Nahki Johnson’s Growth: Ushering in the ‘New Era’ of Pitt’s Defensive Line
Nahki Johnson wasn’t exactly small, but he also wasn’t the man he is now either.
As he first stepped onto the field at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex just over two years ago, arriving as an early enrollee four-star commit from nearby West Mifflin, he faced certain — perhaps unfair — expectations.
He was the hometown kid. The elite four-star recruit. Maybe not the next Aaron Donald, since Elliot Donald already shouldered that burden, but many expected him to emerge as the next great defensive lineman from Pittsburgh. Everyone loves a hometown hero — until they don’t.
And it’s hard to say he was small at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, but it really does feel like he was considering the growth he’s undergone — on and off the field — in just the last year alone. He knew it was never going to be an easy task to crack the Pitt defensive line rotation, but that was never a deterrent. If anything, it was just motivation.
I mean, he committed as a sophomore at West Mifflin. He knew Pitt was where he wanted — needed — to be for a long time now. It’s always been Pitt.
“Even when I was on the sideline, there was never any thought of, ‘Yeah, I’m out of here, I’m sitting on the bench.’ I just knew it was gonna take some time,” Johnson said last month.
So, as he worked with the Rocks (Pitt’s scout team) during practices and rode the bench during games, he worked on ways to get bigger, to get stronger, to get better. Of course, he looked toward those veterans who were once in his shoes for answers.
He would watch Habakkuk Baldonado and Deslin Alexandre. He would talk to them all the time. And when he would mess up all the time, they would be there for him, too.
His failure wasn’t even necessarily about what he was doing on the field either. His failure came in waves, as it does for almost every single young college football player.
He just needed to grow — literally. So, he went to Haba.
“If you ever see Haba, he’s a big dude,” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘Haba, how do I get to your stature?’ He’s telling them all the stuff he used to eat and stuff. So, I’m like alright, let me switch my diet up and see if it makes me play better.”
He took that advice to heart. He refined his diet. He hit the gym harder. He even tweaked his sleeping schedule. Any way to get better, to get more like Baldonado and Calijah Kancey and the star defensive linemen before him.
Well, he’s about 260 pounds now. He’s no longer the skinny kid who walked through the doors on the South Side two years ago.
Pat Narduzzi doesn’t consider him to even be one of the young guys anymore either — despite only being a sophomore. But that’s only because now he’s expected to be one of the guys.
“It’s nice to see him step up,” Narduzzi said last month. “I think he had good bowl practices as well going into that UCLA game, so it’s just he’s started off where he left off.”
But Narduzzi hasn’t even been the coach to truly push Johnson either. He’s been pushed by Narduzzi, sure. And guys like Baldonado and Alexandre and Kancey. But it’s been Charlie Partridge who has held him to a higher standard than others.
“Honestly, coach Partridge has always been on me kinda hard,” Johnson said. “Just being the good coach that he is. He never treated me like I was not playing. Every week he always treated me like, if that one person goes down, you’re up next. He’s always had me prepared for everything, and I honestly thank him for that.”
Even when Johnson didn’t get into games, as he stood on the sideline watching his veteran teammates haul down opposing quarterbacks over and over and over, it was never ‘woe is me.’ He wasn’t worried about it. It’s how college football works, especially when there’s a strong unit up front, and he recognized it.
But when his name was called in the Sun Bowl, he made absolutely sure that he was ready. Johnson stepped in against UCLA and filled the shoes left by future NFL draft picks and team captains. And he did well, recording a couple of tackles and a tackle for loss.
With the sheer number of contributors — those NFL draft picks and captains and vocal leaders — out of action, Johnson saw the opportunity before him. So, he attacked the week of prep with renewed vigor. It was the chance to set the foundation for future success after all.
“Just to get out there and get some exposure and start to get a rhythm and a feel for how to play college football, it’s definitely different,” Johnson said. “And I’m really starting to think I’m getting it now. I’m getting in my rhythm, getting in my groove because as a pass rusher, you really need to get in a groove to be that great player, so I’m just glad I got to fill it out a bit earlier.”
The Sun Bowl wasn’t just the finale of the 2022 season though. It was a foundational performance. It laid the foundation of a brand-new defensive line unit that is more than ready to step out of the shadows.
“Last year, we liked to call it ‘New Era,’ but the older guys didn’t like that because the older guys like to stick to the traditional base, but we called it New Era, and I think we’re gonna go by that this year,” Johnson said. “QBK, New Era. It’s just a new era.”
There isn’t a day that goes by where the defensive line group chat isn’t blowing up. The young guys, led by someone like Johnson, have high hopes for the future. You know what they say, right? The defensive line doesn’t rebuild, it reloads. And Johnson is eager to show just how much growth there’s been in such a short period of time.
Randy Bates isn’t worried about his defense either. He’s seen the growth firsthand, dating back to last season.
“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. “As we did in the bowl game.
“So, you got to see next year’s football for the most part in the bowl, against the No. 2 offense in the country, and we didn’t do as well as we’d like, but the nice thing is, all of these guys know what they have to do better.”
Johnson forms a core edge group with Dayon Hayes and Bam Brima. If Bates wants a veteran, there’s Nate Temple, if he wants a young guy, there’s Samuel Okunlola. I’m partial to the young guys.
With Johnson, Okunlola and Jimmy Scott forming a youthful trio, to pair with Hayes and Brima, Pitt has a ceiling that’s very far out of reach. There will be growing pains, yes, but it’s time for the New Era. The same can be said inside.
Devin Danielson, David Green and Tyler Bentley form a very, very veteran defensive tackle trio, but it’s Sean FitzSimmons, Elliot Donald and Isaiah Neal that garner true excitement. You know what you have in Danielson, Green and Deandre Jules. The sky is the limit for the young defensive tackles.
Regardless of just who cracks the defensive line rotation in 2023, which is a tough rotation to crack considering Partridge’s lofty expectations for his defensive line, Johnson is ushering in a new era of defensive linemen.
And, truth be told, it’s all he’s ever wanted.
“It’s just a blessing because I always wanted to play for the University of Pittsburgh,” Johnson said. “I’m a Pittsburgh guy, you know, Pittsburgh’s my home and I always wanted to put on the for the city.”