I don’t think anyone wants to be regaled with the exploits of Kedon Slovis‘ 2022 season at Pitt. Everybody knows how it went down at this point.
It was a long — often difficult — year, and when Narduzzi was asked if learned anything from the experience by the ACC Network in July, he said he did. “A little bit,” he said, to be specific.
He didn’t really expand upon what exactly that little bit might be, instead redirecting the conversation to talk about the difference between landing Slovis ahead of the 2022 season and Phil Jurkovec ahead of the 2023 season.
It was a level of familiarity in recruiting him out of transfer portal, one that had been established prior. And Pitt’s coaching staff certainly knew him. It took three tries to land him, after all. Well, three opportunities. But Pitt knew him. And more importantly, he knew Pitt — even more importantly he knew Cignetti.
It was supposed to be about as seamless a transition as could between a transfer starting quarterback and his new school. Familiarity was certainly supposed to help. But Jurkovec wasn’t the only quarterback to arrive via the portal.
It’s a new-look quarterbacks room. And, funny enough, Narduzzi also told the ACC Network that Pitt’s quarterbacks room this season is as strong as he’s ever seen it. That’s a sentiment that has been echoed by a few coaches — before and after the ACC Football Kickoff.
“We’ve got two great quarterbacks, Phil Jurkovec, who just spoke, and Christian Veilleux,” Narduzzi told the ACC Network. “I think he’s gonna be a guy. I really like what he’s done. And Nate Yarnell. I think our quarterback is as good a room as we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
So, he learned a bit from last season. He has a good quarterbacks room. In that case, for Pitt’s sake, it should be much, much easier to consider — at the very least — making a change at quarterback if it will help the team.
I know a lot of factors go into such a decision, and I’m not saying Narduzzi has to bench Jurkovec either. I don’t think a poor performance against Cincinnati, no matter how poor a performance, is enough to warrant being benched. But Jurkovec shouldn’t have the same unlimited slack on his leash that Slovis seemed to have. But it’s been eerily similar, sample size aside so far.
Here’s what Narduzzi said after a poor loss to Louisville last season:
“It takes 11 guys,” Narduzzi said. “When you win, Kedon does a great job and when you lose, everyone wants to point the finger at the quarterback. We don’t point fingers in the locker room, you guys can point fingers all you want when you talk in the media, but he needs some help.”
Here’s what Narduzzi said after a poor loss to Cincinnati this season:
“I think first thing, it starts with the offensive line,” Narduzzi said. “It takes 11. Everybody is going to point at the quarterback. He’ll get all the glory when you win football games. He’s a great quarterback, got a lot of faith in him.”
And, to be fair to Jurkovec, he does need some help. The offensive line has been very disappointing, and Bub Means has to help out his quarterback if he considers himself Pitt’s No. 1 wideout. You just can’t go 0-for-11 in targets. But that doesn’t excuse Jurkovec’s play either. He looked lost at times against Cincinnati, and that’s extremely concerning considering Jurkovec is a sixth-year quarterback technically in his third season of Cignetti’s offense.
Jurkovec did make some nice plays in the fourth quarter, lofting a touchdown pass to Konata Mumpfield and firing a back shoulder bullet to Gavin Bartholomew, but he wasn’t able to execute in crunch time on either of Pitt’s potential go-ahead drives late in the fourth quarter — and, to be fair again (see, lots of issues here), some of that is on poor play-calling, too.
It’s been one game, really. One bad game. Jurkovec has plenty of time to bounce back, to settle into the offense behind an offensive line that should (key word here) mesh together and offer some sort of cohesion and just be the quarterback who can get the ball out quickly, give Mumpfield and Bartholomew a chance to make plays and hand the ball off — often — to Rodney Hammond Jr. That’s all Pitt needs here. A conductor.
No one is asking Jurkovec to be Kenny Pickett. Just… don’t be a repeat of last season. And, unfortunately for Jurkovec, there was a lot of PTSD against Cincinnati.
It’s still early in the season, very early. Conference play is still two weeks away, so it’s not unrealistic to say all of Pitt’s realistic goals are still within reach. But a loss to West Virginia would drop Pitt below .500 for the first time since 2020. And expectations entering UNC week would be in the basement.
There are some major stakes this week, individually and at a team level, and Jurkovec’s play on the road against West Virginia will be under a microscope. He has a chance to come out and execute against WVU, silence all the outside noise and move on to ACC play with some momentum. But if the struggles continue over the course of the season, those struggles bleeding in each week as was the case with Slovis, Christian Veilleux offers the next-best chance to win now. And he’s certainly the future.
But like Narduzzi, Cignetti was not swayed a single bit by the Cincinnati game.
“Not one time did I think about changing quarterbacks,” Cignetti said this week. “We have a starting quarterback, we have a backup and a third, and I treat them all the same. I love all three guys and as the course of the game went, there was no reason to change.”
Cignetti and Jurkovec have history, highs and lows in their time working together. But if those highs cannot be replicated, if Jurkovec cannot run Cignetti’s offense, then Narduzzi cannot make the same mistake he did last season. Especially not when the heir apparent is on the roster.
It’s safe to say the West Virginia game will be even more important this season than usual.