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Pat’s Points: Pitt’s Effective Leadership, Deserving Scholarships and a Kick Returner?



Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi.

PITTSBURGH — It feels like yesterday that Pat Narduzzi stood before the podium in the Pitt team room of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex to usher in the beginning of summer camp.

As he spoke to the media before Thursday’s practice, it was for the final time this summer. Pitt will go run a walkthrough at Acrisure Stadium Friday morning, prior to the Kickoff Luncheon, but that’s it. Pitt is down for the summer (which means diving right into Wofford prep).

The 2023 season, which will be Narduzzi’s ninth season in Pittsburgh, is just over a week away now. So, let’s dive into some thoughts on awarding scholarships to those guys who truly deserve it, setting the tone through effective leadership and who might just be returning kickoffs this season.

Rewarding Walk-On Determination With Scholarships

Whether it was David Green emceeing Nick Lapi’s scholarship announcement or Chad Bogard — Pitt’s director of football video services — “messing up” the video feed to announce Caleb Junko’s scholarship, Pitt has pulled out all the stops when it comes to rewarding its walk-on contributors.

Lapi, who is expected to serve as a key depth linebacker and special teamer this season, and Junko, who Narduzzi announced as Pitt’s starting punter against Wofford, have both been working in the system for a couple of seasons now.

And when it comes to Pitt announcing Junko’s scholarship, it was actually set up by Bogard.

“Sometimes the video doesn’t work or whatever,” Narduzzi said. “It doesn’t happen very often. As a matter of fact, coach Partridge said yesterday in a staff meeting, he was like, ‘Man, you had me going. Why is coach going crazy throwing a pen about the video guy?’ So, I had some guys going. But then the D-line came up front and were like, ‘Coach, you have to do a better job acting, that wasn’t very good.’ So, it’s good that you guys thought it was good.”

August tends to be the month for awarding walk-on players with scholarships. Lapi and Junko have earned scholarships this week, and there’s still one open spot left. It was Gavin Thomson last year and Chris Maloney before him.

Lapi and Junko have played sparingly over their last two seasons in Pittsburgh, primarily working solely at practice just as hard as their scholarship teammates without any of the added benefits of being on scholarship.

It’s one of Narduzzi’s favorite parts of the year to reward the hard work of players like Lapi and Junko and Thomson and Maloney.

“I think the hard work these kids put in — when you have extra scholarships available and you can give it to someone that’s truly, truly earned it and worked for it, there’s no better thing than that,” Narduzzi said. “A lot of these guys get scholarships and sometimes they don’t ever play out there. But the guys that truly come in here and earn it — I’ve said that during camp when guys come in and earn a scholarship working in camp and then those guys come in and earn it that way, the way that Nick and Caleb have done, there’s nothing better than that.”

No Need for Narduzzi Himself to Set the Tone

Charlie Partridge brought up a quote last week that went something like this: good team, coaches lead, great teams, players lead. It sort of goes hand-in-hand with Pitt’s players setting the tone for themselves.

“There’s a lot of guys in here early,” Narduzzi said. “There’re guys in here at 6:30 watching tape with their position coaches, which is all voluntary. So, that’s happening already, and we’ll see how that goes during the season. In the afternoons, when we’re game planning and getting ready for third down or whatever, those guys are coming in. But I think they see the older guys doing it, they start to join them and then they become the old guys and they start to bring those guys along. Like, the o-line, they’re coming in and grinding videotape. So, we’ll see how that goes, but it’s been something that haven’t had to set it up. They do it themselves.”

Despite the loss of some major veteran leaders on the roster over the offseason, offensively and defensively, it’s that player-led movement that has allowed Pitt to move past such losses without blinking.

Carter Warren, Jared Wayne, Deslin Alexandre and SirVocea are gone? Okay. Jake Kradel, Bub Means, David Green and Shayne Simon are stepping up.

It’s kind of a cycle. But unless every single player buys into the system, the cycle won’t last forever. Fortunately, Pitt has bought into Narduzzi’s system.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back M.J. Devonshire (12) September 24, 2022 David Hague/PSN

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back M.J. Devonshire (12) September 24, 2022 David Hague/PSN

Conflicting Reports on Returners 

This is a Pat’s Points post, but Narduzzi and Andre Powell had slightly different ideas of who would be returning kicks this season.

The one agreement was M.J. Devonshire. He’s locked in as the punt returner, gearing up for an All-ACC campaign.

But while Narduzzi said that Means, Che Nwabuko, Zion Fowler-El and Izzy Polk were in the punt return mix, and Rodney Hammond Jr. is obviously the kick returner, Powell brought a few other names of his own.

“We got M.J. returning,” Powell said after Thursday’s practice. “We’ve got Konata (Mumpfield), Nwabuko, those are three of the main guys that we’re looking at in the punt return game. And then we’ve got Nwabuko, Bub, A.J. Woods in the kickoff return game. We’re trying to really have the fastest guy on the field with the ball in his hands.”

So, while Devonshire is locked in, I suppose your guess might be as good as mine when it comes to the kick returner. Hammond is the starting running back, so I feel like he may not have as many kick returns. It feels, to me, like a good area to get Nwabuko involved.

It may come down to seeing who takes the opening kickoff at Wofford.

Pitt football defensive lineman David Green, who also played for Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the WPIAL

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman David Green (2) September 24, 2022 David Hague/PSN

Lead by Example or Lead With Your Voice?

We’re back on that all-important topic of leadership again. Phil Jurkovec is a leader, that’s been made apparent throughout the summer. He commands attention in the huddle. That’s leadership.

But leadership is more than just raising your voice and screaming at your teammates when things aren’t easy. It’s about putting in the work, showing dedication to your craft and bringing those you lead along with you. It’s not pointing the way ahead, it’s rowing the ship with those who rely upon you.

And I think Pitt teammates are seeing that in Jurkovec. But it can’t just be Jurkovec.

“I think — and I hope — that all our starters will lead by example and then another five or six on either side of the ball that play a lot, based on different personnel groupings,” Narduzzi said. “But some loud guys? I’d say David Green is probably as loud as you’ll get. He’s a loud guy. M.J. is pretty loud as well. He’ll be vocal. Daniel Carter has some voice to him. Bub Means will speak his mind out there.

“But our come to work. Nobody wants to hear somebody bark at them all day. They want to see you lead by example.”

I think Narduzzi named a couple of potential captains. Jurkovec will be a captain. I think David Green will be one, too. He didn’t mention Jake Kradel, but I think he’s another one. And I’m torn on the last one. Someone like Marquis Williams? Devonshire? Shayne Simon? All guys who lead by example.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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