Pitt’s defense is already beginning to round into form, and it’s a unit that’s very experienced upfront, minimally experienced in the middle and bordering on solid on the back end. Pitt’s returning defensive line starters made 39 starts in 2021 alone.
The linebackers? Not so much. So, how is that being rectified? Lots of athleticism, lots of energy and lots of optimism.
Pitt’s Tuesday session of spring practices on a cold, frosty day down on the South Side wasn’t exactly the effort that head coach Pat Narduzzi wanted to see, but that’s just part of the territory.
“Saturday’s practice was really good,” Narduzzi said Thursday. “There were some great things on offense and great things on defense, and you’re really excited. But they didn’t come out today. It’s like this, it’s like a yo-yo. You’re going up and down, and you try to push them to be three percent better every day.”
With a hearty scrimmage on Saturday, full of energy despite the snow keeping Pitt indoors instead of at Heinz Field, the defense did just enough to win the day and earn the “Blue” jerseys at practice. Tuesday’s practice was good, not great, Narduzzi said.
“I just felt like the effort was not as good as I wanted it to be,” Narduzzi said. “And again, we’ll check the tape, maybe I’m dead wrong, sometimes it looks different and maybe they’re being nice and taking care of their teammates, but you still gotta stud stuff and make plays.”
Bangally Kamara Continues to Emerge as a
When Shayne Simon arrived at Pitt as a high-profile transfer from Notre Dame, he said he would join the competition for Money linebacker. With Bangally Kamara seemingly destined for the Money spot after spending two reserve seasons there, Simon’s addition clouded his future, but Kamara has emerged as perhaps the leader to start at Money through 10 spring practices.
“Bangally was out of his mind Saturday, and I think he shut it down today,” Narduzzi said. “He went hard on Saturday and shut it down today, so I was a little disappointed in him. But Saturday he was all over the place, he was impressive.”
Teammates and coaches have pointed to Kamara as a potential breakout player in 2022, and despite Simon’s presence, or perhaps because of Simon’s presence, Kamara has taken his game to another level. With a 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame, he’s built for the position. And now he’s putting the pieces together.
Kamara and Solomon DeShields have gotten better and better as the spring has rolled on, especially since Narduzzi said he felt the linebackers were behind where he would’ve liked earlier this month, and both will have key roles in Pitt’s defense in 2022.
With SirVocea Dennis, Brandon George, Kamara, Simon, DeShields, Tylar Wiltz and Buddy Mack III, it’s a unit that may lack in experience, but it more than makes up in athleticism and energy. The trick now will be making sure the positive steps forward outweigh eventual lapses during the season.
A.J. Woods Taking Steps Toward Filling Damarri Mathis’s Shoes
With Marquis Williams manning the field cornerback slot in 2022, the question of who would fill Damarri Mathis’s role on the boundary may be nearing its conclusion. A.J. Woods has impressed coaches so far this spring, after playing in a reserve role last season.
Woods, who said Tuesday that he runs a 4.31 40-yard dash, played in 13 games last season, picking up his only start in place of Mathis in the Peach Bowl. Narduzzi said Woods has been playing at a high level this spring, and his game will only continue to grow as the spring and summer continue.
“He just continues to go,” Narduzzi said. “He’s fast, he’s playing with great technique, it’s just finding his technique. Coach Collins has done a great job with him.”
However, while Woods is establishing himself at boundary cornerback, it’s not just Woods who is making an impact throughout spring practices. Narduzzi pointed to a couple of young cornerbacks that are impressive, which further cements Pitt’s defensive back depth as worthy of sustaining this season and beyond.
“M.J. Devonshire, the same thing,” Narduzzi said. “… M.J.’s really playing at a high level, (Ryland) Gandy continues to impress, obviously Marquis has been solid all along.”
Williams, Woods, Devonshire and someone like Rashad Battle, Pitt’s secondary is talented. Unproven but talented. And younger guys like Gandy and Khalil Anderson are both impressing the coaching staff and teammates. Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett will lead the defensive secondary in 2022, but there are fresh faces waiting for the chance.