Patience is a virtue, and the Pitt coaching staff has — collectively — found that out quite a few times over the years.
“I think everyone has their own unique journey,” Charlie Partridge said this summer, reflecting on how it can sometimes take three or four or even five years for a guy to truly grow into a football player.
What he said couldn’t be any truer. There are guys who arrive Day 1 ready to compete, and there are guys who have spent three-and-a-half years just working to crack their position group’s regular season rotation.
There isn’t a ‘right way’ to go about it. Of course, it’s awesome to get on the field early and produce. But if it takes four years of hard work to make it onto the field, is that dedication and perseverance any less because it didn’t result in production earlier?
When it comes to my offensive and defensive winners from summer camp, it’s a clash of two players who have very different journeys.
Kenny Johnson arrived a couple of months ago and immediately worked his way into a role that will earn him playing time this season. As a true freshman. Deandre Jules arrived in the summer, too, just four years ahead of Johnson. And while he’s seen the field and flashed his potential, it’s taken until this summer to truly show that he’s a player who can make an impact this season.
Two very, very different journeys. Two players who should make an impact at Pitt this season.
And before we dive in, here are some offensive and defensive honorable mentions: Bub Means, Zion Fowler-El, Ryan Baer, Sean FitzSimmons, Bangally Kamara and Javon McIntyre.
— Kenny Johnson (@Kennyjohnson05) August 26, 2023
Kenny Johnson — freshman wide receiver
This isn’t a tough one. Kenny Johnson has been a revelation since arriving in June. And now he’s in line for some legitimate playing time.
He isn’t going to start like Jordan Addison did in 2020, barring injuries to guys like Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means, but Pitt will rely upon Johnson to make plays this season — just as he’s done all throughout the summer.
“Kenny Johnson, that dude’s just been gritty all camp, making plays out there,” Jake Kradel said last week. “I’m excited to see what he does and how he can help us this year. Being a young guy, you don’t see it every day where a freshman wide receiver can come in and make the plays he’s making.”
Johnson is one of the four freshmen wideouts who have come in and transformed the wide receiving corps from the ground up. Zion Fowler-El has been excellent, and he might see some playing of his own, and Lamar Seymore and Izzy Polk are both firmly in the mix as the 2023 season has arrived, but it’s Johnson who has a leg up over his classmates.
He’s certainly competing. It’s been his impact on deep balls that has stood out, and perhaps his best catch of the summer — one of many, it seems — came on a deep go ball from Christian Veilleux.
“Kenny Johnson made a great diving catch on a go ball,” Veilleux said earlier this month. “So, it’s starting to click with the young guys. Our young receiving corps looks really good, so we completed a couple of those deep balls.”
Johnson himself wasn’t able to remember which quarterback threw up the ball on the go route, but he remembered what he’s been taught all summer. It’s drive, drive, drive. Making sure to dig out of his release and be there as an easy target for whoever is throwing the football. It wasn’t an easy catch for Johnson, but he made sure to be that easy target. Throw it up, and he’s there.
“I saw the ball going over, and I was like, ‘Shoot, I can’t just run under this. I’m gonna have to dive.’ It was good defense, it was still great defense, just better offense,” Johnson said earlier this month.
He dove, got his hands out to haul in the nicely thrown ball and kept possession through the ground. Of course, he impressed just about every coach on the staff in the process.
“I think you can see that Kenny Johnson is a special, special wide receiver and person,” Cignetti said earlier this month. “You look at the scrimmage the other day, he’s very explosive. He’s fast, he’s a big-time playmaker.
If you ask Pat Narduzzi, Johnson always has one. It seems like every practice he’s making a play, whether it’s an over-the-shoulder grab on a fade route, a diving catch in the back of the end zone or an acrobatic back-shoulder snag with perfect body control.
There’s a new Kenny in town 🌟
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) August 19, 2023
Phil Jurkovec doesn’t know if there’s any direct comparison between Johnson and any of the wide receivers he’s played with during his college career, but he does know that Johnson makes it easier on the quarterbacks out on the field.
