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Pat’s Points: Offensive Line Growth, Building Consistency and Freshman Running Backs



It feels like just yesterday that Pat Narduzzi opened up Pitt’s summer camp with a media presser at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, but he were are now with just one day left in the third week of summer ball.

A light Friday session, a scrimmage Saturday morning and then off to Acrisure Stadium to watch former Pitt stars Kenny Pickett, Damar Hamlin and Dane Jackson as the Steelers and Bills face off in the second week of the NFL preseason.

Wofford (more on that) isn’t that far off at this point, but Narduzzi and Pitt’s coaching staff is still focused on developing the best roster possible ahead of the 202e season.

“We sit in the staff room for an hour and go down through the depth chart: ‘How did he play?’ And talk to our guys just about stacking days on top of each other,” Narduzzi said. “You see the inconsistencies. That’s what we’re working on right now.

“You get into the dog days of camp, Day 12 going through the motions sometimes, some guys. And then there’s the consistent guys that you see the same guy every day and most of those NFL guys are consistent guys that can put it together every day. A lot of the guys that don’t go to the NFL are guys that are up and down a lot. So, that’s where we are.”

Let’s dive into a few of Narduzzi’s major discussion points from the last few practices.

Shaking Up the Offensive Line 

I thought the only question entering the 2023 season — when it comes to the offensive line — was whether or not Ryan Baer would be able to force his way into the starting lineup.

That’s still a legitimate question, sure, but now there is a question as to where Matt Goncalves will play this season. He’s a starting tackle, but will it comes at left or right tackle? He’s begun taking camp reps at left tackle lately.

Typically, a team places its strongest tackle on the left side. This is no slight to Branson Taylor, but Goncalves is Pitt’s best tackle. And as he’s getting work at left tackle now, there’s a good chance he could be the starting left tackle against Wofford.

“We like (Goncalves) at both,” Narduzzi said Thursday. “We’re just kind of playing around. We don’t know if he’ll be left or right. We like him at both. He’s played both in the past, so we’ll kind of see.”

He has started primarily at right guard in his Pitt career, but he made five starts at left tackle last season as injuries affected the line. Goncalves is now just another piece in the offensive line puzzle. He will start at left or right tackle.

As I mentioned, Baer is another piece of the puzzle. He’s been working on the left and right side, at tackle and guard, and he’s learning to play both positions. He said Thursday that it’s actually harder sliding from the left to the right and vice versa than it is sliding from tackle to guard. But he’s repping at both, and if he can show he’s one of Pitt’s five best linemen, he will start.

Baer led the practice breakdown Wednesday, serving as one of Pitt’s redshirt freshmen on the Eagles leadership council, but that increasing leadership role doesn’t mean he slides into the lineup either.

“Leadership is great,” Narduzzi said. “You have to go put it out on the field. Is (Baer) blocking that five technique? Is he getting a good double team on the three technique? All those things matter. It’s not just about talking and leading. … He’s doing great. We’re excited about him. We’re excited about (Ryan Jacoby). Jason Collier has had a good camp. So, there’s a battle going on for the guard spot, the tackle spot. Branson (Taylor) has had a good camp as well. There’s a battle going on.”

Narduzzi said that he’s happy with where the offensive line is right now, with Jake Kradel leading the way at center, flanked by Blake Zubovic and Ryan Jacoby at guard and Goncalves and Taylor at tackle, but there will be continued competition throughout the rest of camp.

The Newest True Freshman Running Back Emerging

A Frank Cignetti Jr. offense requires a lot of running backs and a lot of running backs who know what they’re doing in the system.

Pitt is very comfortable with Rodney Hammond Jr. leading the way, joined by C’Bo Flemister, Derrick Davis Jr. and Daniel Carter right behind him, but it’s always good to have competition in the room. Hammond himself was a key contributor in a running backs room that featured Izzy Abanikanda and Vincent Davis.

TJ Harvison arrived first in the winter, and he was solid over the course of the spring, but it’s Montravius Lloyd who has been making noise throughout the summer.

