Narduzzi’s Notes: Recapping Busy Week of Spring Practice, Offensive and Defensive Updates
Pitt has only had three padded practices so far this spring, which includes two this week, but the level of intensity and competition has been high since the first session.
It’s exactly why Pat Narduzzi loves being around his team, reuniting with the veterans and getting to know the newcomers, this spring.
“Our kids play hard, play tough and compete with each other,” Narduzzi said on the South Side. “It’s back and forth, and just love coaching these guys. It’s two hours of fun.”
But it’s still an important phase for Pitt football as a new team is ushered in. The position battles are plentiful, the desire to stay healthy prevails and he just wants to see if he has any “football players,” as he likes to say.
So, let’s just dive right into what went on during the second week of Pitt’s spring practices.
Use Your Head — Figuratively
Javon McIntyre likes to hit people. He sometimes finds it hard to lay off in practice. So, of course, he’s very eager for Saturday’s live scrimmage at Acrisure Stadium.
But Pat Narduzzi will be sure to emphasize to him — and everyone on the squad — that perhaps his No. 1 goal of spring to escape without any major injuries.
Staying healthy is one goal, but he’s also hoping to find who his “football players” are this season. He wants to see the offense move the football, but at the same time, he wants to see the defense make some stops, not allow any points. Contradictory, I know.
You can’t play football slowly. It’s just not possible, even when the spider pads are on, and Narduzzi recognizes that. How does the saying go? S— happens?
“I think it’s just the attitude we try to play with,” Narduzzi said. “We play hard, try to get them going full speed. You gotta play with effort. Sometimes it’s hard to slow down. Like yesterday, M.J. Devonshire got a pick and (Ryan) Jacoby basically… killed M.J.”
When Pitt hits the field at Acrisure, Narduzzi would like it if there were some touchdowns and some interceptions (maybe not too many of each), but he definitely does not want anyone to get destroyed in the process.
There are some new arrivals who will be stepping onto the field for the first time as Pitt Panthers (and a few new arrivals who haven’t technically stepped foot onto the field at Acrisure considering the name’s changed since their high school days), and a few of those new guys are quarterbacks and wide receivers. Narduzzi is looking forward to watching those connections Saturday.
“I want to see our deep shots that we missed a year ago, I’d like to see us connect on a few of those,” Narduzzi said. “We’ve done that in the first six practices, so it would be good to see it in Acrisure line up that way.
Phil Jurkovec and Christian Veilleux have been competing over the first six spring sessions, and they’ll get their first chances outdoors.
How Do You Replace Erick Hallett and Brandon Hill?
With the guys waiting for their turns, of course.
McIntyre is the guy who figures to step into the boundary safety spot, and he was given a brief cameo to end the 2022 season — starting the season finale against Miami and the bowl game against UCLA.
And while McIntyre produced, a couple of tackles for loss, a couple of interceptions and some pass breakups, his inexperience has also shown.
“He’s a talented kid that’s got the ability to be a really good player, but it’s more confidence, knowing what you’re doing,” Narduzzi said. “He had two major busts in the bowl game, big-time. Erick Hallett gets beat on a post, man free, and we’ve got a guy in the middle of the field which is usually not the case. We surprise them, they throw a post and Erick’s sitting on the ground at the goal line, like, ‘Where’s my help at?'”
It’s difficult to play defensive back at Pitt, especially when you’re inserted into the lineup and expected to not miss a beat, but McIntyre showed why he’s such a fit on the boundary. He’s big (6-foot-1, 195 pounds, physical and can find the football.
The question now is what’s going to happen around him when it comes to filling the field safety slot. P.J. O’Brien has been in the system for a few seasons, and Donovan McMillon arrived this winter. Steph Hall, at this point, is likely an option in depth only.
And with McIntyre, O’Brien, McMillon and maybe Hall, these are guys who are ready to go. They’ve bought into what the coaching staff has been preaching.
“Those guys have been ready, it’s not like they’re just all the sudden buying in now,” Narduzzi said. “They bought in a year ago, they just had to wait their time. If they get five plays a game, they get five plays to try to make the best plays they can. They bought in a long time ago, I think.”
McIntyre and O’Brien, seemingly, have been leading the safeties so far, and McMillion has adapted quickly. The coaching staff hasn’t gotten see much live action yet, but that is changing.
“We’re happy with where (McMillon) is,” Narduzzi said. “He’s learning, he’s the new guy back there, trying to learn it, but he’s picking it up well.”
With McIntyre at boundary safety and O’Brien at field safety, McMillon’s continued integration into the system adds much-needed depth — and competition — in the room. A pair and a spare, as Randy Bates says, in some order.
What’s Going On With the Skill Position Groups?
If Pat Narduzzi has seen one area of development from Rodney Hammond Jr. so far this spring, it’s his maturity. He’s approached spring ball with a mentality that he is the guy.
