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Ludwig: 5 Storylines I’ll be Following as Pitt Summer Camp Kicks Off



Pitt quarterback Phil Jurkovec

It’s finally arrived. After a long, long summer without football, Pitt is back on the South Side.

Pitt football will hold its media day on Wednesday, with head coach Pat Narduzzi, offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr., defensive coordinator Randy Bates and all the coaches getting a chance to speak to the media, but all of Pitt’s key players will be on hand, too.

And then on Thursday, practice finally begins in the lead-up to the season opener against Wofford on Sept. 2 at Acrisure Stadium.

There are plenty of reasons for excitement, but there are also plenty of questions that need answered and position battles that are still ongoing as the calendar turns to August. So, let’s dive into some storylines that I’ll be following this summer.

Pitt quarterback Phil Jurkovec

Is Phil Jurkovec going to be an upgrade?

Could there be any bigger story than Phil Jurkovec finally suiting up for Pitt as its starting quarterback for his final season of college football?

It will not take a whole lot for Pitt’s offense to reach new heights in 2023. If Jurkovec is simply able to make the throws asked of him, Pitt’s offense should take another step forward. If he’s able to be the dual-threat quarterback that he was at Boston College in 2020, the offense could be a legitimate strength.

But it’s also not unfair to ask if Jurkovec can still be that quarterback. He’s suffered through injuries, a poor offensive line and his own inconsistency in the two seasons since.

Jurkovec has done and said all the right things since he arrived in January. He performed well during the spring, earned the starting job and has garnered the support of his teammates. He represented Pitt at the ACC Football Kickoff, and he’s even set a goal to raise $100,000 for the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital. It’s a good bet that he’s named a captain before the season begins.

The 2022 season was one to forget for Jurkovec. He wasn’t good, Boston College wasn’t good, and both sides moved on. Now he has one last chance to play college football, and he’s doing it at home.

He’s a big, strong-armed competitor who should still have the agility and athleticism to make plays with his legs. He’s a fit in Cignetti’s offense, and maybe even more importantly, he’s a fit in the Pittsburgh culture.

I’m bullish on Jurkovec in 2023 — as long as he’s able to stay healthy throughout the season.

Pitt running back Rodney Hammond Jr.

Pittsburgh Panthers running back Rodney Hammond Jr. (6) November 19, 2022 David Hague/PSN

How does Pitt gain that offensive versatility?

If Israel Abanikanda — or Rodney Hammond Jr. — wasn’t running wild last season, it tended to result in a dull, stagnant offense. It may be a bit gratuitous at this point, but Pitt was incredibly one-dimensional last season.

We don’t need to re-hash Pitt’s vertical ineptitude from last season, but it wasn’t just Kedon Slovis. It’s clear the wide receivers — outside of Jared Wayne — were still adjusting to the timing of Cignetti’s offense, and the tight ends weren’t utilized much outside of run blocking.

That should change in 2023.

Rodney Hammond and the stable of running backs should get plenty of carries still, but we’ve heard all offseason about how Jurkovec and Christian Veilleux and Nate Yarnell are all slinging the ball around. There’s an expectation for young guys like Lamar Seymore and Israel Polk to supplement the trio of Konata Mumpfield, Bub Means and Daejon Reynolds.

With a mobile quarterback under center, Pitt’s usage of run-pass options and play-action should be featured more prominently. And with three reliable tight ends, Gavin Bartholomew’s own versatility should be featured more prominently, too.

But at the end of the day, it does come down to how Jurkovec is able to command the offense, use his feet to extend plays and build rapport with his wideouts to ensure that timing isn’t an issue when pushing the football downfield.

It doesn’t hurt that Jurkovec’s greatest college success came with Cignetti calling the plays either. It seems simple to say that Pitt gains more offensive versatility with better quarterback play, but it’s true.

The offense will likely go as far as the quarterback takes it.

Pitt defensive lineman Dayon Hayes

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Dayon Hayes (50) September 1, 2022 David Hague PSN

How does Pitt replace the loss of production on the defensive line?

The foursome of Calijah Kancey, Habakkuk Baldonado, John Morgan and Deslin Alexandre combined for 104 tackles (50 solo), 31.5 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four pass breakups just in 2022. That’s a lot.

