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Pitt Football

Pat’s Points: The Backyard Brawl, Linebacker Depth and Getting into the Swing of Camp

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PITTSBURGH — One of the good things the NCAA has done over the last few years, at least according to head coach Pat Narduzzi, was adding a couple of additional rest days to training camp. It allows for the same number of practices while adding that extra bit of rest to help with athlete health and safety.

Pitt used a rest day Thursday, which allowed the team to move into its South Side hotel for training camp and hit the field again Friday. In the age of health and safety actually starting to take priority in the world of college football, a few additional days of rest can make the difference between a healthy camp and a few pulled muscles and broken bones.

“We had a good practice three, I guess, two days ago,” Narduzzi said. “Yesterday, we were off. The NCAA gave us two extra days of camp, but they’re both for rest days. So, it went three days, day off just for health and safety, then I think we’ll go three or four days and then a day off again. Just use it strategically just to keep our kids fresh and healthy.”

With the team now checked into the hotel just up the road from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Pitt football is locked in.

“The rules are, they’re in that facility up there or they’re here,” Narduzzi said. “And that’s it. I told them last night, it’s a true camp. We’re really in camp mode.”

With just under a month until the now officially sold-out Backyard Brawl opens Pitt’s 2022 season, staying healthy is paramount. The positional battles on offense and defense are important, but Pitt will need a healthy roster to repeat as ACC champions. And speaking of West Virginia…

Biggest Crowd in Acrisure Stadium History?

Individual tickets for the Backyard Brawl didn’t go on sale until Aug. 2, the online stock available for purchase right at 9 a.m., and 10 minutes later, they were gone. Three days later, the Brawl is officially a sellout.

“Found out probably a week ago, I guess when it opened up, 15 minutes later it was sold out,” Narduzzi said. “It just erupted, which we know. We kind of thought that was going to happen. We know we’ve got the largest crowd in Acrisure Stadium history, so we hope to break that record too.”

Pitt opens against West Virginia on Sept. 1 at Acrisure Stadium to start the 2022 season, it’s not just the start of the campaign to repeat as ACC champs, it’s the return of one of the biggest rivalries in college football for the first time in 11 seasons. There’s animosity, grudging respect and a desire to win the game above all else. But for Narduzzi, he just wants to focus on Pitt — stay in the here and now.

“Every day you’re working toward West Virginia, but I think the first thing is we’re worried about Pitt,” Narduzzi said. “If we’re still worried about something way far in front of us, we’ve got issues. Obviously, the kids think about it, you think about it, but the focus is really on Pitt right now and what we’re doing to be better. We’ve got plenty of time for that, but as coaches, we’re older and more mature. We’ve done a lot of mental work, film work, all that stuff, and now we’ve put that aside and we’re focusing on just getting better as a football team.”

A win against West Virginia would set the tone for perhaps the most important season in the last four decades, and a loss would do just the opposite. No one needs to tell Pitt’s players and coaches the significance of the Backyard Brawl. It’s clear everyone on both sides is well aware already.

The Pitt-Penn State game in 2016 featured 69,983 fans pile into then-Heinz Field. The Backyard Brawl could cross the 70,000-fan threshold.

Sleepers at Linebacker?

SirVocea Dennis is a known commodity at linebacker. He’s the player-coach Pitt’s young unit needs to carry it forward, but he’s also the central voice of the defense. Bangally Kamara and Solomon DeShields emerged throughout the spring, looking like NFL linebackers and drawing praise from the coaching staff.

But there are already some perhaps sleeper names at linebacker who have been emerging already through camp this summer.

“You look at linebacker, we’ve spent a lot of time just focusing on those guys this week, and some guys look really good in there,” Narduzzi said. “Just some names you maybe haven’t heard, Aydin Henningham, I just walked out with him, saying, ‘Hey, I see major improvements where you were in spring.’ You see a jump sometimes the light clicks on.”

Henninngham, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound redshirt sophomore who converted from wide receiver, used his redshirt season in 2021 and didn’t see the field, but by all accounts, it was just what he needed to grow into his frame and learn exactly what Pitt requires from its linebackers.

Narduzzi praised Missouri State transfer Tylar Wiltz, speaking to the potential impact he could have on the field this season. He’s expected to play a lot — at either outside linebacker position. Shayne Simon, the Notre Dame transfer, has also only continued to impress — looking even better in the summer than he did in the spring.

DeShields, who emerged as a potential starting Star linebacker in the spring, is deep into competition for the position now.

“Solomon DeShields is, I think, a step better than he was,” Narduzzi said. “He was pretty good in the spring, started off as a starter, kind of got beat out, and he’s battled back. And he looks good as well. There are some athletes there for sure, just gotta get them running the right direction.”

If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that the linebacking corps will have a deep rotation in 2022.

Defensive Backs Playing Fast

Brandon Hill, Erick Hallett and A.J. Woods offer an awful lot of speed in the secondary. And Marquis Williams is no slouch when it comes to his own speed. It’s a fast unit, but Narduzzi wants to make sure that speed is put to good use.

“It helps, obviously speed is really important, but if you go really fast in the wrong direction, you’ve got problems,” Narduzzi said. “So, speed is great, athletic ability is great, the knowledge and technique that you use out there — you could have a lot of fast track guys. The great thing about Brandon Hill is he’s not a track guy, he’s a football player.”

Hill and Hallett have the boundary and field safety locked down, respectively, and Marquis Williams is back as the field corner. Woods, M.J. Devonshire, Rashad Battle, among a few younger options, are looking to replace Damarri Mathis’s role as the boundary corner. With only a couple of days of practice, the competition has really determined anything yet.

“Two days in our underwear, and yesterday, just out first day in shoulder pads,” Narduzzi said. “The guys that we thought were good are good.”

Quarterbacks Remain the Same

Here’s your weekly quarterback competition update:

“Both have looked solid,” Narduzzi said. “Each one of them has got their good plays and bad plays, like everybody, just like you guys. It’s going to be a test of time really to see the consistency.”

Don’t expect any new information until the end of the month.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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