Ludwig: What I’ll Be Watching During Pitt’s New Look Spring Game
Okay, let’s get this out of the way first.
The spring game isn’t a litmus test for how well the 2023 season will go (Kedon Slovis did look pretty meh last spring though…). It’s a scrimmage.
But it is true that this spring game will count for more than it ever has during Pat Narduzzi’s eight seasons at Pitt. This is the first time the scrimmage will pit the offense against the defense directly.
75% of the offense in last season’s game was the opening 56-yard strike to Konata Mumpfield and a very healthy dose of Daniel Carter for both the blue and gold squads. We’re going to see best on best, No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense this time around. And that legitimately is exciting.
It will not be a 10-7 game like last year either. I think I can safely guarantee that one.
So, what will I be watching?
We All Want to See Phil Jurkovec
He may have that red non-contact jersey on, but it’s the first taste of Phil Jurkovec as Pitt’s starting quarterback. I think a lot of people are anxiously awaiting his performance. I mean, some have waited nearly a decade for this.
And yes, his performance Saturday will cause a lot of knee-jerk reactions. Good or bad. But that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? What’s the point of the spring game if not for overreacting over a handful of snaps? Kidding. Kind of.
Anyway. It’s the first chance for Jurkovec to showcase the rapport he’s built with Konata Mumpfield, Bub Means and Gavin Bartholomew. The first chance to show that he still remembers how to play in Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense.
The first couple of drives will be fun. It’s best on best. I don’t think anyone should expect him to come out and put up a 6-of-7 for 167 yards and three touchdown stat line, but it’s safe to say everyone will be watching the way he commands the offense, the way he sets up his playmakers and — maybe most importantly — if he can finish.
Because if you weren’t aware, Pitt’s offense was very, very bad at finishing last season.
He’s been lauded for his leadership already, having that moxie that many missed last season, but he needs to be able to make the throws to back it up. If he can just do what he’s told to do, that should be more than enough.
And I really like both Christian Veilleux and Nate Yarnell, actually. I think they’re both good quarterbacks. They’ll be mixed in with the twos and threes, which feature the likes of C’Bo Flemister, Derrick Davis, Che Nwabuko, Lamar Seymore and Izzy Polk, so there is plenty to watch.
It’s not technically a battle anymore, since Narduzzi has said that it’s Veilleux and Yarnell battling for that No. 2 spot, but all three — and Ty Dieffenbach, too — will have the chance to show off.
Just don’t put too, too much into the performances.
Let’s See the Defense That Has Won Two Scrimmages
The defense has worn the blue practice jerseys for all but two or three practices this spring, ever since that first scrimmage, and I’m ready to see why that’s the case.
We only get to see so much during Pitt’s practices, very little live work, but we get to see the ‘takeaway’ stickers added to the helmets of what feels like every defender after each practice. Noah Biglow has four, Javon McIntyre, P.J. O’Brien and Nick Lapi have three each, and the list goes on and on.
And from talking to all the recruits who have been at Pitt’s practices, and there are more than a few, it’s been all about how the defense racks up tackles for loss, sacks and turnovers.
Let’s see it.
It’s been all about how the defensive line is reloading, not rebuilding. There are some fresh faces being inserted into the new rotations, but that’s also kind of the M.O. with Charlie Partridge’s defensive lines.
Shayne Simon, Bangally Kamara and Solomon DeShields will carry the banner post-SirVocea Dennis. I’ll admit the linebacker depth isn’t ideal. But Brandon George is very experienced, and Braylan Lovelace has earned a lot of praise this spring. Lapi, Kyle Louis and Aydin Hennigham are all in the mix, too.
The backend has some playmakers in Marquis Williams and M.J. Devonshire. A.J. Woods, Ryland Gandy, Noah Biglow and Tamarion Crumpley offer a lot of depth. It’s the safeties who are battling for snaps.
I know I’m expecting a lot of disruption, whether that’s tackles for loss, sacks or forced turnovers (or all three) remains to be seen right now.
Is It Time to Unleash the Playmakers?
If Israel Abanikanda wasn’t healthy (and Hammond, too), it was tough sledding for Pitt’s offense last season. There was a lack of leadership, yes, but the offense didn’t click.
We’ve heard all about how much further along the offense is this spring, how it’s so much more fluid in the second season of Cignetti’s offense, and we will see if that’s the case. There was a complete disconnect between the quarterback and the wide receivers (sans Jared Wayne, maybe) and the tight ends last season.
There are some relatively simple fixes, I feel like. A steady dose of Hammond (and Flemister and Davis), yes. But scheme up ways to get Bartholomew the ball in space. Wheel routes, short crossing routes, dump it off in space. Easy, high-percentage throws.