Narduzzi mentioned Lloyd last week, but his name once again arose before Thursday’s practice. It’s continued growth from Lloyd and all of Pitt’s backs.

“Montravius Lloyd, I don’t know if you guys have heard from Montravius yet, but Montravius is — we’ll do a show time at the end of practice and go about eight minutes of live,” Narduzzi said. “Today we’ll just go ‘thud’ because we don’t have pads on. But Montravius has stepped up. He’s getting better every day, so there’s another tailback that you go, ‘Hm, he might be able to play for us this year.’”

Lloyd arrived in June from Lakewood High School in Saint Petersburg, Florida as a dual-threat running back. He was more so a running back as a junior and more so a slot wide receiver as a senior — excelling at both. He’s certainly honing in his receiving chops out of the backfield, but his primary focus has been learning how to be a running back at the next level.

“He’s a tailback,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a tailback, but we’re gonna throw to the tailback out of the backfield. He’s caught a couple of nice wheel routes out of the backfield, so he’s an athlete who can do a lot of different things.”

It’s unlikely that Lloyd — or Harvison for that matter — make a major impact this season, but as Pitt goes from Abanikanda to Hammond, the opportunity for a seamless transition down the line is intriguing.

Finding Consistency Across the Roster Throughout the Summer

It’s the guys that you’d expect that have been the most consistent — in Narduzzi’s eyes — throughout the first 13 or so summer practices.

“Phil Jurkovec has been very consistent,” Narduzzi said before Wednesday’s practice. “You’re not sitting there looking at him going, ‘Wow, that was a terrible day by him.’ Bub Means has been consistent. Daniel Carter has been consistent. C’Bo has been consistent. I think Matt Goncalves has been consistent.

“Shayne Simon has been consistent. M.J. (Devonshire) has been consistent. Maybe a little bit more inconsistencies on defense now that you ask me. I’m trying to think of who else. But you know, some of these guys on defense, like Tyler Bentley has been consistent. I think Deandre Jules has been consistent. Is it every day? No. Some of those other guys I mentioned are every day consistent. But out of 11 days so far, they’ve been consistent nine or 10, and that’s important.”

Jurkovec, Flemister, Carter, Means and Goncalves will all be important — to varying degrees — offensive contributors in 2023. And guys like Bentley, Jules, Simon and Devonshire will be important players on the defense.

Perhaps the greatest turnover on the roster has come from the defensive line room. All-ACC and All-Americans, team captains and emotional leaders and everything in between have moved on. So consistency in the room is important.

“I mentioned Deandre Jules and Bentley and Devin and David Green,” Narduzzi said. “Sean FitzSimmons has had a good camp. Those are guys that stand out in my head right now. I may have missed one guy up front. And then the d-ends, Dayon Hayes has been pretty good. Nahki Johnson has really stepped it up a little bit. Nate Temple’s been pretty darn good. He’s been consistent, and knock on wood, he’s been out there — which is the most important part. He’s been inconsistent as far as just practicing throughout his career, so we’re praying he stays healthy.

“Those are the guys that stand out to me at those spots. I would say the top three d-ends right now are Nahki, Nate and Dayon right now.”

Not Looking at Wofford Yet

Pitt’s Week 1 game against Wofford is just over two weeks away now, but Narduzzi — as of Wednesday pre-practice — is not even thinking about the Terriers yet.

“I’m worried about Pitt, worried about Pitt and being the best Pitt team we can be going into — we’ll start a little bit next week,” Narduzzi said. “But I’m worried about Pitt right now.”

Pitt has a practice Friday, a scrimmage Saturday and one more week of summer ball before Wofford week truly begins. The start of the season coincides with a four month grind in the hopes of making it back to the ACC championship game and even further. So, while Wofford is on the horizon, the last week of summer is pivotal in developing the current roster.

Check back on Monday, Aug. 28 in regards to the true start of Wofford preparation.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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