This is being written after Friday’s practice, and man, was it intense, but Pat Narduzzi spoke with the media before Friday’s practice for just the second time this summer.
Friday’s practice was Pitt’s third session of the summer, so it’s still very early, but there are encouraging signs already. It’s early enough that the excitement surrounding camp is in full swing. It’s still fresh and new. And of course, it’s still just camp — with drills largely conducted against air — but it’s all we’ve got right now.
Narduzzi touched on a number of things Friday morning, including the recent uptick of gambling among college athletes, and how injuries tie in there, some rising underclassmen and a linebacker who should not be forgotten when it comes to the 2023 depth chart.
Let’s dive into what’s on Narduzzi’s mind right now.
Injuries and Gambling
If you have an injury question for Pat Narduzzi, you’ll just have to be satisfied with a mean mug and non-answer. He doesn’t answer injury questions, and he hopes his players don’t either.
“Our kids, I hope in your conversations with them, don’t have that conversation,” Narduzzi said. “We talked to our guys about, in that Monday or Tuesday meeting, we talked about gambling and what people are trying to get out of you.
“We don’t give that stuff up. We don’t talk about it, it’s an advantage for our opponents. So, I think we’ve got a great policy as we just don’t talk about it, and we try to those gamblers away, and we hope they stay away.”
I know that Pitt’s injury reports aren’t so guarded because of the continued rise of sports gambling, Narduzzi himself used the example of Brandon Hill’s mother thanking him for not discussing Hill’s lack of participation in practice as a reason why he guards injury reports so zealously, but gambling isn’t something that can be ignored anymore either.
It seemed like the entire state of Iowa was going through gambling issues, with Iowa State’s Hunter Dekkers charged in a gambling investigation and a handful more of Iowa and Iowa State players being investigated.
“I think it creates gambling,” Narduzzi said. “I think when you sit there and say who’s playing and who’s not, I think it creates more. I guess when you have policies like that, you’re trying to help out the gambling because you want to make sure everybody’s accurate, and I think we have a policy in this room here that we don’t talk about injuries.”
It’s not as if Narduzzi and the coaching staff have ignored gambling in college athletics either. It’s been in Narduzzi’s winner’s manual since he arrived in 2015.
“You can go back to Pete Rose, all those things,” Narduzzi said. “What was it, Schlichter at Ohio State? Growing up those were some of the things I remember. But we’ve always talked about it since I’ve been here. It’s all those things, hazing, Title IX stuff, it’s all stuff that we cover, injury policies. We try to teach them what to do and how to do it.”
Non-Early Enrollee Freshmen Making Impact
It was Izzy Polk and Braylan Lovelace in the spring, and through just a couple of summer practices, it’s Zion Fowler-El and Cruce Brookins who are making an impact.
Fowler-El and Brookins were not early enrollees, so they were not afforded that early integration and familiarization with the program, but both have started fast.
“I’ll just give you a couple of young guys to look at,” Narduzzi said before practice Friday. “I’ve been impressed with Zion Fowler-El right now, just what he’s done on offense. He wasn’t in spring ball. He’s one of those surprises. And the last guy would be Cruce Brookins, who’s been pretty impressive for a young guy coming in, a local guy. He wasn’t here in spring, got here a little early just because he’s local and he can come down and get a lift and do all of those things. He’s been impressive as well.”
Pitt is now through just three summer practices, and just one in pads, but it’s a good thing that the freshmen are making an impact. With the amount of production lost to the NFL since the end of the 2022 season, there is plenty of room for a youthful injection of talent.
Fowler-El in particular is someone who could legitimately play his way into live reps this fall. The 6-foot, 190-pound wideout from New Jersey trained with Kenny Pickett over the offseason, has aspirations of stepping onto the field as a freshman and now he has the chance to do so. He’s wearing 23, too, which is unusual for a wideout.
The four freshman wideouts, Fowler-El, Polk, Lamar Seymore and Kenny Johnson, all have a chance to make an impact this season. One or two of them will.
Brookins likely won’t crack the safety rotation this season, not with Javon McIntyre, P.J. O’Brien Jr., Stephon Hall, Donovan McMillon and Buddy Mack ahead of him and just two spots open, but he’s a long, lanky safety who is a tremendous athlete.
Brookins was a force for Steel Valley High as a senior, leading the Ironmen to a WPIAL title, and his length, athleticism and ball skills will be vital as he becomes more comfortable in the system, likely learning both the boundary and field safety spots.
Brandon George Looks Better Than Ever
There wasn’t anyone more disappointed with how injuries ended Brandon George’s 2022 season than Brandon George.
Pat Narduzzi is confident that no one has seen the version of Brandon George that will be on display in 2023 now. George, who has been noticeably upbeat so far this summer, is competing at Mike and Money right now.
“Just watching him the last two days, he’s moving better,” Narduzzi said. “He’s down 15 pounds, and he doesn’t look like it. You take a picture of him, he doesn’t look any smaller. He’s down 15 pounds, he’s smoother, he doesn’t look — you know, 255-pound linebacker in the spring. Stiff. I said, ‘Shoot, we should have moved you to D-tackle.’ He goes, ‘No, D-end.’ So, he was a D-end guy who moves pretty darn good for a defensive end. We’ll get into pads today, but he’s really looking the best he’s ever looked.”
I, for one, never realized that George worked his way up to 255 pounds. He was limited to just four games last season due to injury, preserving a redshirt actually, and he was effective when he was on the field. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds now. And it’s all muscle. He’s lean. I’d still expect George to be an often-used No. 2 at Mike, but maybe he pushes Solomon DeShields hard for that No. 1 spot at Money.