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Pitt Football

Roster Updates: Caleb Junko Starting, Drexel and Abanikanda Trending Upward

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Pitt has certainly weathered its fair share of injuries throughout the 2022 season, both offensively and defensively, but the special teams unit has largely avoided major pitfalls.

Except when it comes to on-field performance at times.

Pat Narduzzi hasn’t been happy with the production of his punters this season, and Andre Powell — Pitt’s special teams coordinator — said that he hasn’t seen a season like this in his decades of coaching. Pitt used three punters against Syracuse.

While Narduzzi doesn’t quite have a punter circled on the roster as the guy heading forward, it’s going to be a week-by-week evaluation between Sam Vander Haar, Cam Guess and Caleb Junko still.

“I think it’ll be week by week and see who goes, but right now, Junko is gonna start at punter,” Narduzzi said Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “He’s had a good week, and Cam is ready to roll if he needs to. We have a lot of confidence in Sam, but I think Junko could possibly do it too.”

All three punters will be included on the travel roster to Charlottesville, Virginia for this week’s game against Virginia, and that’s partly because Guess also serves as Pitt’s holder.

And when it comes to a couple of players who have actually been hit by the injury bug, there’s positive news concerning Israel Abanikanda and Owen Drexel.

Drexel hasn’t played since suffering a leg injury in the fourth quarter against Tennessee in Week 2, but he did dress last week for the Syracuse game for the first time since. Narduzzi said that last week was Drexel’s first week back at practice since the injury, so he’s getting closer with a second consecutive week of practice.

While Drexel’s status is uncertain against Virginia, he’s close to returning. And when he does return, he will likely slot Drexel back into the starting center spot and slide Jake Kradel back to the right guard spot.

Narduzzi said that Kradel has filled in well at center with Drexel out, but he likes him at guard more so than he does at center.

Israel Abanikanda joined Drexel in dressing but not playing last week against Syracuse, a surprise non-participant who was deemed unlikely to play after picking up an undisclosed injury late in the North Carolina game.

Rodney Hammond Jr. and C’Bo Flemister filled in well for Abanikanda, racking up 161 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, and Narduzzi has confidence in the room as a whole without Abanikanda, but he said that he thinks Abanikanda will play this weekend.

Even with six missed quarters this season, Abanikanda’s 1,086 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns (on 183 carries) lead the ACC by nearly 300 yards and five touchdowns.

Even if Abanikanda plays against Virginia, expect Hammond’s number to be called throughout the matchup.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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