“It’s hard to say one guy, I just think he’s really good with his fundamentals,” Jurkovec said earlier this month. “And he used to play quarterback, so he understands on a deep ball how you have to hold the line and kinda what the quarterback’s looking for. So, he’s been really good with that, fundamentals, footwork and all that stuff.”
And now that Johnson has switched from the assigned No. 35 he was given upon arriving over the summer to Izzy Abanikanda’s No. 2, he looks ready. He looks ready to be an instant contributor.
Deandre Jules — redshirt senior defensive tackle
Deandre Jules‘ emergence this summer has come completely out of left field, and that isn’t a slight to Jules at all, but there aren’t many people who could’ve predicted that Jules would challenge for major snaps this season.
Well, Partridge saw it coming. And it’s coming together in a big way.
“It really is, and sometimes it sounds like coach-speak, but he’s matured off the field and kinda saw this coming,” Partridge said earlier this summer. “That led into a good diet which led to the weight loss that you heard about. He doesn’t have distractions; he’s handling his schedule so much better and playing really good football. Minimal mental errors through the entire camp and just allowing his talents to rise up.”
And it wasn’t just the way Jules approached the final two weeks of the 2022 season, receiving increased reps against Miami and UCLA, but the way he has steadily grown within the system over the last handful of seasons. The payoff isn’t always immediate, and it’s not as if Jules hasn’t been working every day since he arrived.
Jules has been simmering in the crockpot this whole time, just getting ready to go.
“I saw it happening really towards the end of last season, and it’s been a progression,” Partridge said. “He’s just gotten a little bit better each year. … Jules is looking like he’s a guy that has a chance to make an impact for us.”
In 144 defensive snaps last season, including 42 against Miami and UCLA, Jules graded out as one of Pitt’s better tacklers. PFF credits him with seven run stops — to go along with three quarterback hurries, two sacks and a hurry. In 12 games, he recorded five tackles (three solo), 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
With 298 career defensive snaps under his belt, at least 75 in each of his past three seasons, he has experience in the experience. And Pat Narduzzi is finally seeing him string together consistent play on the field day after day — praising Jules’ effort and consistency throughout summer camp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Randy Bates has, too.
“Deandre has lost a bunch of weight,” Bates said after practice on Wednesday. “He’s still a monster size-wise, and he has figured it out. He’s really hard to block and way more athletic now. He’s moving as good as he’s ever moved, and he’ll play a lot of ball for us.”
The defensive line room is in the reloading phase as it currently stands, with Calijah Kancey, Habakkuk Baldonado, Deslin Alexandre and John Morgan all exiting, but Jules is firmly entrenched in the new-look rotation. It’s David Green and Devin Danielson leading the way, but Jules is part of a group that also includes himself, Tyler Bentley and Sean FitzSimmons that will feature in the rotation.
It remains to be seen exactly how that rotation will play out, but it sounds like Jules has the opportunity to greatly outplay any preconceived ideas of playing time if he’s able to continue his excellent summer into the fall.
“Deandre Jules has been having a really good camp, and he’s been fun to battle against,” Ryan Baer said earlier this month.
As Jules has slimmed down, playing at about 310 pounds and rocking a new-look No. 0, he has a new level of swagger about him. There’s a confident, hard-working Jules who has a chance to be great.
“Jules’ journey has been one that I’m proud of his persistence,” Partridge said. “He’s continued to stick with it, and now I think he’s gonna get a chance to see the fruits of his labor of just stick-to-it-iveness.”
Always love seeing our @PittBand 💙💛
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) August 23, 2023
Jules has waited four years for this moment, and he’s ready to show that he isn’t the same player that he was when he arrived as a skinny athlete out of Germantown, Maryland.
“I feel like my game mentally has really emerged,” Jules said earlier this month. “I know the playbook way better, I’m bigger, obviously, than I was in 2020. I believe that I’m much faster. So, I guess you guys will see this season how my game has come over the years.”