With a team coming off a conference championship, there’s an opportunity to buckle down and work harder or sit back and relish the success. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi feels like his team has put last season’s ACC title in the rear-view mirror already.
“The only way you gauge that is how they practice,” Narduzzi said Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Do they think they’re too good now to practice? Do they want to have a different attitude? Again, the attitude has been let’s go to work. So, that’s how I gauge it. We don’t talk a lot about it. I should say we don’t talk about it at all.”
Despite the losses of some veteran leaders, namely Kenny Pickett, Pitt’s spring practices have been lively and competitive, and after a Tuesday practice that left Narduzzi wanting more, Pitt more than answered the call Thursday.
“Practice 11, I was a lot more pleased with today compared to Tuesday,” Narduzzi said. “Just more energy, I don’t know what they did over the weekend, maybe they were watching too much of the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, stayed up too late, but we had a lot of energy today. Physical, clean, so I’m good with today’s practice.”
With just over a week before Pitt’s 2022 Blue-Gold Spring Game on Saturday, April 9, there are only three practice sessions left before the big scrimmage down at Heinz Field.
The New Offense is Almost Implemented
In making the switch from Mark Whipple’s offense to Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense, Pitt’s coaches and players have taken the transition in stride, without much of a stumble along the way. It’s not all that much different from Whipple’s offense, but the terminology and twists added by Cignetti and wide receivers coach Tiquan Underwood have led to an adjustment period.
“I’d say we’ve probably got about 80 percent of (the offense) in,” Narduzzi said. “We got a lot of stuff in right now, I mean a lot, and the offense is very … to what we’ve done. Some of the new stuff we’ve added in is gonna really help us, especially our run game. Our pass game will be pretty good.”
Pitt’s 2022 offense under Cignetti will be more run-heavy than in seasons past, with an actual focus on establishing a run game to open up opportunities in the passing game, but Narduzzi has seen how the offense has incorporated up-tempo and huddle sets while continuing 22 (two tight ends and two running backs) and 10 (four wide receivers) personnel concepts.
After running the same offense for the past three seasons, Narduzzi said the Pitt defense is seeing brand-new things. And that should only help both the offense and defense grow.
With Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti still battling for the starting quarterback gig, the eventual winner will have an embarrassment of riches to work with outside. One of those star receivers is Akron transfer Konata Mumpfield.
“(Konata has) really done a nice job,” Narduzzi said. “He’s gonna play a lot of football for us. When you look at it, he’s athletic, he’s quick twitch, when you get the ball in his hands, he can make a play.”
Narduzzi said that Jordan Addison, Jaylon Barden and Mumpfield will play inside while Jared Wayne and Jaden Bradley will play outside. Gavin Bartholomew will be able to play along the line, inside and outside — giving Pitt a deep, talented receiving corps in 2022.
Rashad Battle is Battling for a Bigger Role
Rashad Battle has bounced around a bit since arriving at Pitt as a three-star cornerback in 2020. He arrived as a cornerback, played a season as a reserve, switched to safety, played a season as a reserve safety, and now he’s finally locked back in to play as a cornerback. And Narduzzi is happy that he’s gotten Battle back to corner.
“Sometimes you make dumb decisions as coaches, get the wrong guy, but I really like what we’ve done getting him back to corner,” Narduzzi said.
Battle, at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, has impressed being back at corner this spring, and Narduzzi feels like he’ll play a key role in Pitt’s defense. With Battle’s size and athleticism, he’ll rotate at corner, but he’ll also be a factor in replacing Johnny Petrishen’s Star role on third down plays — Battle and Javon McIntyre working to fill that void.
With Petrishen last season, a converted safety, Pitt didn’t need five defensive backs on the field on third down plays, but that’ll change in 2022.
A cornerback corps of Marquis Williams, A.J. Woods, M.J. Devonshire, Battle and perhaps Ryland Gandy features a lot of speed. But Battle’s size really stands out among the group.
Jake Renda Carving Out TE 2 Role
When Jake Renda arrived at Pitt out of IMG Academy, he was listed at 230. But he was all of 210 pounds. After a year in the program, he’s put on 40 pounds, and he’s earned the No. 2 tight end spot in Pitt’s offense.
“Yeah, I’d say Renda is No. 2 right now,” Narduzzi said. “Renda’s doing a nice job. He came in here at 210 pounds, he’s 255 right now, he’s bigger, stronger. He’s playing really well. So, he would be that extra tight end in there, and we could also sub with an offensive lineman as well.”
With Gavin Bartholomew firmly in place as Pitt’s lead tight end, Renda is fully capable of not only lining up as a receiving threat, but now he can go head to head with Pitt’s defensive ends too.