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The Pursuit of Perfection Comes Day by Day for Pitt’s Defensive Line

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“There’s no perfect play.”

“There’s no such thing with coach P.”

That’s Deslin Alexandre, the super-senior defensive end and returning captain, and Calijah Kancey, the All-American defensive tackle with aspirations of being drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, talking. Just for reference.

The expectation around Pitt’s defensive line is perfection. The goal is to be the best unit in the country, and while in recent seasons Pitt has finally started to hear that praise, it means nothing without the hard work put in on a day-to-day basis. Or without coach P, Charlie Partridge.

“We want to be known as one of the best units in the country, we’re starting to get some attention with regards to that, but none of it matters if we don’t work every single practice the way we have the last five years,” Partridge said Monday. “If we were to let off the gas, then it would crumble fast.”

The fact that Pitt leads the FBS in sacks since 2019, finishing no worse than third in any of the last three seasons individually, is no longer a secret. Patrick Jones, Jaylen Twyman and Rashad Weaver have all been drafted into the NFL from Pitt, and Habakkuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey have those aspirations this season.

That burning desire to be the best is embodied by Partridge, but it’s a shared desire amongst the entire defensive line room. It starts with those who have been around the longest, the Baldonados, Alexandres and John Morgans, and even with a bit of recognition — ranked among the best defensive lines in the country by national outlets — this season, the hype hasn’t been unwarranted.

“I wouldn’t say that’s hype,” Baldonado said Monday. “I would say that people have seen what we’ve done through the years, and now they’re respecting us. I would say it’s more respect than it is hype.”

The nearly constant work put in to be the best, since the goal is to be No. 1, the very best in sacks, tackles for loss, everything, takes dedication. But it’s a dedicated group. “That’s what we pride ourselves on,” Alexandre said. “… QBK, so we want to get home to the quarterback every opportunity we get.”

And there’s no one better than getting to the quarterback than Haba Baldonado. He led Pitt with nine sacks last season, but he felt like he left half a dozen to a dozen additional plays on the field. So, of course, he’s spent the whole offense working to correct that. Whether it’s been through improving reaction time, working on footwork and first steps, or gaining even more general knowledge, he’s done it.

“That’s what I’ve been working on really through the offseason,” Baldonado said. “Making sure that all the plays I missed last year are going to be plays that I make this year. I had to tune the fine little details and work on those minor things to give me the difference between a pressure and a sack.”

Partridge has been helping Baldonado every step of the way, but it was the time spent in Florida with Alexandre — and Jones and Twyman — that defined the offseason. It was just a good feeling to be able to work out together, as a unit, for the first time in a long time.

“It was fun,” Baldonado said. “Those are my guys, they’re like brothers, so it’s always good to see them. We don’t get to see them as much now that they’re in Minnesota.

“It shows how this is more than just playing football, it’s more than just a d-line group,” Baldonado said. “It’s really a family.”

The Pitt defensive line family may not feature Jones or Twyman, both of whom are looking to earn playing time with the Minnesota Vikings this fall, but one of those brothers is Kancey — and he might be the best defensive linemen to pass through Pittsburgh since Partridge has been there. Even with sky-high expectations and national recognition, Partridge has seen how Kancey has grown every day.

“The reality is (Kancey’s) handling everything in a very mature, very adult way, and it’s hard because every one of those little (award) graphics that come and says what watch list he’s on, I’m promoting it, I’m putting it out there, it helps in recruiting, it matters,” Partridge said. “There’s this balance of yes, we’re promoting you, we want to promote you and have a chance to get these things, but at the same time, none of that matters if you don’t come in and work every single day. So, it’s managing the pressure, it’s managing the distractions that we were talking about before and keeping the main thing, the main thing. Which is, ‘Calijah, how did you get here?’ You were blessed with a ton of talent; you came in and you worked. And you’re really selfless in how you approach things.”

And Kancey, a potential first round draft pick in 2023 and perhaps Pitt’s best player, credits Partridge for keeping him grounded through it all.

