Pitt padded up for the first time last week, a few days before a weekend scrimmage at Acrisure Stadium, and Pat Narduzzi was happy with the level of intensity — and maturity — that he saw from his squad.
“I was just excited by the way they handled themselves, I think this team is a little bit more mature than others, they practice with the right tempos,” Narduzzi said. “The day before, they were working with the pads on, they got better. So, we coach the heck out of it I guess, trying to keep everyone safe. But they did a nice job in pads. We didn’t do a ton of live … but I thought it was good. We saw some good things on both sides of the ball.”
The 2023 season is a little under three weeks away now, and with just two weeks of summer camp left on the schedule, the stretch run will be important. The ACC Network crew will be in town this week, scrimmage ramifications will be felt and position battles will continue to unfold.
There were some interesting notes from Narduzzi’s pre-practice media scrums over the second half of last week’s practices.
Running Blocking For a New Running Backs Room
If the offensive line opened a hole last season, it was a good bet that Izzy Abanikanda would rip through said hole. And once he did? Good luck catching him.
Izzy is scoring touchdowns for the New York Jets right now, coming off a strong performance in the Jets’ first preseason game over the weekend, but Pitt isn’t without options. Rodney Hammond Jr. headlines a running backs room that includes C’Bo Flemister, Derrick Davis Jr. and Daniel Carter.
Pat Narduzzi still envisions a big season from the running back, even though Abanikanda isn’t around anymore. And it starts up front and out wide.
“We hope our blocking is even better this year, that regardless if a guy can run a 4.3 or 4.5, that we can still get those big, explosive plays,” Narduzzi said before practice Friday. “And our blocking on the edge, we always talk about how critical our receivers blocking are.
“Everybody talks about the catches and the explosive plays they make, but the blocking on the perimeter and winning that war out here on the edge is obviously critical regardless of what the speed of the tailback is.”
Davis will tell you that he’s the fastest running back in the room, but Flemister and Hammond are no slouches. I don’t think Hammond is going to be the home run threat that Izzy was. Flemister either. But no one in the room needs to be Izzy. It’s a deep unit, headlined by Hammond, who himself is a very different runner than Abanikanda, and Narduzzi isn’t worried about what Pitt will get from its backs.
He hopes that Pitt’s run blocking, which improved down the stretch last season, is even better than it was last season. You try to get better at all areas over the course of an offseason, but Pitt will see soon enough.
“I think they can be good,” Narduzzi said. “It’s another year in the system. I think that’s beneficial to everybody. I just watched them in the run game yesterday, I think we still need work in our pass protection. I think we gave up two sacks out of 13 games. The first two games we weren’t very good in pass protection, against two good football teams obviously. But the rest of the year, there were only two games out of the other 11 that we gave up two sacks. Our run game has gotten better, I see the improvement. The pass game I’m still waiting to see more improvement.”
Who’s Calling Plays Defensively This Season?
It hurts losing guys like SirVocea Dennis, Erick Hallett and Brandon Hill in the second and third levels of the defense. A lot of production, sure, but also a lot of leadership.
When it comes to replacing the production and leadership lost, at least in the secondary, it starts with Javon McIntyre. He’s been the guy, as Narduzzi has said.
“I told you back maybe four days ago, five days ago about how he’s done a good job communicating, and people talked about him being the guy right now,” Narduzzi said before practice Thursday. “He does the best job. Corners feel comfortable with him because he’s giving them the call fast. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s studying it.”
Narduzzi also pointed to Shayne Simon and Brandon George, who will line up inside at Mike linebacker for Pitt this season, as further leaders when it comes to calling plays and leading the defense.
The loss of Dennis, the heart and soul of both the linebacking corps and the defense, a team captain last season, hurts. But Simon and George — and the unit as a whole — will look to approach it as a collective.
Continued Growth at Safety
It’s not just McIntyre who is growing at safety right now. But he is the most notable.
“No question about (McIntyre’s growth), or he wouldn’t be a starter,” Narduzzi said. “Theres’s no question about it.”
McIntyre’s two interceptions to end the season are often brought up, but his mistakes were just as apparent to the coaching staff. When UCLA scored its first touchdown against Pitt in the Sun Bowl, it was McIntyre’s inexperience that led to a Bruins’ touchdown — one that made Hallett look bad.
“Hallett’s sitting on his butt going like, ‘Where’s my middle of the field player?’ Everybody thinks Erick got beat, everybody’s probably on Twitter and social media saying, ‘What is he doing?’” Narduzzi said. “Ironically, he’s doing a heckuva job down in Jacksonville as well.”
McIntyre’s growth, on and off the field, has been paramount. He’s been Pitt’s best safety, he is the No. 1 safety and leader in the room, but again, he isn’t alone either.
“P.J. (O’Brien Jr.) has gotten a lot better back there,” Narduzzi said. “He wasn’t where we needed to be in the spring. Sometimes he likes his calls. It’s like, ‘No, you can’t just like your calls. You gotta do the ones that everybody likes that help us.’ So, he’s learning. But he’s funny. He’s like, ‘I don’t want to get beat deep.’ It’s like, hold on a second now. You gotta do what we need you to do. He’s come a long way.”
In my eyes, it appears that McIntyre (at boundary) and O’Brien (at field) are where the room is trending. But they’re not alone in their development. There are five safeties, six if you count a true freshman like Cruce Brookins, who have made an impact this summer.
“(Donovan McMillon) is new to the system, but he’s — all of those safeties are much better,” Narduzzi said. “Javon was here, as far as play-calling. The rest of them were down here. And they are all, without beating a dead horse here, they’re all a lot better. Donovan’s picking it up. He looks more comfortable, he appears more comfortable out there and I think he’ll just get better every day.”
A foursome of McIntyre-McMillon and O’Brien-Steph Hall, with Buddy Mack also in the mix, is loaded with potential. It won’t always be smooth sailing, with mistakes needing to be made in live action, but that’s how it is when a defense rebuilds on the fly. It’s not rebuilding even, it’s reloading.
The safeties bear watching as the second half of the summer kicks off this week.