Typically around this time of the year, we get the usual coach speak of the Defense being way ahead of the offense. Like clockwork, practically every spring Pitt head coaches from Majors to Harris to Chryst to Narduzzi, all have said on numerous occasions this was the case.
This year may clearly be the exception. Pitt has experience on offense and plenty of it.
Lets take a quick peek at what Pitt is bringing in or bringing back in 2023:
QB: Phil Jurkovec, Christian Veilleux, Nate Yarnell, Tyler Dieffenbach
The QB room is stocked with talent starting with 5th year Senior Phil Jurkovec. If he fails, Penn St transfer Veilleux should fill in nicely or Pitt fan favorite Nate Yarnell who played very well in limited action last season. The hope is true frosh Tyler Dieffenbach redshirts.
RB: Rodney Hammond, Derrick Davis Jr, Cbo Flemister, Daniel Carter, T.J. Harvison, Montravius Lloyd
Izzy Abanikanda jumped to the NFL but that’s no problem. Pitt brings back Rodney Hammond, Cbo Flemister and fullback Daniel Carter. Add in LSU transfer Derrick Davis and there’s no concern here. The hope is true frosh T.J. Harvison and Montravius Lloyd redshirt. Harvison arrived early on campus this January.
WR: Daejon Reynolds, Bub Means, Konata Mumpfield, Addison Copeland, Myles Alston, Che Nwabuko, Kenny Johnson, Jesse Anderson, Lamar Seymore, Zion Fowler, Israel Polk, Isaiah Nesmith (walk-on), Jake McConnachie (walk-on), Gavin Thompson (walk-on), Lorenzo Jenkins (walk-on), Caden Smith (walk-on), Peter Vardzel (walk-on), Josh Junko (walk-on)
When you have 18 wide-outs on the roster, which includes 7 walk-ons, you have to figure there’s some depth and experience here. The hope is Daejon Reynolds (transfer from Florida) takes over for Jared Wayne (NFL) and Mumpfield and Means improve. Out of the true frosh of Johnson, Anderson, Seymore and Fowler, somebody’s getting snaps this year.
Nonetheless, its hard to look at this unit and not feel impressed by the depth. It helps when you have Pitt blood in your veins since California kid WR Israel Polk is the nephew of Panther WR legend Latef Grim.
TE: Gavin Bartholomew, Karter Johnson, Dylan Deveney, Jake Renda
Kyi Wright transferred to James Madison but as long as Gavin Bartholomew and Karter Johnson return, Pitt is in great shape once again at TE. Georgia Tech transfer Dylan Deveney didn’t play last season but should get some PT this year. Renda played sparingly last year and could see some action this season.
OL: Branson Taylor, Ryan Jacoby, Terrence Moore, Jake Kradel, Blake Zubovic, Matt Goncalves, Ryan Baer, Isaiah Montgomery, Terrence Enos, Ryan Carretta, Tai Ray, BJ Williams (center)
It was a sigh of relief that Kradel and Zubovic are returning for Pitt this spring. Its clear we need them both. The OL isn’t terribly deep but it’s not in shambles either. From Left to right: Taylor (LT), Jacoby (LG), Kradel (C), Zubovic (RG) and Gongalves (RT) will probably be the starting 5. Terrance Moore will push Zubovic for snaps at RG. Mammouth tackle Ryan Baer has to figure in the plans this year, most likely at RT where Goncalves struggled at times last year.
The cupboard isn’t bare though in the future. Stud Ryan Carretta may be Pitt’s best recruit of the class of 2023 and Ray and Williams seem underrated and may be starters one day as well. Williams arrived early on campus this January along with Harvison and Isiah Neal.
PK: Ben Sauls
There probably needs to be a book written one day about Ben Sauls. This kid went from complete bust his freshman year, benched for field goals and only allowed on the field for kickoffs to full-time placekicker and Bowl game hero. Possibly All American level. He’s that good and Pitt’s been fortunate at this position with Chris Blewitt and Alex Kessman, both of whom flirted with the NFL and were outstanding placekickers themselves at Pitt. Sauls, though, takes the cake and he’s become a bit of a Pitt legend practically in one season.
P: Jeff Yurk, Sam Vander Haar, Caleb Junko
Lets face it, the transition of Australian punter Kirk Christodoulou to fellow Aussie Sam Vander Haar wasn’t a smooth one. In fact, it was a disaster. Pitt was forced to use walk-ons at times at Punter due to Vander Haar ineffectiveness. In comes transfer Jeff Yurk from small North Carolina college Elon. Yurk is going to start and if he’s as advertised, he should fix the punting problem overnight.
