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Nahki Johnson’s Continued Growth and Maturity Helps Him to Set the Standard



Pitt football defensive lineman Nakhi Johnson

I don’t think I’ve ever met a more composed coach — at any level — than Pitt defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. His success is undeniable, and I suppose his wisdom is the result of sustaining such success.

He’s coached the likes of J.J. Watt, Rashad Weaver, Patrick Jones, Jaylen Twyman and Calijah Kancey over the years, and in his time serving as Pitt’s defensive line coach, he’s turned the unit into a well-oiled machine that hasn’t been derailed by the loss of any individual player. It’s time — once again — to continue the standard.

When Pitt lost Rashad Weaver, Patrick Jones and Jaylen Twyman after the 2020 season, it meant three All-American defensive linemen needed to be replaced. And, somehow, Pitt rebounded with another All-American, first round NFL draft pick and only got better in getting after opposing quarterbacks.

“I think the last time we had (no preseason All-American defensive linemen) was after Jones and Weaver graduated because we lost Jones, Weaver and Twyman, so you were standing here saying the same thing, but you weren’t asking me about Calijah Kancey,” Randy Bates said last Wednesday. “So, we like to think that next guy is coming.

“We have great skill, and I think the guys are excited to be able to prove that they’re the next guy. And this is the third cycle of that, and they take it to heart that is what we do and how do it and we expect them to be the next guy.”

I think Dayon Hayes is on the precipice of a breakout, finally ready to take that next step toward stardom that has been predicted since the end of the 2021 season. He’s set a goal of 10 tackles for loss and sacks. Each. And I don’t think that’s unrealistic at all. He’ll need help though, and I think that will be in the form of Nahki Johnson.

Johnson played just 43 snaps last season, sitting behind the likes of Haba Baldonado, Deslin Alexandre and John Morgan, but he’s a year older. A year wiser. And he’s even bigger after another year with Michael Stacchiotti and the Pitt Iron Works. It’s time.

And if that’s not enough, his Ed Conway Award for most improved player of the spring should count for something, right?

Anyway. This isn’t a baseless Johnson hype piece. It has merit. When Johnson arrived at Pitt as a long, lanky four-star commit out of West Mifflin Area High, choosing Pitt way, way back during his sophomore season, he was just about 220 pounds. He’s 260 pounds now, and he looks every bit of it. The growth is tangible.

What it comes down to now is Johnson being able to show Partridge that he can handle not just his responsibilities on the field but the around-the-clock effort that Partridge expects of his elite linemen.

As Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin says, the standard is the standard.

“I’ll sum it up in this one because it’s one of the first things that came to my brain, and this is a stolen quote, the standard is never what you preach, it’s what you tolerate,” Partridge said Wednesday. “The reality is, if I tell you that you must wear an orange shirt today if you sit at this table, you must wear an orange shirt, but I let everyone here sit in shirts that aren’t orange, the standard is now gone.

“Orange shirt doesn’t matter. I say you have to run to spot X or finish the play with technique F, if I let someone get away with it, the standard is now what I let them get away with. And it doesn’t mean you have to be negative, it doesn’t mean you have to be an old-school, gruffy guy, it just means that’s not the standard. I can’t play you. You’re not ready yet. You’re not living up to the standard.”

Partridge isn’t someone who will accept second-best. If a player isn’t ready, he won’t play. There’s plenty of competition waiting in the wings, yes, but it’s about that standard. Partridge himself has a reputation for being the best, and that has come about as Partridge has mentored the best of the best. It’s no coincidence.

Johnson found out the hard way that he won’t even sniff the field if he doesn’t reach the standard that those who paved the way before him did. But it’s perhaps the best motivation imaginable.

“I remember before spring ball, (Partridge and I) had a serious talk,” Johnson said Friday. “And I’m like, when I came in here, when he recruited me out of high school, I wouldn’t say I looked at him as my friend, but our relationship was like, maybe if I get to know him good, he was gonna have sympathy for me. But that was not the case at all. Coach P is hard on you. In camp, we call him Hulk. Because it’s like, he’s cool, he’s chill, and then when you get up here, he just transforms — I wouldn’t say he’s mean, but he coaches you the way you’re supposed to be coached.”

It’s hard coaching. It would’ve been easy for Johnson to look for a way out over the last couple of seasons as he didn’t play early in his college career, but the thought never crossed his mind. He’s the kind of guy to finish what he starts, especially when he’s playing for a coach like Partridge on his hometown squad.

“Everything he says, I never take it to heart because I know he wants the best out of me,” Johnson said. “So, we just keep it straight business.”

Johnson took that step forward in the lead-up to the Sun Bowl, working his way into an increased role across all team phases, and Narduzzi himself noticed it, too.

“It’s nice to see him step up,” Narduzzi said about Johnson in March. “I think he had good bowl practices as well going into that UCLA game, so it’s just he’s started off where he left off.”

It took Johnson a bit longer than he expected to really understand what Partridge was preaching, to really understand what it meant to play at the standard Partridge has set in the defensive line room, but he’s locked in now. He’s an emotional guy who loves football. He knows — now — he needs to be coached by someone like Partridge to reach where he wants to be.

It isn’t easy for anyone to take criticism, Partridge himself admitted as much, but it takes a level of maturity and mutual understanding to truly grow — to use that criticism in a constructive way.

“When someone criticizes any human, and then comes back around and says, ‘Here’s why I did that, I love you the same way I did when I was in your house, that has not changed,’ I think people with less maturity don’t even hear the second part. They can’t stop thinking about the criticism … as we mature, I think the time frame where you can say, that person, they had a good point, it shortens.” 

It isn’t personal. It isn’t about feelings. Johnson sees that now, and he tells the young guys as much as someone who has been in their shoes.

“I had to do it today, I had to pull them to the side and let ‘em know, everything he’s saying to you, you might feel some type of way about it now, but in the long run, it’s gonna help you out so much,” Johnson said. 

Nate Temple doesn’t even consider Johnson a young guy anymore, but he watched Johnson when he was a kid who couldn’t fully understand what Partridge was teaching, and he sees him now as someone who embraces that style of teaching in order to be the best he can be on and off the field.

“He’s continually grown mentally, on and off the field, he’s committed to the weight room,” Temple said last Friday. “He’s growing well.”

Johnson will be a key cog in Pitt’s defense in 2023 and despite his relative inexperience in the system, he’s bought into what Pitt’s coaching staff — Partridge, in particular — has preached. There’s a standard at Pitt, and Johnson’s growth has allowed him to set that standard for those alongside him.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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