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Narduzzi’s Notes: Evaluating the Scrimmage, Young Linemen and Emerging Wideouts

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Pitt football offensive lineman Ryan Baer

PITTSBURGH — Pitt came off a strong scrimmage — indoors, to be fair — two weeks ago and followed up with a bit of a dud performance the following Tuesday.

Pitt put together a strong scrimmage once again over the weekend, hitting the field at Acrisure Stadium this time, and unlike last time, Pat Narduzzi’s squad put together a strong follow-up performance Tuesday.

“Really good Saturday,” Narduzzi said following Tuesday’s practice. “… And then we had a great practice today. I challenged them today. Last Tuesday, I thought they weren’t very good. They came out with lots of energy, and I liked the energy at practice today.”

There were 130 plays Saturday, 106 offensive and defensive plays and 24 special teams plays, and while it wasn’t as clean or as many plays as the prior scrimmage, there was a lot of good work done.

“Every day you’re getting something done,” Narduzzi said. “There’s good, and there’s bad every day. I think we had two turnovers offensive, which out of 106 plays, probably isn’t bad.

“Some nice plays on defense. Defense won the scrimmage. I don’t know if you guys knew that or not. It was tight, but it came down to the two-minute at the end of the game.”

It’s been a busy couple of practices, a key scrimmage over the weekend a nice chance to follow up on Tuesday, so let’s take a look at some of Narduzzi’s thoughts following Tuesday’s practice.

Managing Scrimmage Expectations 

While Pitt’s defense has won the last two scrimmages, Narduzzi made sure to mention Tuesday that Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offensive approach doesn’t always prioritize wins in the spring.

“Coach Cignetti isn’t game-planning,” Narduzzi said. “I remember a year ago, he ran four plays four times in a row, and I’m listening to him on the headset, and he’s like, ‘I want to get this on tape vs. four different defenses.’ And I’m like, ‘We’re trying to win the scrimmage here. Don’t call four tosses in a row.’ But he wants to get plays in, which I get.”

This isn’t to take away from the defense, of course, which has recorded pick-sixes and more than its fair share of sacks (which, you know, aren’t true contact sacks), but to say that Narduzzi isn’t worried about Cignetti’s game-planning.

With the wicked winds over the last few weeks, especially over the weekend, so there hasn’t been much opportunity to air it out. Jurkovec has only taken about 25 snaps across both scrimmages.

So, while the defense is up 2-0, Narduzzi doesn’t feel like either side is really ‘ahead’ of the other. It depends upon the play, the situation.

But the defense still won Saturday. How? The simple answer? Turnovers.

There were two turnovers Saturday, although one was a tricky situation where a possible false start led to a botched handoff, which likely would’ve been called in a real game, but there were turnovers nonetheless. If you turn the ball over, you’re gonna lose the scrimmage. And the defense has certainly forced turnovers.

However, even when it comes to the winning defense, there are always areas to improve. Footwork, protecting teammates, the little details.

“What stood out is guys making plays,” Narduzzi said. “There’s the positives, guys making plays, but sometimes they’re not doing it the right way. You can make a play, but if you’re doing it the wrong, a lot of details need to be cleaned up.”

It’s tough to please Narduzzi, after all.

The Youth Emergence on Both Sides of the Line of Scrimmage

It isn’t what was expected, but there’s a surprisingly veteran offensive line in place right now. A lot snaps and starts have returned across the line, and it’s led to a sort of old vs. new matchup offensively and defensively.

The defensive line is young, with a lot of very young guys working their way into the rotation, but that’s what the coaching staff wanted. The young defensive line has performed well, and Tuesday’s message was to continue testing itself.

“It’s a battle every day,” Narduzzi said. “Today our focus going into practice was, ‘Adversity and success.’ You don’t get better without having some failures or losing. You have to lose and get punched in the mouth once in a while to come back.

