Pitt wasn’t able to generate a whole lot of pressure on Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman over the weekend, just 12 pressures and a single sack on the afternoon, but the lone sack came from an encouraging place.
Hartman stood in the pocket on a 1st-and-10 from the Pitt 10, couldn’t find a target downfield and tried to escape up the left side of the field — only to run straight into Samuel Okunlola. Sammy O, as he’s affectionately known, threw Hartman to the ground for a 6-yard loss and set up an obvious passing situation from the 16.
The sack led to a Brandon George interception. And that was… about it defensively.
The Pitt defense — I say this knowing it was a 58-7 final — didn’t play horribly. It wasn’t a good performance, but when an opposing team is spotted 21 points off defensive or special teams touchdowns, what can you really do? But it still wasn’t a good enough performance from the defensive unit as a whole.
It was, however, another solid performance from Okunlola, the second-year edge rusher who continues to make an impact where his veteran teammates don’t. It’s getting harder and harder to justify not starting Okunlola these days.
“You see the sack, you see the sack the week before, obviously plays into every single play, production and performance, so he’s doing a great job and getting more reps because of it,” Charlie Partridge said Tuesday after practice.
Through eight games, with Okunlola having played in seven of those games, he leads the team with four sacks. He’s added 10 tackles (six solo), 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble and recovery in the process.
He took 24 snaps against Notre Dame, behind Dayon Hayes (44) and Nate Temple (27), as he continues to work his way into a more prominent role on the defensive line.
Okunlola took just 18 snaps over the first four weeks of the season, not taking any in a loss to West Virginia, but he took 17 against Virginia Tech right before the bye week. And since the bye week, he’s taken 93 defensive snaps — out of 223 (40.4%). It’s clear he’s worked himself into that No. 3 role behind Dayon Hayes and Nate Temple.
And Temple, who has been able to watch — and work with — Okunlola over the last season and a half, ever since Okunlola arrived as an early enrollee in 2022, knows that Pitt has something in Sammy O because he’s seen it himself.
“Sam’s gonna be special, man,” Temple said Tuesday after practice. “Sam is a very talented kid, I’m sure you see that, too, he’s gonna be a great one for us.
“He’s business. He knows what he wants, and he’s a business kid, so he’s very focused.”
Okunlola, who stands at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, is a soft-spoken young man. He’s, as Temple said, about his business. He comes in every single day and works — on the practice field and in the film room. And it’s paying off as his role on the defensive line grows. But he knows he has a long way to go.
“(Partridge) gets on me about everything,” Okunlola said last month. “I’m not a perfect player. I’ve gotta improve in many ways.”
Partridge is hard on all of his defensive linemen; he expects a lot — on and off the field — of the young men under his leadership. There are a few things that every player in his room must do to see the field, which happen on and off the field, and Okunlola is making those strides.
“That’s what he’s done by punching the clock every day and coming to work every day, and then you add some production to that, some lack of distractions from how he approaches things on a daily, meaning I know what I’m getting when he walks in the door every day, that’s leading to an exciting future from him every day,” Partridge said last week.
Okunlola feels like he’s gotten smarter and stronger in his brief collegiate career. He’s added 30-ish pounds to his frame since arriving, courtesy of his work in the Pitt Iron Works with Michael Stacchiotti, and he’s ingrained himself in the playbook. The film room is like a second home.
It’s about getting better — on and off the field, of course — game by game, day by day and minute by minute going forward.
“I just keep working every day, I have faith, one play at a time,” Okunlola said.
Even if it doesn’t come this season, and I, for one, think it should, Okunlola will still make quite a few starts on the end of the defensive line for Pitt going forward.
Okunlola has turned his opportunities into production this season, which is more than can be said for the majority of the veteran defense line — both inside and outside. It’s clear that Okunlola is the future of the defensive line — leading a young corps that Partridge feels is coming along exactly as it needs to.
Okunlola just happens to be the first of that group to make a legitimate impact on the field.