
Narduzzi has said that Israel Abanikanda is the No. 1 guy, but the three-headed monster of Abanikanda, Vincent Davis and Rodney Hammond Jr. is three No. 1 caliber guys. With a completely intact offensive line, along with additional reinforcements, the run game will be improved in 2022. However, the passing game will be led by perhaps the best wide receiving corps in college football.
“We’re gonna spread it out,” Narduzzi said. “Jordan Addison is gonna get the ball. As well as some other guys, we’ve got some weapons all over the place, but I think that’s gonna make a defense go, ‘what am I doing?’ It’s not gonna be one-dimensional, we want to be two-dimensional. I think you always want to be that way.”
Tight End Depth Behind Gavin Bartholomew
Gavin Bartholomew is primed for a breakthrough season, standing even bigger and stronger at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds after a freshman All-American campaign in 2021, but Lucas Krull’s role in the offense still needs to be addressed.
“Jake Renda has gotten bigger,” Narduzzi said. “Cole Mitchell. Kyi (Wright) is about 75-80 percent right now; we could let him go but we haven’t. Kaymar (Mimes) has done a nice job as well. So, it’s a continual evaluation, but we like to play 12 personnel, two tight ends sets as well as our four wideouts.”
Wright, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound redshirt junior, is working back from injury and Mimes, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound redshirt senior converted defensive end, has served as a reserve option for the last two seasons.
Renda and Mitchell, a pair of redshirt freshmen, both have potential in the system as young, up-and-coming options a la Bartholomew in 2021. Renda, at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, enrolled early at Pitt last year out of IMG Academy, and he’s going through his second spring session in 2022.
Krull was the lead option in Pitt’s system in 2021, but Bartholomew is more than up for filling his shoes. A secondary option like Renda or Mitchell taking a step forward in 2022 would go a long way in stocking up Pitt’s offense.
New Additions Already Making a Mark in Spring Ball
Pitt added three impact transfers to the roster for the 2022 season at quarterback, wide receiver and linebacker, and Narduzzi said all three guys have already begun to make their marks on the program.
“Konata (Mumpfield) has been really good at wideout, he shows that he’s going to be playing for us,” Narduzzi said. “Slovis has done a nice job as well, you guys will eventually get a chance to watch him and see him in practice. Shayne Simon, Shayne’s going to play a lot of football for us. I’m happy with where he is.”
Mumpfield joins a loaded wide receiving corps, linking up with Addison and Jared Wayne to provide a stellar starting trio. Slovis is, of course, competing with Patti for the chance to supply Pitt’s receiving corps throughout the 2022 season, and the USC transfer has already experienced great success at the college level. Simon, a Notre Dame transfer, appears to be locking down one of the open linebacker spots in 2022.
“Addison Copeland is a work in progress, just learning,” Narduzzi said. “The guy that made some nice plays out here is Ryland Gandy. I noticed him at corner just playing with good technique. For a freshman, if he doesn’t hit the wall, he’s gonna find himself on the field. Pope.”
Gandy, a 6-foot-0, 170-pound cornerback out of Georgia, already appears to be at least competing for the chance to fill the open boundary cornerback spot in 2022, and Narduzzi pointed to Marquan Pope — a 6-foot-1, 210-pound linebacker out of Texas — as a guy who has impressed with his speed and athleticism.
Linebacker Progress Still Not Up to Task
However, the linebacking corps is still not up to where Narduzzi wants it.
“It’s a work in progress,” Narduzzi said. “We’re not going to click our fingers and let ‘em happen, but we’ll watch the tape. There was some good things last Friday, 11 days ago Friday or whatever it is, but it’s a work in progress. It’s not where we want it to be right now.”
SirVocea Dennis has the Mike spot locked down as one of the leaders of Pitt’s defense, and Simon appears to be trending toward the Money position starter, but the Star position is still up in the air. Bangally Kamara, Solomon DeShields, Buddy Mack III and Marquan Pope have all been competing for the open slot, and it appears that competition is likely to continue for a while yet.
Nick Patti’s Collarbone is Not a Concern This Spring
Patti trotted out alongside Slovis on the first day of Pitt’s spring practices in late February, and he hasn’t looked back during the quarterback competition currently in the works. After offseason surgery for a broken collarbone sustained in the Peach Bowl, Narduzzi confirmed Patti is competing at full speed.
“Nick looks great, I mean we’re not hitting him, but his progress is good,” Narduzzi said. “You would think there’s nothing wrong with him, he’s got enough screws in that collarbone right now, he’s healthy.”
The Future Pros Rolling Back Into Town for Pro Day
Kenny Pickett, fresh off his NFL Combine performance, strolled into the facility Tuesday morning, interacting with players and coaches as practice rolled on, and Narduzzi said it was nice to have him back.
“It was great to see Kenny Pickett,” Narduzzi said. “I saw him yesterday, he was in, he’ll be here all week getting ready for Pro Day. Throwing with the receivers in the evening, just getting timed up and ready to roll.”
Lucas Krull and Damarri Mathis, who will both be in action for Pitt’s Pro Day on March 21, were also around, Narduzzi said, and it speaks to the culture that has been built at Pitt where old players want to come back and be a part of the program.