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Pitt Football

Three Cincinnati Stars to Keep An Eye On Today



Pitt football.

PITTSBURGH — It’s a Pitt game day, and the Cincinnati Bearcats are in town for the renewal of the River City Rivalry today.

Cincinnati is coming off a big Week 1 win over Eastern Kentucky, a 66-13 stomp at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, and Week 2 will be much tougher for both Pitt and Cincinnati.

It’s a new-look Cincinnati squad, one that is laden with transfers offensively and defensively, and a couple of key transfers fuel the offensive assault and a returning All-American anchors the defense.

Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Acrisure Stadium, and the

Emory Jones — quarterback

The Cincinnati offense will go as far as Jones takes it this season. It’s an interesting matchup against Phil Jurkovec, two highly-touted high school recruits who have transferred twice and now face the end of the road.

In the win over Eastern Kentucky, Jones completed all but six of his pass attempts for 345 yards and five touchdowns. He didn’t rack up a bunch of yards on the ground, but he dashed into the end zone two more times. Jones has high expectations for himself in his final collegiate season. And Pat Narduzzi does, too.

Over his two seasons starting at Florida in 2021 and Arizona State in 2022, Jones has thrown for 4,267 yards with 26 touchdowns and 17 interceptions — completing just about 64% of his pass attempts. And in those 545 attempts, according to PFF, he’s thrown 17 big-time throws and 23 turnover-worthy throws.

He wasn’t helped by 25 drops over the last two seasons either. But there is a way to beat Jones. And that’s to get lots and lots of pressure.

It depends on whether Cincinnati is copycatting (running successful plays that the coaching staff has seen on film) or not, but Jones is an able scrambler. If he doesn’t like what he sees downfield, he can tuck the ball and take off downfield. He didn’t showcase his legs much at Arizona State, but he ran 758 yards and four touchdowns as a junior at Florida in 2021.

Narduzzi doesn’t expect there to be many designed runs for Jones Saturday, but Pitt will have to be ready for everything.

Xzavier Henderson — wide receiver

If M.J. Devonshire struggled in a game last season, it was because the other team had a bigger wide receiver.

Henderson is a big, fast wideout at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, and the smaller Pitt secondary will have its hands full with him. He headlines a veteran receiving corps full of transfers — an area of strength Narduzzi pointed to this week.

Henderson, who played at Florida over the last three seasons, emerged in a big way last weekend, hauling in seven receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown. He was nearly perfect downfield, hauling in all of his targets beyond 10 yards — and both beyond 20 yards.

In three seasons at Florida, Henderson racked up 73 receptions for 835 yards (11.4 yards per reception) and five touchdowns. And he added over 400 combined punt and kick return yards.

Cincinnati will look to throw the ball deep against Pitt, as it did against EKU last week, and Henderson will be the No. 1 target to stop.

Dontay Corleone — defensive tackle

Corleone doesn’t always stuff the stat sheet, but he makes an impact every single play he’s on the field for the Cincinnati defense.

At 6-foot-2, 318 pounds, he’s a load. He plays that 0 technique in Cincinnati’s 3-4 defense, and he didn’t always stuff the stat sheet with tackles for loss and sacks, but he wrecked game plans by simply being on the field. If two or three linemen slide to help the center on any individual play, it opens up blitz lanes for his fellow linemen and the linebackers waiting to burst through the gaps.

The Corleone Effect is something that Pitt will need to account for Saturday.

Corleone was on the field for 152 pass rush snaps last season, generating 16 hurries, 11 pressures, three sacks and two more quarterback hits (with a 15.3% win rate against opposing blockers showcasing his ability to pressure the quarterback from inside), but it wasn’t his pass rushing ability that really caused problems last season.

It was Corleone’s ability to draw double and triple teams and still make plays in defending against the run.

Corleone was nearly unguardable in 176 run defense snaps last season. He recorded 30 tackles, 15 assists and missed just two tackles — an exceptionally low 4.3% miss rate. He recorded a run stop (27) on just over 15% of his run defense snaps last season. It’s not hard to see he’s a problem inside.

Jake Kradel will receive the bulk of the work against Corleone, but Jason Collier Jr. and Blake Zubovic will certainly have their hands full, too. The defensive line is perhaps Cincinnati’s greatest strength.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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