PITTSBURGH — It was only just after 9 a.m. Wednesday, but the August sun was already bearing down heavily over the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex’s outdoor practice fields.
It’s summer camp, of course, it’s going to be hot, with temperatures in the 90s expected this afternoon, and head coach Pat Narduzzi said before practice that it’s better to get the hot days out of the way early. But it’s all about keeping his guys healthy.
“The main thing is, there’s those tents over there (on the practice fields), and I think our first few years, we always had guys in the tent the first five, six days of practice,” Narduzzi said. “Now, we’ve got nobody in the tent the last two years. We want to keep it that way, keep them hydrated all day long.”
The Backyard Brawl is just under a month away now, and Narduzzi said it could be 75 degrees and sunny at gametime. It will be paramount to keep healthy until then and well into the season now.
Offensive Line Depth Taking Shape
The return of Pitt’s entire starting offensive line was obviously one of the biggest talking points of the offense, boasting a deep, experienced crop of veteran linemen at all five positions. But who will be in line for increased reps in 2022? A mix of youthful potential and veteran experience.
“Obviously Matt Goncalves has done an outstanding job, he’s considered like a starter right now,” Narduzzi said. “Branson Taylor has done an outstanding job, he just keeps getting better. The other guy, Ryan Baer, has been super.”
Goncalves, who started a handful of games at right tackle in 2021 and left tackle in 2020, is a reserve lineman who will play an awful lot in 2022, after all, Narduzzi even considers him starter worthy. Taylor was limited in the spring, but the 6-foot-5, 320-pound redshirt sophomore has already impressed during camp and will feature into depth across the line.
And Baer, who enrolled early over the winter, is already the biggest guy on the team. Narduzzi said Baer would help on the field in 2022, and it’s clear that tune hasn’t changed as he’s gotten even more used to the system. Terrence Moore, a redshirt freshman, is also expected to help at center, behind Owen Drexel.
A small surprise, however, is that Blake Zubovic is actively battling Jake Kradel at right guard in camp. Every position is open, according to Narduzzi, and Zubovic filled in admirably in 2021 when the injury bug hit, but I expected him to factor more into a center battle. Regardless, both will play a lot in 2022.
Tight Ends Emerging Behind Gavin Bartholomew
Gavin Bartholomew is the guy. That much is abundantly clear, but it’s still being decided who will play alongside him.
Jake Renda made strides throughout the spring, growing into frame over the last year, but it’s been a new transfer who has really emerged so far.
“I’ll tell you the other guy that’s made an impact in that room is Karter Johnson,” Narduzzi said. “Karter’s gonna push him as well. There’s some competition in there, Karter Johnson’s a good football player and we’re excited about where he is.”
Johnson, a transfer from Butler (Kan.) Community College, also raised some eyebrows when the recently released list of newcomers and changed jersey numbers featured Johnson wearing the jersey vacated by Kenny Pickett heading off to the NFL. There wasn’t exactly a rush to grab the No. 8 jersey, but Johnson wasn’t intimidated by it.
“I don’t think anybody wanted No. 8,” Narduzzi said. “When he asked, I said, ‘I think I can give that to you because I was trying to push it on some other guys and nobody wanted it.’ So he wanted No. 8 and that’s great.”
Kyi Wright, coming off last season’s season-ending injury and a lack of spring participation, has done a nice job so far this summer, but Narduzzi wants to see what exactly he’s able to offer as a blocking option as opposed to just stretching the field. And Georgia Tech transfer Dylan Deveney also expects to grow into his role in the offense.
Shayne Simon is Ultra Athletic
Shayne Simon made an impact in the spring game with five tackles and an interception, but an ultra-athletic interception during the second day of training camp made his previous look easy.
“(Simon) had a great pick yesterday, it was like, ‘Whoa.’ I think you guys saw a little one in the spring game, he had a little one there, but he had one yesterday where he just took the ball over,” Narduzzi said.
Despite only arriving back in January, Narduzzi said that Simon is already like a veteran in Pitt’s defense with the way he’s adapted. He understands the defense well, and Narduzzi cans see him playing both Mike and Money linebacker.
Some Running Back Updates
Another fellow Notre Dame transfer in C’Bo Flemister arrived at Pitt after graduating from ND, and in the short time he’s been in Pittsburgh, Narduzzi has been impressed by Flemister’s maturity.
“I think (Flemister’s) a tough, hard runner,” Narduzzi said. “He’s athletic, and I’ve been impressed with what he’s done out here the last couple of days learning the new playbook.”
Vincent Davis has also impressed through the first two days of camp, after having some unexplained struggles last camp, and Narduzzi lauded Davis’s leadership in the running backs room. His energy and excitement aren’t lost on his fellow running backs.