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Pat’s Points: Six Linemen, Versatile Backers and Excitement in the Tight End Room



PITTSBURGH — There is just one practice left at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex this summer. Where has the time gone?

Pitt has a shells practice Thursday, a walkthrough at Acrisure Stadium Friday and then it’s straight into Wofford week. There were plenty of questions heading into camp this summer, but a lot has been figured out.

There are still things to figure out, of course, but Pitt has taken major strides as a team this summer. Pat Narduzzi spoke with members of the media before Wednesday’s practice and touched upon a plethora roster updates and developments — including the offensive linemen, tight ends, linebackers, running backs and punters.

So, let’s dive into some of Narduzzi’s thoughts.

Offensive Line Will Need More Than Five

Dave Borbely said earlier this month that Pitt would play its five best offensive linemen, regardless of position. That allowed someone like Ryan Baer, a tackle by trade, the chance to work across four spots this summer.

And according to Pat Narduzzi, it’s still a work in progress.

“He’s played both guard spots,” Narduzzi said before Wednesday’s practice. “He’s played both tackle spots. I would say right now he’s probably the sixth wheel that can really go and play anywhere. He’s lately been getting reps at tackle, so we’ll see, but he started off at guard. He’s done well at both, which is good.”

Baer is so big and powerful, advanced for just a second-year player, that it feels like it will be hard to keep him off the field this season. But he did say last week that he’s working on playing with more power, making sure he isn’t able to be knocked back by power rushes. So, we’ll see how he finishes camp.

Regardless, Baer is going to play this season. Pitt may play its best five, but a few more than five will play this season. Borbely does like to keep his linemen fresh if at all possible.

“You’re going to need more than five guys,” Narduzzi said. “(Baer’s) done a nice job. Jason Collier’s had a great camp. BJ Williams is another one one the offensive that’s a true freshman, not many true freshmen can come in and do what he’s done. He has not hit a wall at any point, so we’re happy with where he is.”

The core of the offensive line is in place with Jake Kradel, Blake Zubovic, and Matt Goncalves (at left or right tackle), and guys like Baer, Ryan Jacoby, Branson Taylor and a couple others are fighting for those last two spots.

Excitement Building in the Tight Ends Room 

If there’s one thing a Frank Cignetti Jr. offense prioritizes, it’s getting the ball to its playmakers. Gavin Bartholomew is a playmaker. Malcolm Epps could be, too.

“We’re excited about our tight end room, as excited as I’ve been. Gavin Bartholomew has done a great job. Karter Johnson’s been good. (Malcolm) Epps has done a heckuva job.

“I think (Epps) gets better every day. He’s like the new guy, there’s new terminology, so there’re days when he’ll swim and look around, so I think his best ball is ahead of him as we start to move through this. I think every week he’ll get more comfortable because there’s a lot of terminology in an offense.”

Bartholomew, Karter and Epps are a really solid trio, with plenty of uses for each one, even when it comes to the potential of all three being on the field at the same time, but I don’t know how pass catching distribution will go.

Bartholomew should have a big year with Jurkovec. Epps looks the part as a smooth 6-foot-6, 255-pound athlete, especially as he integrates more seamlessly into the offense, but he’s likely more of goal-line target. Him and Bartholomew.

“And then Jake Renda has done an outstanding job,” Narduzzi said. “Jake is a guy who can do a lot of different things. He’s kind of a mismatch. He’s tough enough, he’s physical enough to be in the box and block and he’s also athletic enough to go out wide and run receiver routes.”

Renda hasn’t played in his two seasons at Pitt, but he’s a big, smooth athlete that did look good in the spring game in April. Bartholomew has lauded Renda’s work ethic, too. So, while Renda’s time may not be this season, perhaps it will come down the line.

Young Linebackers Practicing Versatility 

Kyle Louis has spoken to the media twice this summer. Double dippers at the podium after practice include Louis and Ryan Baer. And that’s it.

If a player is speaking to the media after practice, it’s usually because of a standout performance in that day’s practice. So… by that logic, it implies that Louis is having a good summer camp. And Narduzzi confirmed it Wednesday.

“Kyle’s done a nice job,” Narduzzi said. “He’s had a good camp. He didn’t have a good spring ball. I don’t know if you remember that because he got hurt playing basketball. I always tease him about that.

“But he’s had a good camp. He’s going to play a lot of football for us this year.”

He said that Louis is seeing a lot of time at Star, which means he’s competing alongside Braylan Lovelace to backup Bangally Kamara, but he’s getting action at both outside ‘backer spots.

“Those guys are interchangeable,” Narduzzi said. “We tell those guys all the time, we’re going to play the best four, and it doesn’t matter, we’re going to swing you around and get you in the game.”

Jordan Bass and Rasheem Biles — the only players who arrived this summer — are the true young guys in the room. They’re both impressing as they learn the playbook and adapt to the defense. I like Bass and Biles at both outside spots.

Lovelace, Louis and Lapi are all working outside ‘backer spots, too. It’s good depth to have behind the likes of Kamara, Shayne Simon, Solomon DeShields and Brandon George.

Don’t Forget About Daniel Carter

Daniel Carter has been around for what feels like a decade. He’s a respected leader, one of the smartest players in the locker room and a true goal-line back. But of course, he wants more.

“He’s obviously got that fullback role that he’s majoring in,” Narduzzi said. “But he’s a guy that you can put back there in pass protection, and you can hand the ball off to him … So, his fullback role hasn’t changed, but he’s probably gotten a little bit more involved in the tailback spot.

“He’s slimmed down a little bit, so when you look at him, he’s more of a tailback. But just because he lost pounds, doesn’t mean he has lost horsepower. He’s more explosive than he was blocking a year ago.”

All of Pitt’s running backs want to carry the football, and there’s no shortage of mouths to feed, but Narduzzi said that Carter is running well this summer. I doubt he’ll cut too much into the workload shared by Rodney Hammond Jr., C’Bo Flemister and Derrick Davis Jr. (and maybe even Montravius Lloyd), but he’ll make an impact with the carries he receives.

We’ve Got a Punter 

“The competition is good,” Narduzzi said. “Jeff (Yurk) and Caleb (Junko) have done a nice job competing all camp. I think we’re getting closer to saying what’s going on there, and we’re excited about the competition there. We feel like we can win with both of those punters. It’s going to be a competition all year long, I think.”

That was about two or so hours after he awarded Junko a full scholarship. So, while he might say he can see a competition carrying on all year, I think it’s pretty clear that Junko is the starting punter at this point.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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