Five Takeaways: It May Just Be the Spring Game, but Pitt Showed Progress
PITTSBURGH — Don’t overreact, don’t overreact, don’t overreact. Okay. Pitt looked pretty good Saturday.
The Blue team (the defense) walked off the field at Acrisure Stadium with a 33-32 win over the Gold team (the offense) largely because of a pick-12 from P.J. O’Brien in the fourth quarter.
O’Brien took what Narduzzi told him Friday to heart. “If you make a play,” Narduzzi told him, “Maybe I’ll let you talk to the media.” So, what did O’Brien do? He read Ty Dieffenbach’s eyes the whole way, saw Jake McConnachie curl and just jumped in front of him. He raced back 50 yards for a touchdown.
“Picked off a freshman quarterback, so I’ll take that into account,” Narduzzi said following the game. “I’ll bust him about that, you didn’t pick off Phil or Christian, but he’s had a lot of takeaways.”
It was a good day of football at Acrisure Saturday, a perfect day for it weather-wise, and I think we learned a bit about this new team, too.
The New Quarterbacks Are A-Okay
When Christian Veilleux led Pitt to a touchdown, I could see the headlines already. It was too soon after Kedon Slovis’ poor showing last spring.
But to Phil Jurkovec’s credit, he came out on his third possession and completed all three of his pass attempts for 40 yards — leading a scoring drive himself.
Jurkovec completed 5-of-7 pass attempts for 51 yards. Christian Veilleux completed 6-of-9 pass attempts for 71 yards and a touchdown. Both of them looked good. Jurkovec started off a bit slow, but he rounded into form. Veilleux was sharp all day. I don’t think you could ask for much more, especially with Konata Mumpfield, Gavin Bartholomew and Daejon Reynolds not playing.
“I thought (Veilleux) looked really sharp, I thought he looked good,” Narduzzi said. “He’s got a great arm, and he made the plays with his arm. He looked good.”
Neither really played much, just a few drives each, but I think the coaching staff saw what it needed to see Saturday. The room is in good hands for a few seasons.
Also, it was a tough break for Ty Dieffenbach. He came in and played against the No. 1 defense. No shame in being picked off. Lots of time to grow.
Lots of Safeties At Acrisure
Damar Hamlin and Jordan Whitehead and Dane Jackson weren’t just hanging out at Pitt’s spring game, they were serving as defensive coordinators — to varying degrees of success as Randy Bates will tell you.
Goodbye Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett, hello Javon McIntyre and P.J. O’Brien. Can I just say O’Brien is one of the most electric young men I’ve ever seen? He cares. A lot. And it showed all day Saturday.
He recorded two tackles (one solo), but it was his interception that stole the headlines. He’s playing that field safety role vacated by Hallett, and he looks like he fits in real well. And McIntyre is going to be really, really good.
McIntyre racked up six tackles (all solo) and two tackles for loss. He was everywhere. He’s filling that boundary safety spot that Hill has vacated, and I think there’s a good chance we’ll see McIntyre really step up into not just an elite producer but a leader in the room.
Bates challenged McIntyre this spring, and he responded. The spring game, if the Miami and UCLA games weren’t already, was a coming out party.
And Steph Hall and Donovan McMillon will both feature in the secondary rotation. A pair and a spare as Bates likes to say. Hall looked very good Saturday, breaking up a Jurkovec deep ball intended for Bub Means with perfect timing.
A lot to like with the safeties — and the secondary as a whole.
It’s Officially Time to Let the Youth Shine
There was an awful lot to like from the young stars Saturday.
Let’s start with the true freshmen. Lamar Seymore and Izzy Polk both had a pair of catches, and T.J. Harvison carried the ball nine times. His production wasn’t impressive, but the way he runs is. He should’ve had way fewer yards than he did.
Ryan Baer looks the part, feels like he’s just a start or two from emerging as a multi-year, All-Conference (at least) starter and took first team reps at left tackle Saturday.
Braylan Lovelace had four tackles and Isaiah Neal had one. Both have high expectations.
Narduzzi said that Polk has been the most impressive offensive freshman this spring, especially as he’s been learning the X and Z positions, and he said Lovelace — rather easily — has been the best defensive freshman. He looks like he could be a Day 1 contributor.
Nahki Johnson, who said after the game that he’s not exactly young or old anymore, is ready to break out. He had a couple of tackles and a tackle for loss.
“Nahki, he’s a guy that besides some of the strength stuff he did in improving those things, his motor started turning,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a guy — I don’t know if the light turned on, it started turning on during bowl practices, but it really turned on in the spring.
“The strength that he’s playing with, just watching him in team periods where he’s locking his arms and he’s putting a dent in the offensive line. ‘Who is that, that’s No. 4?’ He’s making more of an impact on that offensive line.”
Sean FitzSimmons (three tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup) was very disruptive, Samuel Okunlola (two tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack) is the next great Pitt pass rusher and Jimmy Scott (two tackles, a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery) was everywhere.
There is a lot of young, untapped potential across Pitt’s roster, especially along the defensive line, and Saturday was yet another confirmation.
There are veteran options at every position who have roles to fill, but it’s time to let the youth shine.
Bub Means Looks Brand New
Means flashed the gloves on a nice throw from Jurkovec on a scoring drive, leaping up and snagging the ball out of the air for an 18-yard gain.
Jurkovec gave him a chance to go up and grab it. Means came down with it. He got himself open a few plays earlier, creating a pocket of space and hauling in a 21-yard gain along the sideline.
He had another potential big play broken up due to perfect defense from Hall a drive or two earlier, but Means flashed his potential Saturday.
The 2022 season didn’t go as anyone (aside from Israel Abanikanda) wanted, but it was particularly tough on Means. He came in over the summer, had some moderate expectations and wasn’t able to deliver. He never really looked comfortable.
He looks like a brand new guy this spring, and I was honestly kinda surprised that he didn’t win the Ed Conway Award for most improved player over the spring. He’s jacked at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, and he’s the clear leader in the wide receivers room.
Pitt will lean upon Means and Mumpfield in the 2023 season, and if both of them can reach their full potential (which I’ll admit, I wasn’t counting upon before the spring), Pitt’s offense will be that much more explosive.
Mumpfield should be the No. 1 guy, but that doesn’t mean Means can’t be a difference-maker, too.
Caleb Junko Emerges
It was a battle between Caleb Junko and Jeff Yurk this spring as Pitt looks to improve as a disastrous punting situation from a season ago.
I think it’s safe to say that Junko is firmly in the lead now. He kicked some absolute rockets Saturday, pinning Che Nwabuko inside the 1 on one occasion and drilling a 60-yarder on another. He finished the day with a very good 49.5-yard average on four attempts (compared to Yurk’s 38.3-yard average on three attempts).
“I’m looking at Caleb Junko with a 49-and-a-half-yard average with one inside the 20, and Junko has been on fire all spring,” Narduzzi said. “Jeff Yurk didn’t have a great day with his 38-yard average, but I thought Junko — we’re going to be better in punt team, we’re not going to be where we were.”
The competition will likely continue into the summer, but it’s looking like Junko will have the first crack at changing the fortunes of Pitt’s punting situation.