If Charlie Partridge is running his defensive line unit through drills during practice, there’s a certain level of engagement and coaching that he expects from the unit. And it’s not just from himself either.
During a recent practice, Partridge made a quick coaching point during a drill and when the follow-up from his unit wasn’t exactly what he wanted to see, he stopped everyone. “Fellas, our expectation here is we’re going to coach each other,” he told his players, knowing which guys would take it to heart.
With the level of intelligence and experience in Pitt’s defensive line room, Partridge expects his veterans to basically serve as assistant coaches on the practice field and make sure the younger players truly absorb what’s being taught. And Partridge’s expectations have been adopted by the veterans.
“If you don’t do it out on the field, why do think they would believe they can do it? So, you gotta show them every day, if I can do it at this point, I’m taking the step in the classroom and outside on the field to make these big jumps, then you can do it as well,” John Morgan said.
Pitt’s Defensive Line Depth Inside and Outside
Quarterbacks and edge rushers. If don’t have a quarterback, and you can’t get after the other team’s quarterback, you’re going to be in for a rough time.
Pitt is still awaiting the results of a quarterback competition between Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti to replace Kenny Pickett in 2022, but if there’s one thing that Pitt prides itself on, it’s hauling down opposing quarterbacks. After finishing second in college football in sacks last season, anything less than first in 2022 will be considered a disappointment.
With just one defensive line starter leaving the program after last season, defensive tackle Keyshon Camp, who put together a solid Pro Day performance Monday, it’s a veteran unit that still features some of head coach Pat Narduzzi’s highest-ranked recruits pushing for increased playing time.
It’s a unit that has Charlie Partridge, Pitt’s associate head coach and defensive line coach, excited. He’s been around the program for a decade, serving in his current role for the last six seasons, and it might be his smartest unit yet.
“This is probably the biggest group that I’ve had that I’m able to have those next-level conversations,” Partridge said last Thursday. “I look here at my depth chart, Deslin (Alexandre), (John) Morgan, Dayon Hayes, Nate Temple, (Calijah) Kancey, (Tyler) Bentley, Devin (Danielson), David Green — who had a great practice — these are all guys I can have high-level conversations with, and I’m excited about where their game is.”
It’s an experienced unit, with Habakkuk Baldonado, Kancey and Alexandre combining for 39 starts in 2021 alone, and all three return in 2022. Kancey and Baldonado earned All-ACC honors (along with SirVocea Dennis and Brandon Hill), and Alexandre provides a veteran voice in the room to go along with solid production off the edge.
“This year I’m taking a leadership role as an older guy teaching the younger guys, taking the younger guys under my wings, and putting everybody together so we’ll all be at one pace,” Kancey said earlier this March. “I kinda felt like that last year, but this year I feel it more. I’m one of the older guys on the defensive line and on the defense.”
Kancey broke through as a sophomore in 2021 with a team-high 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks, earning third-team All-American honors, despite a “slight” 6-foot-0, 275-pound frame at the point of attack. Partridge pointed to another former Pitt star that didn’t let size get in the way of massive college production — and eventual NFL superstardom.
“One of the things (Kancey is) going to have to prove to himself at the next level and just continue to — and he did a nice job, so I don’t want to mislead you with my answer here — but as we know, he’s smaller in stature than some defensive tackles,” Partridge said. “I have no problem with that, and neither will the next level as we know from a guy who’s name is right there (Aaron Donald) … it’s the double teams in the run game where they’re trying to go right at him where his technique really needs to be on the level of perfection, and when he does that, he can split double teams and make big plays.”
Despite the loss of defensive line partner, with players like Tyler Bentley and Devin Danielson currently in line to step into Camp’s departed role on the defensive line, Partridge is already seeing Kancey grow into his role as a leader on the defense.
“There’s a standard in the room, and there’s an expectation from player to player about guys coming in and getting extra, and Calijah is one of those guys who’s holding other people accountable to that,” Partridge said.
Aside from Bentley and Danielson, players like David Green and Bam Brima are also expected to make an impact on Pitt’s defensive line. Green provided depth last season while Brima is expected to make a jump as a redshirt junior in 2022.
Green’s strong spring performance so far hasn’t stopped him for looking at ways to improve, however, as he’s still looking at ways to learn and grow as a player. And it’s a mindset that’s permeated the entire defensive line room.
“We look at it, but we try to stay level-headed each and every day,” Green said. “So, we had a great day yesterday but we can get even better today. We don’t look at bad days, we look at days to get better on, learn from the mistakes we had. So, it’s definitely a great time because we always find stuff to work on.”