“So, it’s a little bit of back and forth, which is what you want. If the defense is dominating the offense or offense is killing the defense and nobody’s fighting the adversity, you’ve got a problem.”

According to Narduzzi, the young guys are holding their own. Both Samuel Okunlola and Jimmy Scott have participated in all 11 practices this spring. If they’re able to hit all 15, they’ll join the ’15-of-15′ club. They’ll even get a sweatshirt.

Narduzzi said that he may reveal all the members of the exclusive club at the end of the spring session later this month. But let’s look at those young linemen — on both sides — in the meantime.

Okunlola and Scott are both entering their second seasons at Pitt, working on the outside, and with Pitt’s youth movement, I wouldn’t be surprised if both eventually work into the rotation — especially Okunlola.

Calijah Kancey, who is notable for his speed and quickness off the line, praised Okunlola’s get-off nearly a year ago as he integrated into the defense. He’s a big, strong, fast edge who has all the potential in the world. And I think he will have the chance to show it.

Isaiah ‘Ghost’ Neal has also earned a lot of praise this spring, after arriving as an early enrollee this winter. But it’s not just defenders either. The offensive line room has some young studs.

“It’s a battle every single day out there,” Narduzzi said. “… But then on the other side of the ball, Ryan Baer’s doing a good job. He’s gotten a ton of snaps at left tackle, right guard, left guard.”

Baer has been a notable name since arriving early last winter, tabbed as the star left tackle of the future and seeing a bit of playing time late last season, and it’s clear he’ll play a role this coming season. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he forced himself into the starting lineup as a second year player.

And early enrollee BJ Williams may follow in his path.

“BJ’s done an unbelievable job,” Narduzzi said. “BJ’s going to be a great player here. He’s getting snaps with the 2s.” Williams’ emergence, working the interior, has even allowed Terrence Moore to cross-train across the offensive line.

Iron sharpens iron, and there are young offensive and defensive linemen working against each in the pursuit of working together more quickly down the line.

Pittsburgh Panthers wide receiver Myles Alston (20) September 24, 2022 David Hague/PSN

Temper Your Expectation With Young Wide Receivers For Now

The task of replacing Jared Wayne is — and will continue to be — one of the biggest tasks of the spring and summer.

Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means return as starters from last season’s squad, but there are a lot of holes to fill in the wide receiving corps. And Daejon Reynolds, the Florida transfer, has earned praise from the coaching staff and his new teammates alike.

Narduzzi said he’s happy with where Reynolds is so far this spring, as he’s stepped up and filled a role in the offense, and he forms a starting trio with Mumpfield and Means.

It appears that Myles Alston, as he’s worked with the second team unit so far this spring, is the fourth man in the rotation.

“Myles Alston has done a great job,” Narduzzi said. “Myles is a guy that — you can count on him. You know what he’s going to do. He’s gotten faster, and he’s gotten tougher. Just like you hope. He makes some progress and you develop some guys.”

But even with Mumpfield, Means, Reynolds and Alston, it’s a thin unit. There isn’t a ton of proven talent or exceeding production. And while there’s hope, and even some expectation for newcomers to feature in the lineup, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Narduzzi said Israel Polk has done a nice job. And while Lamar Seymore has been out for a couple of days, he’s shown a lot of promise. But as Alston served as a development guy upon arriving, Narduzzi said Polk and Seymore will do the same.

I’m very high on Seymore, and Nwabuko has legitimate track star speed to unlock in the offense. I still like the odds of at least one freshman wide receiver — which includes Seymore, Polk, Zion Fowler and Kenny Johnson — making an impact, but it’s clear that a lot of progress needs to be made.

It’s a good thing spring ball is the perfect chance to get that early acclimation, well before a summer of work and fall camp kicks off, so there’s plenty of time for a young wideout — or two — to break free.

I’m looking at Seymore, Che Nwabuko and Polk as options, and we’ll see how quickly Johnson and Fowler can adapt over the summer.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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