It’s an important season for Pitt. There’s an expectation to repeat as conference champions, but it goes much, much deeper than that.
A theme surrounding Pitt football this summer, at least according to the players who actually comprise the ACC champion, is a lack of respect. Miami, not Pitt, is expected to win the Coastal division this season and Clemson is expected to win the ACC — by a wide margin. Pitt polled second in the Coastal, but it’s clear that Pitt isn’t expected to be a player in the conference.
When it comes down to it entering the 2022 season, as ACC champions, there hasn’t been a difference in how the season has been approached. However, where ‘ACC champs’ was once how huddles were broken down, it’s evolved into a simple ‘champs’ chant. An ACC title was achieved last season, and Narduzzi had nothing to do with this season’s goal, but it’s clearly evolved.
“So you know, again, I don’t try to micromanage what they say,” Narduzzi said. “Sometimes they break down on ‘family’ (or) ‘ACC champs.’ But I’m always listening to what they are saying, talking about, what they are feeling. Coming off a championship, you know, that’s in the past and nobody cares what happened last year. They really don’t. Nobody in this room is going to care, coaches, staff, or you know, media.”
Pitt is going to find out just who they are in 2022, but after last season’s conference championship, the outside world is still yet to find out who Pitt is. With new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. in place, Pitt is expected to be a more balanced offense. But it isn’t just with Cignetti though; Narduzzi feels as though Pitt’s coaching staff is even better than last season.
“So, we are just starting a new (campaign),” Narduzzi said. “And going after that trophy and going after the championship. Again, we are not going to — we are going to be on the offensive. We are not going to be the hunted. We are going hunting ourselves. We are not going to sit back and go, ‘Oh, gosh. People are coming after them.’ No, we are going after them and we are going after them harder than we did a year ago, and we are going to go after them in a different way. It will be a different attack offensively, defensively, and there will be a different attack on special teams.
“I think it will be fun to watch, but we are not going to sit back and do the same thing we did last year and think it’s just going to happen again.”
What’s Going On At Linebacker?
There’s no surprise that SirVocea Dennis is able to play all three linebacker spots in Pitt’s defensive scheme, but he really is a perfect fit to quarterback the defense from the Mike linebacker spot. He’s the smartest player on the defense, and Narduzzi is thankful he has such a calming presence down the middle.
However, when it comes to replacing the guys around Dennis in 2022, there’s much more of a question mark. Cam Bright, Phil Campbell III and Johnny Petrishen played a lot of football for Pitt in 2021, and their losses will be a key factor thus season, but there are some guys who have been waiting their turn — and earned their turn.
“Bangally (Kamara), we’ll find out as these game plans change, that will be the big thing,” Narduzzi said. “He owns the ability to be a player for us, an athletic guy that makes plays. Got to play within the system.
“Solomon DeShields is another guy,” Narduzzi said. “Shayne Simon, don’t forget about him. So we have some guys. Tylar Wiltz, I’m looking forward to — saw one day (from him) today, and looking forward to seeing the development that we have there.”
Kamara appears destined to start at Money linebacker in 2022, and DeShields has the unique skillset to make an impact as the starting Star linebacker. Simon is a Notre Dame transfer — a veteran option — who can play both Money and Mike linebacker. Wiltz, another transfer from Missouri State, is an option who is destined to play at Star linebacker,
“(Wiltz) looked smart on videotape,” Narduzzi said. “You never know, but then he was smart when he came on his visit. He’s athletic. He’s a playmaker, and he kind of fits in just like Shayne Simon did. When you watch him on tape, you’re like, ‘Man,’ we get him, he fits into our scheme. I just like the way — he has great instincts, and his ability to get to the ball and he has athletic ability.”
Buddy Mack, a converted safety, is an option at Star, and Brandon George is the top backup behind Dennis at Mike linebacker — but Simon is also expected to be a factor at Mike if needed.
“That’s what you need to do with a young group, is get them to play a lot of different positions, find out what they can and can’t do and don’t limit them to play one position, because ultimately, we are going to play the three best,” Narduzzi said. “When it comes down to whoever are the three best, okay, these are our three best guys, regardless of what position they play and then put them where they need to be and that will be what we’ll do come in mid-August or when we start to get that group together.
Can A Running Back Emerge As the Star in 2022?
The trio of Israel Abanikanda, Rodney Hammond Jr. and Vincent Davis is well documented, but Daniel Carter earned Pitt’s Ed Conway Award as the most improved player over the spring and Notre Dame transfer C’Bo Flemister already made it clear that he’ll be a name to watch this summer.
“C’Bo (Flemister) is in camp as well,” Narduzzi said. “We do have some guys back there that will be interesting to watch how they progress but we are looking for the consistent guy. I think when you say you’ve got three guys, and then C’Bo comes in, you’ve got four, you want to look and see who is the guy that’s going to be most consistent. I think at times those guys have been like a yo-yo where that guy had a great day, and the next guy, the other guy, has a great day.”