Kancey, Bentley, Danielson and Green provide a solid base up the middle, and Pitt fans will be excited to see the younger guys fighting for playing time throughout the season. Elliot Donald has the size, pedigree and elite background, but he’s working on consistency. Dorien Ford stands at 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds. Sean FitzSimmons has already impressed his coaches and teammates as an early enrollee.
The stout run stuffers and disruptive pass rushers up the middle give way to the elite, electric edge rushers that Partridge is working with in 2022.
Dayon Hayes has all the potential in the world, showing flashes in 2021 with 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks over the final three games, and he’s putting all the pieces together this spring. With a 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame, he’s primed for an even greater role on the edge.
With freakish speed and strength in an NFL-size frame, Partridge is excited about the potential Hayes has now that’s putting all of the pieces together.
“What’s fun for me is now (Hayes is) putting together effort and technique and knowledge,” Partridge said. “When you combine those three things as a defensive lineman, you have a chance for a lot of success, and he’s shown a lot more signs of doing all three of those things in the first five practices. He’s really elevated his game.”
And if Hayes isn’t starting Week 1 against West Virginia on Sept. 1, that won’t stop what should be a double-digit sack season. Alexandre and Morgan have both been tabbed as key contributors in 2022, and Baldonado is perhaps the key cog that drives Pitt’s defense forward. Partridge envisions even greater heights for his star edge rusher too.
“(Baldonado) comes to me after practice, and he’s already got cut-ups made of himself put in different sections,” Partridge said. “These are things he built to watch with me, that’s a sign of a guy who’s approaching the game the right way.”
Despite 12 tackles for loss and a team-leading nine sacks in 2021, Partridge feels like Baldonado was only inches away on many occasions from hauling an opposing quarterback or running back down in the backfield, and Baldonado is working toward finishing those plays in 2022 — and helping his teammates reach those heights he’s striving for himself.
“What’s funny is I’ve kinda got a group that comes in early in the morning, that’s your 100 level class, and then some of the older guys will come in and take part in that,” Partridge said. “Then there are some very cool night conversations where guys come in voluntarily on their own and ask for extra, and Haba is the one that comes to all of them. It’s pretty cool to watch him take the 300 level class and then walk into the 100 level class and teach those guys.”
Those ‘late night conversations’ have worked their way into the culture of the defensive line room, and Morgan himself has seen how those talks have translated from film sessions to actual production on the practice field and in games themselves.
“(Partridge) calls it ‘late night conversations,’ those conversations where they don’t see with all the younger guys in the room,” Morgan said. “He breaks down deeper what he says based on our games, like I could bring to my game that week or at practice that he doesn’t really think other guys can grasp. He’ll come to me and say, ‘OK, John, we might want to work on this today.’”
With the older players getting those in-depth, late night talks, the will to get better is trickling down through the entire room. And it hasn’t been particularly hard for the younger players to buy into the system.
“It’s easy because you practice what you preach,” Green said. “You say something, but you’ve also got to prove to them too. And they’re really visual learners too. I feel like we all are. So, once they say, it clicks like that.”
Nahki Johnson is playing with more physicality than ever before, Sam Williams is showcasing his immense football IQ and Bam Brima is playing his best football since arriving at Pitt — playing inside and outside, as Partridge said he’ll be deep in Pitt’s 2022 rotation.
FitzSimmons and Samuel Okunlola, the two defensive line early enrollees, have already impressed Partridge, and the veterans have seen their dedication in learning the playbook, taking the lessons learned in the room and applying it on the field. Morgan said their confidence is clear to see already.
With Baldonado, Alexandre, Hayes, Morgan and Brima providing a strong foundation of edge rushers, with Johnson, Okunlola, Williams and Temple fighting for playing time, it’s a deep, talented unit that should once again pace college football.
The Goal Set for 2022
Pitt won the ACC championship in 2021, the first in team history, with a 55-21 win over Wake Forest at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.
It was a groundbreaking win for Pitt, one which has set the foundation for what many hope to be a resurgence in Pitt football. It was the goal for Pitt in 2021, and with that goal accomplished, the defense is dreaming for even more in 2022.
“At this point, we’ve achieved what we wanted to,” Morgan said. “We got the ACC championship, so at this point, we’re trying to set ourselves up for the next level and keep this same dominant level throughout the room. Of course, we want another ACC championship, but we’re reaching for the national championship. We’re reaching for being one of the most disruptive defenses across the country. We’re trying to be the best defensive line to ever come through the University of Pittsburgh.”