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Donovan McMillon Has Been Just What Pitt Needed in the Secondary



Pitt safety Donovan McMillon.

Pitt started to take a longer look at Donovan McMillon against Cincinnati, giving him 44 defensive snaps (basically the entire second half), and he was happy to just be on the field a bit more.

His snap count jumped from 15 against Wofford to 44 against Cincinnati, and the temptation to crave more, to demand more, might’ve been there for other players. Especially as success followed. But McMillon enjoyed playing more football.

“Wherever that goes,” McMillon said last week, “I’m just excited to go out there and play football.”

And it certainly turned into more football as he turned that success into his first start against West Virginia over the weekend.

It, obviously, didn’t go how McMillon or anyone at Pitt would’ve liked, but it certainly wasn’t because of his efforts defensively.

McMillon — a 6-foot-2, 210-pound safety from Peters Township High by way of Florida — led the team with 18 tackles. 18. If it looked like he was in on every tackle, wrapping up a WVU receiver or laying his shoulder into a WVU running back, it’s because he probably was. McMillon made an impact across all three levels of the defense.

It was a solid defensive team effort against WVU, but McMillon — according to Pat Narduzzi — was exceptional. And it’s obvious watching the tape, too.

“I’ll tell you what, he’s flying all over the field, too,” Narduzzi said Monday at his weekly news conference. “He’s making not only plays on this side of the field, but he’s running over there, too. There’s some great efforts by Donovan. Obviously, he had a winning performance.

“I’m not giving out grades here, but he played exceptional, and we expect our safeties to make those tackles when they have the opportunities.”

McMillon received the start at boundary safety, the strong safety in Pitt’s defense, and he played every single snap against WVU. According to PFF, he was credited with 14 tackles, five assists and seven run stops. And he missed just one tackle, which is good for a very, very low 5% miss rate — excellent when considering his volume.

Pitt safety Donovan McMillon.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Donovan McMillon (3) September 2, 2023 David Hague/PSN

His impact has been so great through three games that he’s played his way into that boundary safety spot, with Javon McIntyre sliding outside from where he had been playing boundary to the field role.

A background in wrestling has helped McMillon grow into his role at the boundary role, utilizing a history of discipline and physicality to fit gaps, shoot holes and make aggressive tackles.

It’s a good duo. The pair combined well against WVU, working through the growing pains of their first game starting together, and it’s a duo that should only get better with increased reps and work together. And McMillon is confident in the unit as a whole.

“I love playing with Von, all those guys,” McMillon said. “P.J. (O’Brien), Steph (Hall), Von, all of them. We’re all out there talking. The thing (coach Cory) Sanders does for us is he puts us out together during practice and mixes us around, so it’s easy to be able to play with anyone.”

Randy Bates likes to have a pair and a spare in the safeties room, and while McMillon may have started out as the ‘spare’ initially, it’s easy to how valuable all three players are in the defensive scheme. But at the same time, if the two starters are able to create enough separation from their play on the field, it could turn into a Damar Hamlin-Paris Ford or Erick Hallett-Brandon Hill situation.

It’s up to McMillon, or any of Pitt’s defensive backs, to force the hand of Sanders and Archie Collins. And McMillon has certainly done well early this season.

McIntyre was the breakout performer of the summer, earning that No. 1 safety spot in the secondary rather easily, but it’s been McMillon who has made the greatest impact through the first few games this season.

“He’s playing really well,” Narduzzi said. “He’s played at a high level. Again, in our core system, we’re going to get enough guys in the box. The free safety usually has a detached receiver out there, and he’s out playing in space, where Donovan is what they call a strong safety so he’s in the box.

“So, we walk the backer … if one of our backers is walked out, depending on the formation, our boundary safety is kind of a box fitter, and he’s done a nice job. They’re cracking — the receivers will come in and crack on the safeties, and he did a phenomenal job of being where he’s supposed to be.”

As McMillon integrated more into the game plan against Cincinnati, especially in the second half, the Pitt defense clamped down. WVU’s CJ Donaldson may have been able to rumble for 100 yards against Pitt, but the Mountaineers’ offense was limited all night. It’s no coincidence that McMillion is a part of that effort.

The run fits are important, being where you’re supposed to be and actually making a tackle when called upon, and it allowed McMillon to stuff the stat sheet against WVU — but it also wasn’t empty tackles. And it also may be tough to reach that mark again.

“Again, next week he might have two,” Narduzzi said. “Again, they ran the ball a lot, as we know, which is what we expected coming in. They’ve had almost 50 carries in every game so far this year with Brown calling those plays.”

It will be very different against North Carolina. Drake Maye is lightyears ahead of any quarterback Pitt has played this season. The run defense will be important, especially with two solid backs and Maye’s mobility, but McMillon and McIntyre will be tested through the air.

“This week we’re going to go from playing the wishbone and run to the first or second pick in the draft throwing it wherever he wants to because he can make every throw,” Narduzzi said. “Pressure doesn’t bother the guy because he can really run. He’s elusive, and not a quarterback run guy, but it’s scramble to throw the football down the field and get first downs if he has to.”

In being targeted four times this season, McMillion is credited with giving up two receptions for 25 yards — both against WVU. He hasn’t been tested much this season, but that will change this weekend.

McMillon is thankful for the opportunity, the chance to play football at a high level against high-level opponents, but he never would have expected to be in the position he’s in now. He’s already set a new career-high in tackles in just three games.

“It’s been surreal,” McMillon said. “It’s been amazing. I can’t believe I’ve had this opportunity to go out there and show out for Pitt.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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4 days ago

It would be great if the Defense gives us two touchdowns, 3 forced fumbles with one being a scoop and score, an interception pick six, and five or more sacks. It would help if their QB face masked two of our guys twice this Saturday for 15 yards each too. Along with a RB that completes a 3rd and 10 on a Pass to free up a 71 Yard touchdown pass on the next play.
Then maybe the heat would be off the HC, OC, and QB1.
Otherwise do realize PITT plays three P5 teams out-of-conference unlike no other program.

4 days ago

For 2024 perhaps the HC and OC can consider rotating two top QBs in the first four games via the first six posessions.
He always comments on out-of-conference games that all of our goals are ahead of us, so it might be best to find out the hot-hand during that time.

4 days ago
Reply to  srs28704

The QB performance data screams that Pitt is far beyond the need for a competitive rotation. Jurkovec’s performance has been absolutely abysmal so he has ‘earned’ being on the bench as the #3 (or even #4). Pick one of the other two active QB’s and let them play consistently to develop and get into a groove (like they should be doing with Hammond!). Narduzzi, as ‘CEO’, needs to get far more involved with the offense rather than his current 15% allocation there. That’s a frickin joke when the offense is suffering so badly.

4 days ago

Now, if Narduzzi could just figure out what Pitt needs on offense…hmmm…

4 days ago

McMillon’s performance against WVU was the best I can ever remember from any safety on Pitt, or any team, for that matter. The guy was all over the place. 18-tackles is absolutely insane. You can see how well his wrestling background has benefitted him as an aggressive and fearless sure tackler. If McMillon proves that he can also do well in pass coverage, achieving All American, and a high NFL draft pick, status is in the cards.

John Smith
John Smith
4 days ago

This platform is so political. Next week it be talking about how bad the safetys are. Don’t get me wrong he had a solid performance against WVU. However, It’s only week three because i am not counting wafford; I have not even seen if Don can cove yet.

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