Narduzzi acknowledged that Davis entered the spring of 2021 as Pitt’s starter, and Abanikanda exited the same spring as Pitt’s starter. It wasn’t necessarily anything that Davis did, but Abanikanda was able to step up and earn that honor. And while Abanikanda is currently the presumed No. 1, there’s still an expectation of further consistency.
“So it’s back and forth, and I want to see a consistent guy,” Narduzzi said. “I mean, I didn’t say that when James Conner was back there. Didn’t say that when Qadree Ollison was back there. We are looking for that guy that’s going to take that position over and it could be any four of those guys. Just looking for consistency, the guy that you can count on for all times, and then we’ll see how that whole thing goes.”
I fully expect a massive season out of Abanikanda in 2022, but Hammond and Davis will also earn a ton of touches. It’s a good problem to have.
A Loaded Wide Receiving Corps Under Tiquan Underwood
By all accounts, Jared Wayne hasn’t just taken a further step on the field. He’s also emerged as the leader in a wide receiving room that features a lot of talent.
“We have weapons out there,” Narduzzi said. “Jared Wayne has been that leader this summer. He’s been that guy and he’s one of our eagles in our leadership council. He’s taken over that leadership role with those guys, and I feel good with the leader there. I feel good, obviously the main leader is Coach (Tiquan) Underwood.”
Underwood is perhaps the best leader that could possibly be expected entering the 2022 season. (More on that to come, of course). He offers a young, relatable voice for the wide receivers, but he’s also been there and done that. It’s a combo that’s allowed him to immediately make an impact in a room full of potential.
“I feel good with the leadership,” Narduzzi said. “We’ll find out how that depth goes. Got some new guys out there. Konata (Mumpfield) is one of them. Went through spring ball, not as seasoned as the rest of them. But Bub Means is in camp and did some nice things today. Big, athletic guy and he’s had a great summer and doing things the way he’s supposed to do. We’re excited about him. And watching to see if Jaden Bradley can come through and make a ton of plays and grow up and be mature and do things the way we want it to be done. All those things are stuff that we are looking toward to.”
Mumpfield is a superstar, the inside option that will likely end the season as Pitt’s No. 1 option. Means is another transfer who will play an awful lot, lining up out wide as a seriously athletic option on the outside. And Bradley is the very best breakout candidate among wide receivers on the roster.
It’s a unit with an awful lot of potential in 2022, even with the loss of the 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner.
Damarri Mathis is playing for the Denver Broncos now, but it just so happens that his potential replacement is a player built in the same mold.
A.J. Woods is a very, very fast, very, very athletic cornerback who has impressed throughout the spring, and I’d expect that he will be starting opposite of Marquis Williams entering the season opener against West Virginia.
“A.J. Woods had a great spring,” Narduzzi said. “You have Marquis Williams. (M.J.) Devonshire has been outstanding. The three guys at the starting position right now would be M.J., Marquis and A.J. Woods.”
Williams and Woods provide a strong duo at the field and boundary cornerback spots, respectively, and Devonshire is someone who will play a lot at the field corner position. And Rashad Battle, who is fully devoted to playing cornerback in 2022, will play an awful lot at boundary cornerback.
“Then Rashad Battle is coming back” Narduzzi said. “You have Jahvante Royal, this Ryland Gandy, he’s been sharp. Looked good in the spring, and we’ll find out if he hits the August wall, but he’s really sharp and trustworthy. Got Noah Biglow. We have got DBs that have athletic ability. The light turns on, and we have some corners out there that can cover people and they are big and athletic.”
Sam Scarton and Ben Sauls will both be competing for the starting kicker spot in 2022, and Sam Vander Haar and Cam Guess are also competing for the starting punter position. Like many spots across the roster, the special teams unit will be decided by camp battles.
“We’ve got a kicking competition,” Narduzzi said. “Really you could say we have a punting competition with our new punter. All those guys are competing. Long snapper, Byron (Floyd) and (James) Fineran is in there backing him up. There are some spots. Sam (Scarton) is back. So we have our kicker from a year ago. But Ben (Sauls) is also a guy who has shown he’s got a chance.
“We are going to continue to evaluate those guys and it’s a little bit different, like I said,” Narduzzi said. “We have a different attack this year, and some of those, the specialists are going to be critical. We know how important special teams are but the thing I feel really good is the people around our kickers are seasoned. We have a lot of specialists that are special on special teams, whether it’s running down on punt team, blocking on kickoff return, being a head hunter on a kickoff team. We have a lot of those guys that have played football and some young athletic guys that are going to help us as well.”