Narduzzi’s Notes: Quarterback Musings and an Influx of Youth Across the Lineup
It was tough to know what Pat Narduzzi was thinking about after Pitt’s first week of spring practice.
Narduzzi wasn’t made available during the first week of practice on the South Side, making way for the offensive and defensive coordinators, but he was able to offer his first thoughts after just over a week of competition this spring.
“I like where are after four (practices),” Narduzzi said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “The kids are working hard, playing tough. Too many penalties Saturday that came up and today, we cleaned all that up. Four days in, and we go Thursday, Friday, Saturday this week.”
So, what does Narduzzi think after a week — and a day?
A Deep Quarterback Room
You likely aren’t alone if the words “quarterback” and “competition” leave you a bit apprehensive. For the second consecutive season, there’s a battle for football’s most important position.
But according to Frank Cignetti Jr., there are three contenders for the No. 1 spot this time around.
Nate Yarnell was joined by Boston College transfer Phil Jurkovec and Penn State transfer Christian Veilleux this winter, and Narduzzi was very complimentary of the room as a whole — which also features early enrollee Ty Dieffenbach.
“We got competition at every position,” Narduzzi said. “It’s not different at quarterback. That room is loaded, we’ve got some really good players in that room — besides a Kenny Pickett-type guy, that room is as deep as it’s been. You walk out there and look at it, and it’s like, ‘Wow, that looks like a group of guys.'”
It would’ve been surprising if Narduzzi was anything but complimentary of his new-look quarterbacks room, but there’re still takeaways. Or a takeaway. There isn’t a Kenny Pickett-type.
Now that could mean a long-term veteran starter, which Pickett was, or a sure-fire starting quarterback, which Pickett also was. Jurkovec was brought in immediately to replace the outgoing Kedon Slovis, and Veilleux followed him not long after. The starting quarterback in September will be one of those two options.
It’s fair to wonder just how much of a competition it will be this offseason, but I do think Jurkovec and Veilleux have a chance to start — and succeed — at the helm of Pitt’s offense next season.
The New Era of Pitt’s Defensive Line
As Nahki Johnson stood before the media Thursday, in what I believe was his first media appearance at Pitt, he basically ushered in the new era of Pitt’s defensive line — be on the lookout for more on that.
Gone are stars in Calijah Kancey and Habakkuk Baldonado and a captain in Deslin Alexandre, but the deepest, (potential) star-filled unit on the roster is the defensive line. And is there anyone who is going to willingly doubt Charlie Partridge’s defensive line evaluations either?
Narduzzi said it’s a defensive ends group that, as spring practices get into full swing, into more padded situations, is wide open. If any position group is capable of embracing its youth, it’s certainly the defensive line.
One of those young defensive ends pushing for more playing time is Johnson.
“He’s really had four really good days,” Narduzzi said. “He’s had four really good days. It’s nice to see him step up, and I think he had good bowl practices as well going into that UCLA game. He started off spring ball where he left off.”
Johnson is a candidate to start across from Dayon Hayes — who Narduzzi said is playing really well — at defensive end, but there are youngsters like Samuel Okunlola and Jimmy Scott who are pushing for playing time.
And while the interior defensive linemen return a larger group, with the trio of Devin Danielson, David Green and Tyler Bentley, there’s a strong collection of interior talent, too. Sean FitzSimmons and Isaiah Neal have been standouts over the last two classes, and Elliot Donald has intrigued since arriving as the top-ranked recruit in 2021.
“Elliot looks good, Elliot’s playing a little defensive end, a little defensive tackle,” Narduzzi said. “He’s just grown. I think some guys just wanna automatically come in and be the guy, and it takes time, but he’s developing, he’s getting better. Elliot’s doing a nice job.”
If there’s any unit that should embrace its youth, as mentioned, it’s the defensive line.
The Young Guns Across the Lineup
Pitt’s 2023 Pro Day will feature 13 players. I think there are a handful of NFL draft picks, a few more borderline players and a few more who may end up on training camp rosters.
That’s a lot of talent that’s departed since the end of the 2022 season, both before and after the Sun Bowl, and it doesn’t even account for those who have exited via the transfer portal either. I’ve already mentioned the defensive line, but the potential for a youth movement isn’t beholden to one unit.
There will be a youth movement across the lineup in 2023 — some of whom will be stars.
With Israel Abanikanda off to the NFL, it falls upon Rodney Hammond Jr. to pick up the slack. And I, for one, believe he’s more than capable of doing so. Narduzzi feels the same way after seeing how well Hammond has kicked off spring ball.
He hasn’t made any huge, game-changing plays, but he’s been consistent. Andre Powell says that Hammond is a better player than he was a year ago, more detailed in his approach. Bigger, faster and more confident.
Hammond will need blockers. There’s a solid chunk of returning talent in 2023, including a younger player in Branson Taylor, but one of the most exciting offensive line talents in recent memory is Ryan Baer.
“He looks good,” Narduzzi said. “You’ll see him walk by you, and he looks good. He’s playing left tackle right now, but he could play right tackle, left tackle, guard on either side, he can do anything. He’s looked well after four days. We like where Ryan is.”
If we shift to the defensive side of the ball, Bangally Kamara isn’t one of the youngest guys on the roster, but he’s still relatively new when it comes to experience. He did start all last season at Star, but he has plenty of room to grow. And Narduzzi has seen good stuff. But he’s also seen that room to grow.
“I think we got after it as far as loafing the first two days, maybe he thinks he’s the guy and got enough reps that I’m the guy, and he’s really stepped it up the last two days,” Narduzzi said. “He came out with an attitude on Saturday. He’s a football player, we know for sure, and he’s better right now than he certainly was at the end of the season.”
Kamara will be a key piece in the linebacking corps next season, as the unit works to replace the losses of SirVocea Dennis and Tylar Wiltz, and he will be counted upon.
Ryland Gandy may not be as integral to his unit as Kamara, as he’s currently a No. 2 or 3 in the two-deep, but he’s another talented, young player who has been impressive during his short time at Pitt.
“Ryland’s started fast,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a football player. You watch him on special teams, we watched him on tape when he ran down and I think the UCLA game as a gunner, he’s got a high motor, he plays hard, he’s smart, that guy’s gonna be a really, really food football player.”
There are a lot of very talented young players at Pitt this spring, and it will be up to them to carve out roles throughout the spring — and over the summer.