“Say, for example, if I get a sack, (Partridge’s) always willing to help me and coach me up on how I could’ve done something better,” Kancey said. “How I could’ve been better, shedded this guy better, gotten there quicker.”

It’s a culture that’s been built over the years, even before Partridge arrived in 2017, but he’s fostered a unit that coaches itself on and off the field. There’s a standard on the field because there’s an even higher standard in the film room and in the practice facility. There’s a certain trait to be able to play on Pitt’s defensive line, and this unit might be the best Partridge has seen.

“They’ve taken it as a responsibility, just on a daily basis, daily practice habits, mentality,” Partridge said. “When someone walks out to the practice field for the first time, I’m disappointed if that person didn’t come to me and say, ‘Man, I love the way your guys work, you guys are always working and you’re always working at a certain tempo.'”

The “player-coach” habit that’s been ingrained into the room since those first few times stepping into the room. Alexandre said that even when guys are younger, the cycle of older guys teaching the younger guys is never ending. And in such a big room, it’s pivotal.

John Morgan (6) Habakkuk Baldonado (87) – September 25, 2021 David Hague/PSN

It’s also one of the deepest position groups at Pitt, and really, across the country. With just four spots to fill, Partridge feels like he has nine guys he can win with at an extremely high level.

The defensive line is anchored by Kancey. But David Green, Devin Danielson, Tyler Bentley and DeAndre Jules — who has turned a corner this offseason — are four guys who will play a lot in 2022. And the youthful depth is full of intriguing talents.

“Guys that will be there sooner than later, you’re talking about Elliot (Donald), Dorien (Ford). (Sean) Fitz has a ways to go, he’s a freshman,” Partridge said. “So, those guys, I feel like you’ve got five, potentially six, seven deep there.”

Partridge also feels like in Baldonado, Alexandre, Morgan and Dayon Hayes, he has four starters — all four guys are capable of starter-level reps. Nate Temple and Bam Brima will serve as top reserves, Chris Maloney is, “as steady as it gets,” and Nahki Johnson, Sam Williams and Samuel Okunlola are there too.

According to Partridge, Okunlola is “way, way, way ahead of the curve for a young guy,” and Kancey knows why. It’s Okunlola’s get off. “(Okunlola’s) very quick,” Kancey said. “… Just be on the lookout, that’s all I can say right now, just be on the lookout.”

Even in the two true freshman early enrollees, Pitt has options. While it’s unlikely either makes an impact in 2022, both have impressed both coaches and players in the facility. It’s almost as if the pair is just another cog in the nearly unstoppable machine that is the Pitt defensive line.

“That’s what makes us great,” Baldonado said. “That’s the great part of this d-line. We have a ton of depth; we have dudes that can play. We have a lot of people that can jump into the rotation.”

It’s a veteran unit still, with older guys like Baldonado, Alexandre, Morgan, Kancey, Danielson, Green and so many more, and even with the youth of Donald, Ford, Johnson, Okunlola, FitzSimmons, someone like Hayes is perhaps the great divide between the two groups. He’s a junior with limitless potential, the hometown hero, but he hasn’t played all that much. When he has though, he’s excelled, and he could be the next Baldonado. It’s something Baldonado himself has taken an interest in — helping to grow Hayes as a person and a player.

“That’s something we really emphasize in the d-line room,” Baldonado said. “The standard is the standard, and it doesn’t change for anybody. Nobody cares how many plays you make, how good you are, how much the hype is around your name. The standard is that. So, sometimes you gotta remind (Hayes) what that is, but he’s certainly improved. Really good player, and he’s gonna make some plays.”

Hayes only racked up 257 defensive snaps last season, but he accumulated nine tackles for loss and three sacks — including 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks over Pitt’s final three games. At 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, Hayes is bigger, stronger and somehow faster than ever before. The sky is the limit.

If you put all the pieces together, this is one of the best defensive lines in the country, and Baldonado feels like it all starts with Partridge at the end of the day.

“I will say as long as coach P is here, he will make sure that the standard stays,” Baldonado said.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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