Cory Sanders does not want to — in any way — quell P.J. O’Brien’s competitive spirit, the way in which he plays with passion. But he doesn’t want him to play emotionally either.
O’Brien is not short on passion and energy. Sanders sees it every day. But he’s also seen when O’Brien has taken dumb penalties in the heat of the moment. It happened twice in the spring, and Sanders made it a teaching moment.
“I’ll tell you guys a story,” Sanders said Wednesday. “During camp, or spring ball, that joker had two penalties for dumb stuff. And he sat out quite a bit. He hasn’t had one since then. Hopefully, that was a lesson learned for him with that. So, he’s been good, and he’s been channeling it the right way at least through day one and in the back seven through spring ball last year.”
O’Brien, who has sat behind Erick Hallett for a few seasons, serving largely in a special teams role, is one of the young safeties competing for the vacancies left by Hallett and Brandon Hill heading off the NFL. He played 105 defensive snaps last season, and he broke out over the spring — when he wasn’t sitting out, of course.
It’s that passion and energy, the desire to be the greatest field safety Pitt has ever seen, that makes Pitt’s coaching staff believe in him. And Sanders certainly believes in him.
“I love that he comes and has great energy because that feeds to other people, right? He comes in with good energy and maybe somebody is a little bit down today, but you can look at P.J. and his excitement and it can get your energy up,” Sanders said. “He’s done that for me. It’s just for him, you have to understand when you play the game, you always have to control your emotions. So, I’m always good with his energy. I love it. Every bit of it. It’s just when it comes to tough moments or somebody wants to do dumb on the field, you have to channel that and pull that back.
“You can’t let that cross the line and now be emotional. There’s a difference between playing with passion and being emotional. And that’s the thing with him. We just can’t be emotional on the football field. We can play with passion all day long. And show it, you play the game because you love it. And I love that he has that, but we just gotta watch that line of getting to the point where we’re emotional about things. I think he’s done a good job.”
O’Brien flashed throughout camp, especially down the final half of Pitt’s 14 spring practices, and he capped the spring with a game-winning pick six — off of Ty Dieffenbach, to be fair — in the spring game. If the season started today, I’d expect O’Brien at field safety and Javon McIntyre at boundary safety. But there’s stiff competition from the likes of Donovan McMillon, Stephon Hall and Buddy Mack, too.
Sanders isn’t worried about the turnover in the room. There’s a precedent that was set with Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford, and then with Hallett and Hill and now it’s simply expected. Like the defensive line room under Charlie Partridge, Sanders and Archie Collins have established a precedent that transcends classes.
“It’s easy as we sit back and watch film, and just coming into camp talking about things, of them understanding sort of the expectations and standards of the room, and sort of what standard they have to continue to hold of what’s been in the past,” Sanders said. “But I’m excited to continue to learn and grow with these guys. It’s always good to have a new set of guys and now a new set of teachings and first time for those guys going through and seeing some things and all those guys.”
McIntyre has emerged as the leader in the room, after a cameo to end the 2022 season in which he started against Miami in the season finale and UCLA in the Sun Bowl — going through highs and lows of his own. He recorded two interceptions, but his inexperience showed in Sun Bowl with a blown coverage that resulted in a touchdown.
Sanders sees the incredibly intelligent, cerebral player that McIntyre is on the field. He’s going into his third season at Pitt, but of his 190 career defensive snaps, 91 came against Miami and UCLA. It’s impressive that, at his age and level of experience, he understands how opposing offenses operate — and how they plan to attack Pitt’s own coverage.
“And when you look at it, he played heavy snaps against Miami as well as UCLA and had two interceptions in those two games and really should have had a third,” Sanders said. “UCLA, he dropped that interception … whatever it was. Then just being around the football with his TFLs and stuff like that, that’s him having a good knack for being around the ball and also having a good understanding of what’s coming at him.
Pat Narduzzi pointed to McIntyre as Pitt’s No. 1 safety in the room right now, regardless of whether he’s a field or boundary safety, and he will be relied upon as a leader in 2023. He’s ready for it.
“I try leading the way I know how to lead but also how I learned from Hallett and BHill how to lead,” McIntyre said Wednesday. “I try to put both of them together and lead — just the little stuff that Hallett and BHill would get on me about as a freshman, I try to get on that with our freshmen. If I see something’s wrong, I’m not gonna call you out in front of everyone, I’m gonna talk to you by yourself. That’s how I’d want to be led myself. So, I lead how I’d want to lead.”
McIntyre was able to learn consistency from Hallett, having the mental fortitude to stay with it even when it doesn’t seem like it’s paying off, and he learned to go 100 miles per hour from Hill. It’s relentless effort the right way, every single time. And he experienced it during his appearances at the end of the 2022 season.
“It’s really up to BHill, what I learned from BHill, being effortless,” McIntyre said. “Really just never having a loaf on the field, out of 15 practices in the spring, that was the goal. I’m trying to do it again during camp, no loaf. Also staying in the film, being 1 up on the offense.”
Pitt has gone through just a week of summer camp so far, one padded practice to end the week on Friday, and while it’s players like McIntyre and O’Brien leading the way, Sanders has liked what he’s seen from the unit as a whole. It’s an inexperienced unit, one that will need to iron out its mistakes through actual play on the field, but it’s not as if there isn’t plenty of talent.
“They understand what shoes they have to fill and they understand what is expected out of them,” Sanders said. “I think they’ve shown up well, and they’ve worked and I think guys are competing for that position Day 1, guys that are at the top of the depth chart with P.J. and Javon. But I think there’s great competition. Buddy Mack had a great interception today — should have had two. Got his hands on another ball, bolted his hands and dropped it. Donovan made a good PBU in the back of the end zone, and Steph did some good stuff today, too.”
Sanders sees the hunger in all of the guys, McIntyre, O’Brien, McMillon, Hall and Mack, as camp has kicked off. It was a strong first week, but there are a few more ahead of the 2023 opener against Wofford on Sept. 2.
With a veteran cornerback duo on the outside, Marquis Williams and M.J. Devonshire providing one of the best duos in the ACC, there will be a bit of a buffer. But the safeties won’t have all that long to round into form. Sanders is confident in both the depth and the emerging talent in the room — and where the unit is headed this season.