That list includes a team captain, All-ACC and All-American performers and an emotional leader of the defense. That loss of production and leadership goes hand-in-hand with a lot of negative hype surrounding Pitt this offseason. But if any unit can handle loss, it’s the defensive line.

At the end of last season, defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said that Pitt doesn’t rebuild, it reloads.

Devin Danielson and David Green provide a strong veteran presence inside, but it’s the kids that bring the excitement. Elliot Donald, Sean FitzSimmons and Isaiah Neal are all exciting, young players that will be afforded opportunities to cycle in with an experienced defensive tackle corps.

I like FitzSimmons’ game a lot, as does the coaching staff, and it’s finally time for Donald to step out of the shadow of his uncle and onto the field himself.

Pitt lost its starting defensive end duo in Alexandre and Morgan, but it appears it’s finally time for Dayon Hayes to realize his potential. He flashed at the end of 2021 season, and he was supposed to take the next step last season, but whether it was injuries or off-the-field issues, he wasn’t able to put in a full season.

In the regular season finale against Miami, Hayes racked up four tackles for loss and three sacks in a thoroughly disruptive performance. It was a showing off the immense potential he still has to unlock.

Nahki Johnson has grown immensely since he arrived at Pitt as a four-star recruit, waited his turn to step onto the field and appears to be the edge option across from Hayes. And the youth movement does not stop there.

Samuel Okunlola and Jimmy Scott are two very young, very talented pass rushers who grew immensely during their freshman campaigns. It wouldn’t be surprising to see both receive legitimate snaps as the season wears on.

Partridge’s track record in replacing exiting production and leadership on the fly is impressive, and there’s no reason to doubt that Pitt won’t once again reload in the 2023 season.

Pitt defensive back Javon McIntyre

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Javon McIntyre (20) September 24, 2022 David Hague/PSN

What does the new safety duo look like?

It isn’t bad at all to have a duo like Marquis Williams and M.J. Devonshire outside for a new safety tandem inside.

It isn’t easy losing both your starting safeties to the NFL, but as is the case with the defensive line, the defensive back unit is well-equipped to handle the next-man-up mentality.

Javon McIntyre received a late-season cameo at the end of 2022, sliding in for Brandon Hill against Miami and in the bowl game against UCLA. He handled himself well, albeit with some growing pains against UCLA, but he is going to be the starting boundary safety.

The field safety spot — in my eyes — is going to go to P.J. O’Brien Jr.

O’Brien has always been passionate. It’s been about finding ways to channel that passion into his play on special teams and the ocassional snap in the secondary. He had a strong spring, capped it off in the spring game with a pick-six and I expect him to pair with McIntyre well.

But as Bates likes to say, Pitt needs a pair and a spare. Fortunately, Pitt has two very capable options in Donovan McMillon and Stephon Hall.

I don’t expect McMillon to start over McIntyre on the boundary, but I do expect him to see the field quite a bit in 2023. And Hall was one of Narduzzi’s favorites in the spring.

It’s a young safety corps, but it’s talented. There will be growing pains, but it should lead to a very, very experienced unit down the line.

McIntyre-O’Brien and McMillon-Hall is a very solid foursome at safeties coach Cory Sanders’ disposal, and the overall depth in the defensive backs room will once again be on full display in 2023.

Is punting still an issue? 

It’s hard to emphasize how weird Pitt’s punting situation was last season. In cycling through three punters during games, Pitt somehow got worse and worse.

Only eight teams had three or more punts blocked last season, and Pitt was the only of those eight schools to have three punters attempt 10 or more punts each. The unit finished bottom-three in the ACC in total and net yardage.

Sam Vander Haar, who was the starting, scholarship punter entering the season, left the program via the transfer portal in the spring. And there’s been a competition between Caleb Junko and Elon transfer Jeff Yurk through the spring.

Junko, in just 12 attempts last season, averaged a very strong 48.7 yards per attempt. He also pinned the opponent inside the 20 four times and booted the ball 50 yards or more three times. It carried over in the spring as he booted a 70-yarder in practice.

And he’s joined by Yurk, a mid-year arrival from Elon, who set a program record by averaging 44.1 yards per punt (53 attempts) last season. He was an All-CAA and Sophomore All-American punter.

I thought both performed well in the spring, but Junko was excellent. And I’d have to imagine he holds the advantage as summer camp rolls around.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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