DL: Sam Okunlola, David Green, Sean FitzSimmons, Elliott Donald, Devin Danielson, Tyler Bentley, Deandre Jules, Dayon Hayes, Dorien Ford, Jimmy Scott, Nahki Johnson, Nate Temple, Chris Maloney, Bam Brima, Isaiah Neal, Antonio Camon, Maverick Gracio
Pitt dodged a bullet when David Green announced he was returning for one last season. The DL has always been Pitt’s nuclear weapon, literally dominating ACC teams up front for practically 10 years now and leading the Panthers to roughly 45 conference wins along the way. Its hard to believe that this unit could possibly struggle or take a step back. And like clockwork, we don’t think it will.
Departed starters / stars of Calijah Kancey (NFL), Habakkuk Baldonado (NFL), Deslin Alexandre (NFL) and John Morgan (Arkansas transfer) may be gone but Coach Charlie Partridge probably still sleeps well at night in 2023 as he should. You have to figure incoming true frosh Neal will push for playing time almost immediately. He’s that good. Hayes will occupy one of the DE spots with a mixture of Ford, Johnson, Green, Danielson, FitzSimmons and Bentley all rotating inside. The real question who will seize the other DE spot. Its possible someone will move outside such as Elliott Donald. We like what we saw from Bentley last year and incomers Camon and Gracio are clearly the kids groomed for the future.
Bottom line: Pitt’s DL will lack experience but it won’t be short on talent. When you have the talent of Isaiah Neal walking in the door at DT, it simply feels the Aaron Donald to Calijah Kancey to Neal baton has been passed. Thats all. Then in 2024, when future Pitt stud from Philadelphia Jahsear Whittington lands in Oakland, it will only keep the Pitt DL drum beating.
LB: Bangally Kamara, Solomon DeShields, Shayne Simon, Brandon George, Braylan Lovelace, Jordan Bass, Rasheem Biles
Its no coincidence this unit has been the weak link on Pitt’s defense. Despite having maybe the best middle linebacker in the ACC in SirVocea Dennis (now graduated), this group has struggled mightily the past few years. In the bowl game vs UCLA this past December, the LBers were basically out to lunch on the the Bruins final drive. Out of position, blown coverages, poor angles, you name it, UCLA exploited the middle of the field like it was an 11 on 8 game.
Perhaps the reason can be traced back to the LB coaching transition. Rob Harley, now the Assistant Head Coach / Defensive Coordinator at Arkansas State, wasn’t the greatest LB coach but he never witnessed the exodus that his successor Ryan Malanac has. Lets rewind the tape a little. Remember when the following Pitt LBers left? Cam Bright, Leslie Smith, Wendell Davis Jr., AJ Roberts and Lamar Preston. Even former 4 star Naquan Brown transferred to Norfolk State. There wasn’t any true LB recruits in 2022 and the 2023 class is a bit of a patchwork job.
Yes, incoming frosh Braylan Lovelace, Rasheem Biles and converted DB Jordan Bass might be studs one day for the Panthers, but that’s not usually the case with true frosh at LB at this level.
Its also possible this could be Brandon George’s time to shine. He has the appropriate size, unlike Wiltz who is far too undersized at this level, and could be the heir apparent to Dennis in the middle. Simon or DeShields and Kamara will occupy the MONEY job while Kamara will return at the STAR. Wiltz actually outplayed Kamara towards the end of the season last year and it’s difficult to see that as a positive thing.
Nonetheless, if there’s weakness on this Pitt team its at LB.
DBs: MJ Devonshire, Donovan McMillon, Marquis Williams, Phillip O’Brien Jr., Javon McIntyre, Stephon Hall, Tamarion Crumpley, Shadarian Harrison, Cruce Brookins
You can’t understate how good of a culture Pitt has when guys return to use their one free COVID season of extra eligibility. We saw this with David Green, Jake Kradel, Devin Danielson and now most importantly, Marquis Williams in the secondary.
When both of your starting safeties jet the scene – free safety Erick Hallet (NFL) and strong safety Brandon Hill (NFL) – to play on Sundays, its crucial the corners are back.
Track star and speed demon MJ Devonshire will keep his corner job while Marquis Williams, the other returning corner, will shine as he did last season as evidenced in the Miami game. Javon McIntyre will replace Hill at strong safety and frankly, that’s a pretty even trade despite the fact that Hill is NFL level. Florida transfer McMillon struggled at times in high school at Peters but he didn’t play many defensive snaps with the Gators to tell how relevant or irrelevant that information is. So its a good guess he will seize Hallet’s old job at free safety.
Don’t give up on Stephon Hill and there’s no bigger sleeper in the Pitt class of 2023 than Shadarian Harrison. If there’s anyone we could see playing right away out of this class, its Harrison.
The Pitt secondary is really not in bad shape. It fact, it could be a position of strength. Much like the rest of the defense though its inexperienced so you have to figure Pitt will give up quite a few points in 2023.
The Panthers conclude spring drills with the annual Blue-Gold Spring Game presented by [email protected] Discount at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday, April 15, at 1 pm EST.