Hammond is taking the torch from Israel Abanikanda, which follows a chance to sit down and really chop it up with Abanikanda earlier this offseason after he knew he was taking over, and he’s ready to show that’s capable of carrying the load.
But Narduzzi also made sure to point out Friday that while Hammond has looked good, C’Bo Flemister is right there with him, too. And Derrick Davis Jr. has fit in well since arriving over the winter.
“Derrick Davis looks good,” Narduzzi said. “We’re happy he’s here, I can tell you that. Coach Powell and coach Cignetti are awful excited just by what they’ve seen. We’ll see pass protection here as we go on and how he picks it up, but overall, after six practices, we’re pretty happy with where he is.”
Hammond, Flemister and Davis form a solid trio, with Daniel Carter likely filling the fullback duties and early enrollee T.J. Harvison there if needed, but Hammond is that lead back.
But it’s the wide receivers room that’s grown the most this spring.
It’s clear that whether it was a slow adaption to Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offensive scheme, a lack of chemistry with Kedon Slovis or both, the wide receivers room wasn’t in sync last season. It was disappointing for Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means in their first go-arounds, but they’ve approached their second seasons eagerly.
“I’d say they’ve done an excellent job of just taking care of that room,” Narduzzi said. “Those two have just stepped up and have been the leaders since we got back to school in January. Bub’s a little bit more verbal, and Konata’s more lead by example because he plays his butt off.”
There’s a new trio that features Mumpfield, Means and Daejon Reynolds — with Myles Alston serving as the No. 4 if practice pairings are any indication — but it’s clear that the depth is lacking right now. Lamar Seymore is working with the offense and will likely get a chance to make an impact himself, but Pitt will need more.
Seymore, Che Nwabuko and the young wide receivers will have a chance to step into an early role, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a transfer portal addition is added to the room.
Replacing SirVocea Dennis in the Linebacking Corps
I thought that Shayne Simon was going to be the guy to slide inside and fill in for SirVocea Dennis, and I think Narduzzi sees it that way.
“I think he may be a natural Mike,” Narduzzi said. “SirVocea could play all three, Shayne can play the Mike and the boundary linebacker spot. So, Shayne’s doing an outstanding job communicating and leading the middle of our defense right now.”
Simon primarily played at Money linebacker last season, occasionally spelling Dennis before getting his first start at Mike against in the Sun Bowl (a performance that Narduzzi praised Tuesday). He’s growing into his role as a leader in the defense, which he’s admitted is a team effort, but his move inside opens up another spot outside.
Bangally Kamara emerged as Pitt’s star linebacker last season, and while Solomon DeShields mainly served as Simon’s backup at Money, he made an impact almost every time he stepped on the field. And he’s continued to show progression this spring.
“He’s done well,” Narduzzi said. “He just keeps growing every day it seems like, you watched him grow throughout the season and he’s taken steps here.”
A Kamara-Simon-DeShields alignment, with Kamara at Star and DeShields at Money, is what we’re looking at right now. Brandon George is back as a high-caliber backup Mike, and there’s an exciting crop of 2023 linebacking signees, too. Only one of those three, Braylan Lovelace, is on campus, but he’s already standing out.
“I’ll tell you another guy who has been impressive,” Narduzzi said. “Braylan Lovelace, for a true freshman, he’s gonna be going to Prom here in another month, but he’s been impressive as well flying around at the linebacker spot. He had a great kind of chase down — I think Rodney at one point, just had a great angle.”
I think there’s a chance that a freshman linebacker or two, if they’re able to put together a strong offseason, will see the field in 2023.
The Trio of Cornerbacks Waiting in the Wings
Marquis Williams, M.J. Devonshire and A.J. Woods are locked into Pitt’s top three, with Rashad Battle (who Narduzzi said Tuesday is close to being 100%) working back into the rotation.
Ryland Gandy arrived last spring as an early enrollee, immediately impressing the coaching staff and finding his way onto the field a few times last season, and he’s done a nice job this spring once again.
“But two guys that have been waiting and waiting and waiting are Tamarion Crumpley and Noah Biglow,” Narduzzi said. “They’ve stepped up. They’re remarkably better now than they were at the end of the season. I’d almost say they were disappointing, like, ‘What are you two doing? What are you guys waiting for? Step it up.’ But they’ve really grown up and gotten a lot better during these first five days.”
Biglow played in four games last season, mainly on special teams but also picked up 17 defensive snaps as a reserve corner. Crumpley hasn’t played during his two seasons in Pittsburgh, but Narduzzi is seeing an all new player.
“(Crump) like a different guy, he was kinda like a deer in headlights, but he’s so much more juice to him right now,” Narduzzi said. “It’s taken a year and a half to get that done.”
It may not be a big season for any of the three young corners, but their time is arriving sooner than later — especially as Williams, Devonshire and Woods will all likely be gone entering 2024.