If you ask Pat Narduzzi, every position on the team is in competition. And that’s true, sure, but there are positions that are certainly more contested than others.
Marquis Williams and M.J. Devonshire are pretty secure at cornerback, and I don’t think anyone is going to upend Jake Kradel at center. Phil Jurkovec will be pushed by Christian Veilleux — who earned rave reviews from Narduzzi after one practice session — but he will start Week 1 against Wofford.
There are some legitimate battles across the roster. Offensively, defensively and even on special teams.
“When you’re looking at depth charts sometimes, there’s not a, ‘Hey, these are the top 11 players.’ They’re fluid nowadays,” Narduzzi said Wednesday. “You could almost say there’s 16 or 17 starters on offense.”
The offensive line is a very deep unit, especially on the interior, and that’s where the major battles are unfolding. It’s the entire left side of the line. Branson Taylor and Ryan Jacoby, at left tackle and guard, respectively, took a majority of the snaps with the 1s in the spring, but Ryan Baer is firmly in the mix.
“Baer will get work at both left guard and left tackle,” Narduzzi said. “Jacoby will get work at both left guard and left tackle and see how it shakes down. We’re going to find the best people there. What better time to find out against the defense, all the different things we do, we’ll find out before the season who’s the best five.”
It’s a fluid situation. Dave Borbely and the coaching staff will see what it has in Baer on the interior, since he’s traditionally a guard, before making a decision. Taylor, Jacoby and Baer will be players to watch this summer.
Rodney Hammond Jr. and Gavin Bartholomew, at running back and tight end, respectively, lead their rooms, but there are capable players in both units that will see plenty of playing time in 2023. I wouldn’t really call it a battle though.
There is a battle for the No. 3, 4 and 5 wide receiver spots though.
“I think we know who our top two are with Konata (Mumpfield) and Bub (Means), but who’s going to be that third receiver, fourth receiver, fifth receiver?” Narduzzi said. “We’ve got four true freshmen that are all talented.
“We saw (Israel Polk) in the spring, Lamar Seymore in the spring. All of a sudden, Kenny Johnson comes into town. Zion (Fowler-El) had a heck of a day today — he’s a football player, Fowler-El. So you watch that, and you’re going, oof.”
Narduzzi said that there will be a true freshman — or two — who will receive legitimate playing time in 2023. My money, as it currently stands, is on Polk and Seymore. It isn’t just experience either. Both were impressive in the spring. I’d pencil Daejon Reynolds into that WR3 spot, too.
There’s some competition along the defensive line, but it’s more so about who is filling into the rotations. Dayon Hayes and Nahki Johnson outside, and Devin Danielson and David Green inside. With vets like Tyler Bentley, Deandre Jules, Nate Temple and Bam Brima back, the young guns will need strong summers to rise up the pecking order.
Shayne Simon at Mike, and Bangally Kamara at Star appear to have risen above the rest, but Brandon George is a veteran, and Solomon DeShields is ready for a breakout campaign. Braylan Lovelace — Pitt’s top defensive early enrollee of the spring — is in the mix, too.
“Brandon George is fighting to be that starter at the Mike or the boundary linebacker,” Narduzzi said. “Solomon DeShields, he’s still fighting to hang on. Kyle Louis played spring ball, and he’s fighting to be one of those guys that’s getting reps.”
I’d expect DeShields to emerge as the lead backer at Money, with George as an often-used backup at Mike, but it will be an interesting battle to follow at camp. I would imagine Louis and someone like Nick Lapi will compete for that backup spot at Money.
Perhaps the most notable battle on defense is at safety. With both Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett heading to the NFL, it’s an all-new unit. Javon McIntyre is the guy at boundary safety — taking over for Hill. It’s more of a question at field safety.
“At safety, probably a major battle, safety spot with Javon (McIntyre) and Steph Hall, all of those,” Narduzzi said. “There’s four or five guys that I don’t know, like who’s going to play and who’s going to start. It’s wide open in my opinion. I would say the number one guy right now is Javon McIntyre at safety.”
I expect P.J. O’Brien to lead for that field spot throughout the summer, lining up alongside McIntyre, but Narduzzi is a big fan of Hall. And Donovan McMillon is in the mix behind McIntyre — he hadn’t begun cross-training yet in the spring. We’ll see how far along he is.
The only special teams battle is at punter, which was a major weakness last season, and I thought Caleb Junko took the lead after the spring. He outpunted Yurk in the spring game, and showed perhaps a touch more consistency throughout the spring, but it’s clear the battle will wear on over the summer.
There’s just under a month until the 2023 season kicks off against Wofford, and all of these battles will be decided before then. So, it will be a busy month of August.