Mumpfield is a No. 1 wide receiver. I thought so last year, and I still think he is this year. He is a route runner that reminds me of Jordan Addison, especially in that 10-19-yard range. Means is a deep threat. He’s big, strong and fast. He’s looked excellent this spring, so we’ll see if he can be more than just an occasional deep ball guy.
I do think the wide receiving corps needs an addition, which will most definitely come, but there are young guys who need to step up, too. Seymore and Polk have been solid this spring, more so than the second-year guys. But they’re young.
Myles Alston is that No. 4 guy right now, but he has all of zero career receptions. As is the case with Nwabuko and Copeland. I like this freshman core, but we will see — at least for the spring game — how much of an impact they can make.
It’s about using Jurkovec, who had his best collegiate season at Boston College in 2021 with Zay Flowers and Hunter Long, the right way. He doesn’t need to be Kenny Pickett either. Just don’t turn the ball over. Hit the easy reads. Be the guy who led BC in 2021.
Flemister has said that Jurkovec isn’t afraid to dump it off either. And while it’s not usually a bad idea to check it down, Jurkovec should have plenty of opportunity to make use of his playmakers.
I think it’s unfair to expect the deep ball connection of Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison, but the deep ball should be a much larger part of the offense.
Offensive Line vs. Defensive Line
We’re gonna get Branson Taylor and Matt Goncalves against Dayon Hayes and Nahki Johnson and Samuel Okunlola.
We get Devin Danielson and David Green and Sean FitzSimmons breaking double teams up the middle. Can Rodney Hammond Jr. chip Bangally Kamara as he flies around the edge?
It’s the starting offensive line (which is the main reason Pat Narduzzi changed up the spring game format) against a new-look defensive line. That’s exciting. The offensive line is a surprisingly veteran unit, led by Jake Kradel in the middle, and the defensive line does feature sixth-year guys in Danielson and Green, but it’s Johnson, Okunlola, FitzSimmons, Elliot Donald, Jimmy Scott and Isaiah Neal that people want to see.
Ryan Baer, of course, too. He’s an option at four spots across the line.
It should be a fun battle. Kradel said that he believes the offense will come out on top, for the first time this spring, but there’s a lot of firepower on the defensive side of the ball.
There’s no Calijah Kancey or Haba Baldonado or Deslin Alexandre — and that’s just on the defensive line — but this is what Partridge lives for. I expect a very, very good battle here.
If Pitt’s offensive line can keep up with this defensive line, it can keep up with any unit. It’s a young unit, yeah, but I fully expect it to once again lead college football in tackles for loss and sacks.
Dayon Hayes is the ‘old guy’ in the room now, the leading edge rusher, and he’s being held to a very high standard by Partridge. But that’s only because he knows what Hayes aspires to be, what he aspires to do. It’s the case for all of Pitt’s young defensive linemen.
Kradel is going to make a jump this season, with a full offseason preparing for being a center (and leading the offensive line), and all three of Blake Zubovic, Matt Goncalves and Branson Taylor have started.
I expect to see a lot of Baer still, too.
Who’s Joining Javon McIntyre?
It’s pretty clear, at least in my eyes, that Javon McIntyre has emerged as the starting boundary safety. He’s got a lot of growing to do, as the coaching staff has made abundantly clear, but he’s made massive strides.
He’s a leader in the room already, and we got to see a test run of sorts late last season.
He’s a guy you can be excited about continuing the long line of Pitt safeties to the NFL (I can’t say defensive back because Marquis Williams and M.J. Devonshire will get there sooner).
P.J. O’Brien, Donovan McMillon and Steph Hall are all in that mix to join McIntyre on the field. McMillon is operating primarily in the boundary right now, as he’s still learning the defense, but O’Brien and Hall are two very talented options.
O’Brien is a notably passionate player on the field, too much so sometimes, but it’s that fire that makes him intriguing. He has the experience over Hall, who has not seen the field at Pitt, but they’re both in the mix.
I’m eager to see how Pitt’s coaching staff, Archie Collins and Cory Sanders, choose to mix up the safeties.
The Punting Situation Can’t Be Worse, Right?
I don’t know how the punting opportunities will go, but there’s no chance a punt is blocked, right? Right?
It’s a competition between Caleb Junko and Jeff Yurk right now, as the two have traded reps throughout the spring, and Narduzzi has said that punting will be much improved this coming season.
It remains to be seen, but it would be seriously hard to get worse after last season. Whoever emerges, as both options have looked solid, should improve upon last season’s measly totals.
Whether it’s Junko or Yurk booting balls, one of the two has to emerge. And with a (currently scheduled) pretty nice day, the opportunity is there.