The Emergence of Youth Fuels DC Randy Bates’ Unwavering Confidence in the Defense
Randy Bates made a really good point Tuesday.
Pitt is losing a lot of talent to the next level. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are four Panthers defenders who hear their names called during the 2023 NFL Draft. And I’d be even less surprised to hear that a handful more wind up on NFL rosters in May.
Does he know that Pitt lost key starters at each level of the defense? Yeah, of course. Does it bother him? It doesn’t seem like it.
“I’ll put it this way, Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver graduated, and we led the country in sacks the next year, so we expect the next guy up,” Bates said Tuesday on the South Side.
Those next guys up didn’t have the chance to wait until this spring either. At about 2:02 p.m. on Dec. 30, right as Pitt kicked off against UCLA in the Sun Bowl, Bates expected to see results. Pitt won the game, it was a wonderful end result, but it wasn’t a performance on the field that anyone was truly pleased with.
It was a win without a couple of captains, a couple of All-ACC and All-American defenders, but the standard is the standard no matter who steps onto the field.
“We didn’t do as well as we’d like, but the thing is, all of these guys know what they have to do better,” Bates said. “They’ve learned the hard way going from ‘Well, I should have been starting,’ to ‘Oh, jeez, I’m starting against one of the best offenses in the county, and now I realize what I have to get better at.'”
I don’t know if the significance of Pitt’s defensive losses need to be mentioned at this point. They’re obviously important. You don’t replace someone like Calijah Kancey or SirVocea Dennis overnight. But they were found once, weren’t they?
“Oh, (another Dennis will) be out here, I guarantee it,” Bates said. “We’ve found him, we’ll find another one, we’ll move guys around, and we’ll figure out who that is. Did you guys know who Calijah Kancey was five years ago?”
It’s a fair assessment. Kancey was a three-star recruit out of Miami who didn’t receive an offer from Miami, Florida State or Florida — or even UCF. Dennis was a two-star recruit whose only Power Five offer came from Pitt.
Pitt found both Kancey and Dennis, among many other under-recruited stars on the defensive side of the football, and it’s a testament to the staff’s ability — a staff that Bates called the best he’s ever worked with, featuring the likes of Charlie Partridge, Archie Collins and Cory Sanders — to recruit, develop and keep those defensive stars around for the long run.
Partridge has another chance — as he’s done throughout his entire tenure at Pitt — to show that his defensive line depth is unmatched. He’s hard at work developing his young players, but if he’s built anything at Pitt, it’s a system that grows from within. It’s a cycle.
Partridge’s influence is felt in every aspect of the defensive line room, in the classroom and on the field, but he expects his players to be the teachers themselves, too. It’s demanding, it’s fast-paced and you learn on the fly more often than not. And it’s not just the juniors and seniors that file into his office in the early hours of the morning for additional film study. The unit as a whole has bought in.
David Green has learned from Partridge — and the likes of Jones and Weaver and Baldonado and Kancey — for five years now, and he’s fully embracing his opportunity to be a teacher. In his own words, to be Master Splinter — you know, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles teacher.
“I feel like I was a leader before, but now I’m really like a big leader,” Green said Thursday. “I’m like Master Splinter now. I’m holding the young guys accountable and showing them the way and just making sure that when I leave, they’re able to take over that leadership when I’m gone.”
He’s taken players like Isaiah Neal, Thomas Aden and Elliot Donald under his wing, in the hopes of not just making them better football players but better men, and it’s genuinely been fun to be around them. He’s the vet in the room, expected to be the bridge between the present and the future, but he’s stayed young around them.
Dayon Hayes has flashed his potential on the outside for a couple of seasons now, and it’s his time to step forward into a leading role — both on and off the field. He’s joined by Nahki Johnson, too, another WPIAL star on the outside.
“I think this group is really locked in, they understand that they’re not where they need to be, they understand that they’re not as experienced as some, but they’re certainly going to be ready when it comes time for the fall,” Bates said.
There’s turnover in the linebacking corps, of course, but it’s a unit that still returns a core chunk of contributors. Including Shayne Simon, who will likely see much more time in the Mike role in 2023. But he’s not alone in trying to fill that leadership void.
“Every time you lose a two-time or two-year starter or somebody that’s been All-ACC or All-American, you gotta fill that role,” Simon said Thursday. “I’ve definitely taken it upon myself to become more of a leader at least, but I think everybody’s kinda trying to fill that gap.”
Bangally Kamara and Solomon DeShields were still unknowns this time last year. They were big and strong, sure, but they hadn’t played much in their short Pitt careers. That has changed after last season, and while they’re still growing into themselves (from an on-field perspective), they will have to grow quickly.
There’s a high likelihood that Kamara and DeShields start Day 1 as Pitt’s outside linebackers, and their play on the field is obviously important, but their ability to mesh with a new safety duo will be important, too. Pat Narduzzi’s defense runs on strong communication and being where you need to be, and the outside linebackers are in closest communication with the safeties.
The Mike linebacker is synched up with the defensive line, controlling the front end of the attack, and the outside ‘backers work more closely with the back end of the defense.
“I think everybody’s trying to work on their communications, pointing, talking, clapping, trying to get everybody else in line and in check,” Simon said.
While Marquis Williams and M.J. Devonshire provide a veteran duo at cornerback, helping the transition away from Erick Hallett and Brandon Hill, it’s going to be a young, inexperienced safety duo.
Bates sees three or four guys right now fighting for those starting roles, and in today’s day and age of 14, 15, 16 game seasons, you’ve gotta have a pair and a spare. The hope is to find four or five guys to roll with, but as of the first week of spring ball, Bates is confident in three or four guys.
Pitt brought in Donovan McMillon over the winter, adding a safety to the mix, and the likes of Javon McIntyre and P.J. O’Brien saw time in the secondary last season. McIntyre, in particular, shined down the stretch for Pitt — he started the season finale against Miami and the bowl win over UCLA. Bates saw it, but he sees a lot more in McIntyre.
“Well, he made as many big mistakes as he did big plays, and that’s what’s going to happen with a first-time starter,” Bates said. “And he knows that, and we’re realistic with him.
“There’s things he’s gotta get better at, and you’d prefer at his point in his career that he would know he’s got things to work on, and the beautiful thing about winning the bowl game is we didn’t play as well as we’d have liked to on defense, so the kids know they’ve gotta get better.”
McIntyre has flashed a lot of potential in his brief time at Pitt, and it’s clear that Pitt has high hopes for him. If the offseason goes according to plan for McIntyre, he should be one-half of the next long-term safety duo in Pittsburgh.
Pitt has slid from a Damar Hamlin-Paris Ford duo to a Hallett-Hill duo over the last few seasons, almost seamlessly, and that’s a testament to the ability of Collins and Sanders to develop on the back end. It’s a difficult task to play in the secondary at Pitt, but when the communication across all three levels is clicking, when the players have bought into the system, it’s a difficult defense to play football against.
Pitt has lost a lot of talent since the end of last season, but Bates is confident in his coaching staff to put the rising stars into positions to make plays and continue the legacy of Pitt’s defense. There’s a lot of work to be done before September, but the kids are alright.