It happens every season. There’s always a young player, expected or otherwise, who makes a desperately needed impact upon the Pitt season.
Pitt will need a one or two impact players to emerge from its promising crop of freshman and redshirt freshman to truly reach the peaks of where the teams wants to be this season. I don’t think that it’s unlikely either. So, who might it be?
For the sake of this exercise, we will not be including anyone beyond their second season in college football. And that includes transfers, too.
So, guys like redshirt sophomore defensive linemen Nahki Johnson and Elliot Donald and junior running back Rodney Hammond Jr. are not eligible. There are 19 true freshmen and 10 redshirt freshmen on the roster. Here’s who I could see making an impact this season.
Ryan Baer — 6-foot-7, 330-pound redshirt freshman offensive lineman
Baer only took five snaps last season, three against Virginia and two against Miami, but he’s the future of Pitt’s offensive line.
I think Baer is destined for left tackle, but there’s a good chance he challenges Ryan Jacoby for that starting left guard spot during camp this summer. He’s huge at 6-foot-7, 330 pounds, and head coach Pat Narduzzi can see him anywhere across the line.
“He looks good,” Narduzzi said this spring. “You’ll see him walk by you, and he looks good. He’s playing left tackle right now, but he could play right tackle, left tackle, guard on either side, he can do anything. He’s looked well after four days. We like where Ryan is.”
With such a blend of size and strength, serving as one of the freshman leaders last season and growing into a more vocal role, Baer’s progress this summer will be fun to watch.
Baer looked good during the spring game, too, taking snaps with the first team offensive line at times.
Israel Polk — 6-foot-1, 175-pound freshman wide receiver
Polk, obviously, hasn’t played in a game at Pitt yet, but he does have a spring session under his belt. And he was so impressive that he earned an unofficial award from Narduzzi.
“The guy that’s probably been the most impressive on offense that’s a freshman is — I would say Israel Polk right now,” Narduzzi said following the spring game. “I’ve been impressed with him.
“He made somebody miss out on the field. Israel Polk had a nice spring, really smart and there were times he was making plays at the X and the Z, so he’s playing two positions as a true freshman. That’s impressive.”
Polk is slight at 175 pounds, but he’s a smooth, agile athlete who is learning both outside spots already. That’s could go a long way as he potentially starts the season as Pitt’s No. 4 wideout.
He pulled in two catches for 24 yards in the spring game, used across the field.
Samuel Okunlola — 6-foot-4, 245-pound redshirt freshman edge rusher
When Calijah Kancey praises your ability to get off the line, you know you’re doing something right. And Okunlola is certainly doing something right.
Okunlola packed on muscle throughout his freshman campaign and played — sparingly — in Pitt’s final four games last season to preserve his redshirt.
“Sam Okunlola has tremendous twitch, and he takes things extremely serious – he loves to learn,” defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said at the end of last season.
Sammy O, as he’s sometimes called, is blessed with a level of bend and explosion that doesn’t come around often, and if he’s able to put together a strong summer, he could crack a deep pass rusher rotation quite early in his Pitt career.
He looked good with two tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack in the spring game.
Braylan Lovelace — 6-foot-2, 220-pound freshman linebacker
While Jordan Bass drew a lot of eyes when it came to Pitt’s linebackers in the class of 2024, he didn’t arrive until this summer. Lovelace did. And he did so in a big way.
Lovelace recorded four tackles in the spring game, his first taste of college football in such a setting, and he was Narduzzi’s easy choice as Pitt’s best defensive early enrollee throughout the spring.
“On defense, I guess it’s not a question at all that it’s been Braylan Lovelace,” Narduzzi said following the spring game. “He’s looked like a man right now. He looks like a guy that could play for us right now. I’ve been really, really impressed with his maturity as a linebacker, his physicality and his toughness.”
Lovelace should immediately feature into Pitt’s linebacker rotation as the backup Star linebacker behind Bangally Kamara.