Jordan Cornette made a mistake when he picked Miami to win the ACC Coastal. He didn’t wait long enough to come out and see Pitt practice in person.
As part of the ACC Network’s “Road Trip” to all the schools in the conference, the crew arrived in Pittsburgh for practice Thursday morning. Cornette stood with former Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel and former Virginia Tech wide receiver Eddie Royal along the edge of the practice field at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
The trio of former college athletes (two NFL players in Royal and Manuel) watched the heavy competition between the offensive and defensive lines and saw how deep both units ran. Cornette turned to Royal and Manuel eventually and said, ‘This is a group.’
After the day in Pittsburgh, he flipped his preseason prediction from Miami to Pitt.
“You see the defense sway practice one way, then I see the offense behind five starters returning, and games are won in the trenches,” Cornette said. “This team has it on both sides, and that foundation is what made me flip. 15 starters returning. I just like this group, and I got them winning the division.”
Cornette pointed to the narrative of being unable to replace Kenny Pickett after he left for the NFL, but what he saw Thursday left him anything but unsure. He said he saw two very capable quarterbacks Thursday, and while he believes that Kedon Slovis will be named the starting quarterback, Nick Patti is more than capable to step in.
Manuel, the former first round NFL Draft pick out of Florida State, also had a chance to evaluate the Pitt quarterbacks, and he liked what saw out of both Slovis and Patti — but Slovis especially was impressive.
“I’ll tell you what, both were super accurate, the competition, I think, is good for both quarterbacks because it brings the best out of you,” Manuel said. “But from what I saw today, Kedon looked great, especially in the situations, two-minute (drill) — two plays, big throw and then a red zone seam that he banged. I thought Nick did really well.”
When it comes to the quarterback battle between Slovis and Patti, something Manuel is familiar with from his time at FSU and through three NFL stops, he said that it comes down to being a guy who can do the cliche things sometimes taken for granted. Leading by example, being the first to show up in the morning and the last to leave at night. But it also entails building those relationships on and off the field. Is there a bond off the field, and can you be trusted and build those relationships? Manuel said you’ve gotta be one of the guys.
It’s part of the challenge for Slovis as the newcomer out of USC, considering Patti has been in the system for a few seasons, but with a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti Jr., it’s not as if either player has an advantage when it comes to knowing the playbook.
It’s also a situation that will also work itself out as Manuel said that the team will naturally begin to gravitate toward the leader in the room. It’s been that way everywhere Manuel’s went, and that will likely happen at Pitt too. But he feels confident that Pitt has two strong options to choose from.
“I’ve only been here for one day, and if I had to choose, I would say both did really really well today, so I do think coach Narduzzi has a hard decision — but a good decision,” Manuel said. “When you have two guys, quarterbacks, you’re always in a good spot.”
Slovis had an up-and-down time at USC, ending on a tough note as he suffered through an injury-ridden 2021 season that saw Jaxson Dart (now at Ole Miss) emerge and head coach Clay Helton get fired early in the season, but Manuel praised Slovis’s poise in handling the situation.
“Looking back at (Slovis’s) freshman year, I think that’s why everyone was hyped,” Manuel said. “Excited about him. He had an awesome freshman year, so you know he has the ability. Now I just think it’s a matter of getting the opportunity.”
It isn’t just Pickett that’s being replaced either, it’s Jordan Addison too. And that was Cornette’s biggest question mark — not a concern, a question mark.
“The biggest question is the wide receiver corps,” Cornette said. “I saw some guys out there make some plays. Obviously, it hurts to lose a guy like Jordan Addison, he’s a Biletnikoff winner, but what I’ve said time and time again, they lost star power, but they still have fire power. That’s where I look at and say, ‘Next man up opportunity.'”
Royal, a second round NFL Draft pick out of Virginia Tech, saw a lot of impressive work among the wide receivers but also as among the program as a whole.
“I was saying it, like, ‘Man, this looks like an NFL team.’ This is what big-time, Power Five college football should look like,” Royal said. “From top to bottom, it runs the right way. Practice is clean, out there competing and working hard together.”
The wide receiving corps has the goal of being the very best in the country under Tiquan Underwood, and even without Addison, Royal was impressed with what he saw. Jared Wayne is the leader in the room, consistent as can be. And Konata Mumpfield impressed right off the bat.
“(Mumpfield) caught a deep one out there,” Royal said. “It was a competitive ball too, wasn’t an easy catch. He went up and caught it, showed his competitiveness, athletic ability.”
When you start with Wayne and Mumpfield as a wide receiving duo and add in Gavin Bartholomew at tight end as Royal pointed out, he feels like Pitt is going to be just fine. Pitt is set passing the football. And with an added emphasis to run the football, he’s more than comfortable with Pitt’s follow-up — surpassing even his own expectations.
“After watching them, yes (Pitt is slept on),” Royal said. “I think so because, shoot, even I’m like, ‘This team is even better than I thought they’d be.’ Just seeing them up close and in person, the offensive line is solid. They’re big and they’re mean, so when he says he wants to run the ball, I understand why.”
And when looking at Slovis’s game as a former wide receiver, he appreciates Slovis’s ability to keep his eyes downfield. Royal said that younger quarterbacks, if they’re forced to move their feet — he also said that Slovis has clean footwork — can hone in on what’s happening at the line of scrimmage. Royal said Slovis keep his eyes downfield, and he’s a very accurate thrower.
It helps when both Slovis and Patti go up against the relentless Pitt defense at practice every day. Cornette pointed to the level of depth the defensive line features, along with game-breaking edge rushers and Calijah Kancey up the middle, but he also lauded the layers of leadership across the defense. It’s a combo that can — and will — sway a lot of games this season. It starts upfront with Charlie Partridge.
“There’s no better d-line coach, with what (Partridge) can do with that group,” Cornette said. “When we were watching, you don’t know where the pressure’s coming from. The scheme is so impressive. We were sitting there and I’m trying to pick the offensive minds of the guys I’m here with (Royal and Manuel) and they’re anticipating — and that’s not where it’s coming from. It’s a guessing game, and oh, by the way, there’re freak level athletes out there.”
Royal, who has played against some of the best defenses has had to offer at the ACC level and then at the NFL level, pointed to the level of aggression. There’s a mentality when it comes to Pitt football, especially the defense, and Royals feels it every single time he’s in Pittsburgh.
“Everybody’s gonna hit you,” Royal said. “You’re going to leave that game, and you’re gonna be sore. But that’s the mentality of this city, hard-working, gritty, and the head coach exudes it. I just love being here because it really feels like a football town.”