The stakes for Saturday’s Blue-Gold Spring Game are literally that. Steaks.
“You’re either eating steaks or hot dogs,” Charlie Partridge said about the rewards of winning the Spring Game. “The winner goes to one part of the cafeteria, loser goes to the other. I think they’re dirty water dogs too, they get them from Heinz Field after the last Steelers game.”
Pitt’s 2022 Blue-Gold Spring Game doesn’t count against the season schedule, but with the cafeteria rights at stake, it’s a must-win game on all sides. And, of course, the Spring Game gives a chance for all of Pitt’s roster players to make an impact at a stage like Heinz Field.
Partridge, Pitt’s associate head coach and defensive line coach, will head up the Gold team while Frank Cignetti Jr., Pitt’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, will head up the Blue team.
With Wednesday’s intrasquad draft and Thursday’s first and only chance to work somewhat within those squads, the stage is already set for Saturday’s game. And the lead-up to Saturday’s game will continue all the way up through the 1 p.m. kickoff.
“We’ll actually commit part of tomorrow’s practice to continue to progress,” Partridge said Wednesday. “Coach Cignietti is really still putting in his offense in, and his approach has been to really build his install schedule up until September 1st. So, he needed tomorrow to get some good work on additional install and then we’re shifting to the spring game. And the thing we as coaches look for a lot in the spring game is how a kid performs in that environment at Heinz Field with their family in the stands and with competition on the line.”
With that approach, a slow, steady installation of the biggest offense Pitt has implemented in a few seasons, Thursday’s practice may have been tailored the Blue and Gold teams, but it didn’t change the overall progress Cignetti has seen this spring.
“We’ve had a great spring,” Cignetti said Wednesday. “Really impressed with the players, their work ethic, the skill, the ability that we have here. I think the coaches have done a great job coaching and teaching. Very pleased with where we are after 12 practices.”
Cignetti said the offensive personnel as a whole has been great, with both players and coaching embracing the new scheme that’s being added to the already-in-place offense of the past few seasons. It’s the biggest offense in a few seasons, twice the offense as last season, so Cignetti is really proud of how the entire group has come together to embrace establishing a run game — which only opens up added opportunity in the passing game.
“We talk about same plays, different ways, different personnel groupings,” Cignetti said. “Same concepts, just dressing them up different ways.”
The biggest part of the new offense, of course, is the departure of Kenny Pickett, and the quarterback competition between Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti. Cignetti has Slovis while Partridge has Patti. With first-team reps having been split 50-50 so far this spring, and Narduzzi remaining tight-lipped, Saturday’s game is the first chance to see the progress both have made this spring.
Cignetti said that both have had great springs so far, excelling in the classroom and as coachable players — along with the entire quarterbacks room — but the progress he’s seen has been in decision-making. It’s been a joy for Cignetti to coach such passionate players, but there are areas of improvement he’ll be watching for, nonetheless.
“Well, it’s very simple,” Cignetti said. “You look at the quarterback position, what you gotta be able to do, you gotta be able to complete the football, you gotta be an accurate passer, you gotta make good decisions, you gotta minimize turnovers, you gotta be able to extend plays. So, you look for a guy who is capable of running the offensive efficiently.”
It’s tough to gauge just who each quarterback will have as a weapon, with their own playing time subject to change, but the quarterback who can run the offense most effectively will emerge. The guy who can make checks at the line, complete accurate throws around the field, minimize turnovers and just get the offense in position.
However, it’s not just the offense that’s under the microscope. There are some positional battles across the defense, namely at linebacker and cornerback, and the versatility across the board led Partridge to laud some of his team’s picks.
“I thought the guys on our team did a really good job of addressing needs, doing a great job of prioritizing, trying to take a combination of what was best on the board and where we needed to fill some holes,” Partridge said.
While the Gold team is weak at Mike linebacker, having Shayne Simon — who has played both Mike and Money linebacker this spring — is an added benefit. And with Bam Brima coming off the board as a high draft pick Wednesday, his inside-outside versatility will be much needed Saturday.
But at the end of the day, regardless of the end score on Saturday, the ability to go through the spring as teammates, load up and draft teams and then go out and compete at Heinz Field on Saturday is what it’s all about. The bonding and team building along the way is just as critical as the end result.
“I think it’s critical,” Partridge said. “These guys are here really all year around — except for a couple of weeks — really throughout the entire year. So, to put them in an element that’s different than just coming over to work and having fun, you can tell how much fun they’re having, I think it’s critical for success. Because there are always times where things get hard and putting them in these where they have fun together is great to see.”