No SirVocea Dennis. No Israel Abanikanda. No Brandon Hill, Deslin Alexandre, Gabe Houy or Carter Warren. And that’s just the confirmed opt-outs.
Pat Narduzzi said Monday after practice that he knows who exactly will be opting out and who won’t, or at least he’s 99.9% sure, but he isn’t going to be the one to announce those personal decisions.
Regardless, especially with 2022 starting quarterback Kedon Slovis in the transfer portal, Pitt’s offense and defense will look entirely different against No. 18 UCLA in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 30.
When it comes to deciding who will play in the Sun Bowl, Narduzzi said it’s a little bit both — both seniors rewarded for their hard work and underclassmen with big expectations. But there’s still one big goal at the end of the day: to win.
“The No. 1 thing we’re going to do is try to win a football game,” Narduzzi said. “So, it’s not about 2023. That was our focus today — just finishing. We’re going to finish the season, and we’re going to do whatever we can to win the football game. At some positions, it means the young guys who haven’t had a lot of reps getting a chance.”
When it comes to areas where starters are officially out, it reads:
- Running Back
- Both Tackle Spots
- Defensive Tackle
- Defensive End
But if Narduzzi has seen anything during the Sun Bowl practices down on the South Side, as he’s watched the youth begin to step up in their respective position groups, it’s that it’s time for the new group to get going.
“So, I’m looking forward to it,” Narduzzi said. “You see some of these young guys that are going to have opportunities, it’s kind of pushing toward the next game. But it depends on the position, depends on the depth there and we’re going to do the best thing we can do to win the football game, period.”
When it comes to who will be the quarterback against UCLA though, while it may currently be a competition between Nick Patti and Nate Yarnell, it may be the veteran option who has one more chance.
“I’d say based on today’s practice, we’ll do it daily, but after today’s practice, Nick Patti was on fire,” Narduzzi said. “So, off of today, it’s Nick Patti. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Patti, of course, has served as Pitt’s backup for a handful of seasons now. He made his lone regular seasons start back in 2019 against Delaware, and he started last season’s Peach Bowl before being knocked out with an injury in the first quarter. He battled Slovis all offseason, but ultimately served as the backup.
He entered the Tennessee game after Slovis was knocked out of the action, but he picked up an injury of his own and missed a few weeks — allowing Yarnell to make his first collegiate start against Western Michigan.
Patti, a beloved leader and person in the locker room, hasn’t had the chance to really put together a complete performance since that game against Delaware. But he may have one more start in his Pitt career up his sleeve.
Rodney Hammond Jr. is ready-made to step into Abanikanda’s shoes, and Branson Taylor, Matt Goncalves and Ryan Baer form a solid trio to plug in at the tackle spots on the offensive line. Pitt just needs Jared Wayne — who has not yet made a decision regarding his status — to form a solid offense around either Patti or Yarnell.
But on the defensive side of the football, there will be a lot more turnover.
Alexandre and John Morgan are officially out, as is unanimous All-American Calijah Kancey at defensive tackle, and Habakkuk Baldonado hasn’t yet made a decision. That leaves Dayon Hayes on the defensive line.
“I guess you saw a little glimpse because Haba’s been banged up, we’re still evaluating him,” Narduzzi said. “Dayon Hayes was out there in the Miami game and we saw what he can do. He’s still right here — we can get him a lot better. He’s going to be special.”
Hayes, who missed time this season due to knee surgery and suspension, recorded 14 tackles (seven solo), four tackles for loss and three sacks in seven games this season. And it all came in a dominant performance in the season finale against Miami.
“But when you look at the other guys, Bam (Brima) has played, Chris Maloney has played,” Narduzzi said. “And some of the young guys, Jimmy Scott has done a great job on our scout team — as well as Sammy (Okunlola). … Those are some guys that are going to have an opportunity. And Nahki Johnson, how could I forget him? He’s at the top there.”
Without Alexandre, Morgan, possibly Baldonado and Nate Temple (who suffered a season-ending injury earlier this season), Johnson is the lead option in the room. He played sparingly throughout the season, but he’s spent two years in the system honing his body and his mind to fill the role of an edge rusher.
Brima and Maloney appear to have their roles on the defensive line, as well as young players in Scott and Okunlola, who both arrived as recruits in the class of 2022. Young players in Elliot Donald, Dorien Ford and Sean FitzSimmons should also be considered potential options to see the field.
“So, they’re all going to have opportunities, and we’re going to find out,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a springboard into 2023, especially at that defensive end spot.”
Narduzzi confirmed that Brandon George will play in the Sun Bowl, returning from injury to play his fourth game of the season and effectively preserve a redshirt, so he will slot into Dennis’ vacated slot.
And while Hill is out, Erick Hallett will play in one final game before making the jump to the NFL. It’s likely that Javon McIntyre, who was given his first run against Miami, will slot in alongside him.
Narduzzi said that Pitt’s No. 1 goal is to win the Sun Bowl, but the opportunity also gives Pitt the opportunity to plug new players in across the roster. Whether that’s at quarterback, wide receiver, defensive tackle, linebacker, safety or wherever else.