Technically Sean FitzSimmons wasn’t the first Pitt commitment in the class of 2022. He was the third. But as the two guys who committed before him never signed, FitzSimmons is the first.
And Samuel Okunlola was the very last himself.
Okunlola’s recruiting process lasted all the way up to National Signing Day in 2021. I remember walking along the sidewalk outside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Signing Day and seeing the Twitter notification that Okunlola had officially committed to Pitt over a very, very long list of offers.
But both FitzSimmons and Okunlola arrived at Pitt early, getting a head start in the winter of 2022. Neither played all that much last season, with just 35 defensive snaps between them, but when it comes to what Charlie Partridge saw from them as early enrollees two springs ago to what he’s seeing now two weeks from the start of their second seasons, it’s basically night and day.
“Both of them were guys that we were excited about last year, and like most d-ends, Sam loves to pass rush,” Partridge said after practice Saturday. “He’s learned to love and appreciate stopping the run, which is the admission ticket to the other. Fitz has just gotten so much better with his knowledge, his awareness. For example, knowing where protection is going to slide and how to take advantage of that. So, they’re just both taking really, really good steps from Year 1 to Year 2.”
FitzSimmons stands at 6-foot-3, 290 pounds now, a bonafide load on the interior of the defensive line. Okunlola is listed at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, up 30 pounds from when he arrived as a freshman last year, but he’s still relatively thin all things considered.
But then again, it’s hard to say that he’s thin at nearly 250 pounds. He’s continuing to add mass in the Pitt Iron Works, and he’s made it a priority to be able to exploit each and every offensive lineman he could possibly line up across this season.
“He’s different from a lot of people,” Ryan Baer said after practice Friday. “He’s so in love with football. He watches film, he watches any tackle that he might go up against. He just finds any little key. And with him being so skinny, he can move. And with the speed he can create, he can create power for his size. His feet are so fast, his feet freeze you and he surprises you with power, too.”
Okunlola found his way into Pitt’s final four games last season, taking defensive snaps against Virginia, Miami and UCLA in the Sun Bowl. The reps were limited, but it was an opportunity for him to get some tangible experience on the field. He can learn all sorts of things on the practice field, but those in-game reps are priceless.
Ever since a season-high nine snaps (six in pass rushing situations) against UCLA, Okunlola has continued to grow as a run defender. He loves to rush the passer, but as Partridge said, pass rush and run stopping go hand in hand. Especially in Pat Narduzzi’s defense.
“I definitely improved in the run game,” Okunlola said. “I feel like I’m good at pass rushing, but I still have room to improve. I just gotta keep on working.”
Okunlola doesn’t have a favorite pass rushing move as it stands. His first step has been praised by Charlie Partridge, Calijah Kancey and everyone in between, and his wicked athleticism has been on display throughout the spring and summer. But he’s content just taking what the offense affords him, making it work with how the play unfolds.
FitzSimmons doesn’t rush the passer as often from the interior of the line, although he did record his first career sack last season against Rhode Island, he feels like a first true offseason has allowed him to get bigger, stronger and faster.
“I think I’m locked in this year,” FitzSimmons said. “I’m just doing everything I can to get better day in and day out, so I’m really looking forward to the next practice.
“I feel like just my playbook knowledge, even though I early enrolled, even during last camp, I was still hesitant on some of the plays. But now I feel like I got a full grasp of it, so I’m not thinking and just flying and doing my job.”
It’s the best FitzSimmons has ever felt, having grown himself with Michael Stacchiotti in the Pitt Iron Works. And that physical — and mental –conditioning has only led to more consistency in practice each week this summer. The desire to stack those days of consistent work has only gotten stronger and stronger.
“Every day I’m just looking forward to going out there to compete and just get better every day,” FitzSimmons said. “Everybody just getting the team better overall.”
Okunlola has taken the same approach. He’s a quick — and very eager — study in the film room, but he’s been able to carry over his film study when it comes to live situations. He made an impact in the spring game in April, he’s pushed the veteran pass rushers in front of him this summer and he’s in a position to take the next step.
“I’m always hungry, whether there are 10 defensive ends or there’s five or six, same mentality, same approach every day,” Okunlola said.
“I just play football; I really don’t care too much about the money. I just love playing football.”
Both Okunlola and FitzSimmons learned an awful lot from Calijah Kancey in their lone seasons watching him earn ACC Defensive Player of the Year, becoming Pitt’s first unanimous All-American since Aaron Donald, and they’re continuing to learn from vets like David Green, Devin Danielson, Tyler Bentley, Dayon Hayes and Nate Temple.
But while they’re learning from the vets right now, they may be — and will — be playing alongside them this season.
The edge rushers are led by Hayes and Temple, but Okunlola, Nahki Johnson, Bam Brima and Jimmy Scott are all in the mix. Partridge likes to use two or three starters, as he did last season, and with the youth on the edge, the room will evolve throughout the season. There’s a bit more experience on the inside, but the principle is the same.
Green, Danielson and Bentley are all sixth-year seniors, very experienced in the system, but FitzSimmons, Deandre Jules and Elliot Donald will all be firmly in the mix — Isaiah Neal isn’t all that far off either as he continues to grow within the system.
“Fitz is gonna play, Fitz is playing this year,” Partridge said.
Defensive Line Depth
DE — Dayon Hayes — Nate Temple — Jimmy Scott
DL — David Green — Deandre Jules — Elliot Donald
DL — Devin Danielson — Tyler Bentley OR Sean FitzSimmons
DE — Nahki Johnson — Bam Brima — Samuel Okunlola