Pitt position analysis: Roster change coming, but Sun Bowl victory provides positive offseason trigger

EL PASO, Texas — In the aftermath of victory, Pat Narduzzi might have been one of the few men in Pitt’s locker room thinking these words:

Winter conditioning.

Yes, those sessions with Pitt strength coach Michael Stacchiotti do start before the end of January.

Pitt’s last game of Narduzzi’s eighth season — a 37-35 victory Friday against UCLA in the Sun Bowl and his 62nd all-time — was “a springboard” into the offseason, he said. “You have to live with it, win or lose. It’s certainly better (to win) going into winter conditioning.”

Which brings up an interesting topic: Next season.

The offseason is a seven-month opportunity for players to get bigger and stronger and Narduzzi to strengthen his roster with transfers. Make no mistake: Pitt needs fortification after losing consensus All-American defensive tackle Calijah Kancey, defensive ends Habakkuk Baldonado and Deslin Alexandre, safety Brandon Hill, the ACC’s leading rusher, Izzy Abanikanda, and others.

It’s way early to make a definitive evaluation of the ’23 roster, but we can still break down the positions, pending possible transfers and more players declaring for the NFL Draft. Anything is possible these days.

Quarterback

Boston College transfer Phil Jurkovec brings his 5,405 career passing yards and 37 touchdown passes to Pitt, looking like an upgrade over Kedon Slovis, who never looked comfortable on the field. Perhaps Narduzzi erred in choosing Slovis over Nick Patti.

Speaking of Patti, he has a year of eligibility, but he appeared to be contemplating his life’s work outside of football before leading the team to victory against UCLA.

At the backup spot, Penn State transfer Christian Veilleux joins Nate Yarnell, who led the victory at Western Michigan.


Related

• Could Pitt’s victory cause Nick Patti to change his future plans?
• Pitt rallies in the 2nd half, defeats UCLA, 37-35, in the Sun Bowl


Running back

Sophomore Rodney Hammond carried the bulk of the workload against UCLA, rushing 25 times for 89 yards.

He replaced Abanikanda, whose ability to break tackles at the line of scrimmage and break away from defensive backs will be difficult to replicate.

But Pitt beat 18th-ranked UCLA without Abanikanda, and Hammond is capable of assuming the bell cow role.

“We knew all along, Rodney knew all along, what kind of football player he was,” Narduzzi said. “If he doesn’t get hurt in the opener, who knows? It may be him opting out and going to the NFL (instead of Abanikanda).”

Never mind that Hammond needs a third season to qualify for the draft, but why should Narduzzi concern himself with such details?

“We know Rodney’s really well. Rodney’s a great football player. I didn’t have any fear at all with him being the guy,” he said.

Behind him, however, it might be wise to find a veteran with more than one season of eligibility in the NCAA transfer portal.

Offensive line

Four of the five men who started the bowl game can return. A clue to Jake Kradel’s so far unannounced decision to return or not was his start at center over Owen Drexel, who is out of eligibility.

There is some depth – never enough at this most critical position – but Ryan Jacoby and Ryan Baer could work their way into the starting lineup.

Wide receiver/tight end

Jared Wayne is a 1,000-yard pass catcher whose return — while also uncertain — would provide Jurkovec with an experienced target. Everyone remembers Wayne’s drop at the goal line Friday, but without his catch on the game-winning drive, Pitt loses.

Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means can return, too.

The big question will be if tight end Gavin Bartholomew can improve upon his sophomore season when he was too often absent in the passing game.

Defensive line

With seniors Devin Danielson, Tyler Bentley, David Green and DeAndre Jules, there is depth and experience at tackle if everyone returns. Young, largely unproven players such as Elliot Donald and Sean FitzSimmons may be ready to make a move up the depth chart.

At the end, coaches are expecting Dayon Hayes, who finished the season with 3½ sacks, to be the next great Pitt defensive lineman. Also, look for Bam Brima, Sam Okunlola and Nahki Johnson to open some eyes next summer. Brima already received significant playing time.

Linebacker

With a good offseason, Brandon George, Bangally Kamara and Shayne Simon should be the starters. Kamara and Simon started this season, and George replaced SirVocea Dennis in El Paso. Also, Narduzzi likes to talk about Solomon DeShields’ continued improvement.

Coaches like to rotate six, so it won’t be a surprise if Pitt looks for depth in the transfer portal.

Defensive back

Safety Javon McIntyre had an interception in the last two games, and he might be a nice replacement for Brandon Hill. But Hill is a significant loss.

Florida transfer and Peters Township graduate Donovan McMillon was added to alleviate the loss of free safety Erick Hallett II, who is moving on after crafting sound, smart coverage since 2019.

Cornerback looks well stocked, with veterans MJ Devonshire (three interceptions), Marquis Williams (two picks) and AJ Woods expected to return.

Special teams

Pitt found a gem in kicker Ben Sauls, who set a Sun Bowl record with five field goals, including the game-winning, 47-yarder with four seconds left. Clutch, for sure. A miss into the wind would have meant defeat.

It was mindful of Chris Blewitt’s 48-yard field goal that beat Clemson in 2016. From Blewitt to Alex Kessman to record-setting Sam Scarton last year to the supremely confident Sauls, Pitt has done a good job finding kickers who are not overwhelmed by the moment.

At punter, Caleb Junko and Sam Vander Haar have been sharing the position. Junko, the walk-on, set a Sun Bowl record with an 85-yarder. OK, it was with the wind, but the redshirt freshman has a strong leg.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at jdipaola@triblive.com or via Twitter .

Leave a Comment