West Mifflin's Nahki Johnson finds right fit on Pitt's defensive line

Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023 3:17 p.m.
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In the locker room and weight room (perhaps even to his face), some of Charlie Partridge’s players refer to him as Hulk.
“Coach P is hard on you,” sophomore defensive end Nahki Johnson said. “He’s cool. He’s chill. Then, when you get up here, he just transforms … I wouldn’t say he’s mean, but he coaches you the way you’re supposed to be coached and a lot of people aren’t used to that.”
Johnson, a West Mifflin graduate, said it took him a while to learn what Partridge was trying to do for him.
“One day, I just had a sit-down (with Partridge),” he said. “I’m a very emotional person, especially when it comes to football because this is what I love. This is what I want to do. This is me. I’m a football player.
“If this is what I want to do, I’m going to have to be coached the hardest so I can play at the highest level.”
Partridge, a coach for the past 28 consecutive seasons (12 at Pitt for three head coaches), has an especially challenging job after losing Calijah Kancey, Deslin Alexandre and Habakkuk Baldonado off his defensive line.
There’s experience at tackle with seniors Devin Danielson (Thomas Jefferson), Tyler Bentley, David Green (Central Catholic) and Deandre Jules. At end, younger players such as Johnson, Sam Okunlola and Jimmy Scott are pushing seniors Dayon Hayes, Bam Brima and Nate Temple.
Johnson may be ready to assume an important role in the defense after being the loyal soldier since long before he signed a letter of intent. In the age of players transferring on a whim, Johnson said that’s not him.
“I would never transfer,” he said. “I committed my sophomore year (of high school). My mindset is if I pick something, I’m going go with it. The highest it goes, the lowest it goes, I’m going to run with it. That’s just being a man.”
He’s also not afraid of doing a little extra, he said.
“I’d rather pass out doing what I love than sitting at home thinking, `Dang, I wish would have given that extra 10%,’ ” he said.
“It’s all maturity and understanding,” Partridge said, explaining that Johnson is open to constructive criticism.
“When someone criticizes and then comes back around and says, `Here’s why I did that. I love you the same as I did when I was in your house, when I was recruiting you.’ People with less maturity don’t even hear the second part. They can’t stop thinking about the criticism.
“(Johnson) is hearing the criticism to get it fixed, instead of worrying about feelings. It’s not about feelings.”
“I never take it to heart,” Johnson said, “because I know he wants the best out of me.”
Partridge has built a strong relationship with his players, part friend, part mentor. Meanwhile, Johnson has developed into a seriously focused player.
“It’s OK to laugh and joke sometimes when the time is right,” Johnson said, “but when we’re in the film room or practice field, it’s all business.”
Although he plays a different position, Green is stepping up as a leader who sets an example for the more inexperienced players.
“His leadership qualities are through the roof, tremendous leader, holds guys to a higher standard,” Partridge said. “The combination of his strength, his quickness and his awareness and his intelligence put him in a position where this could be a really good year for him.”
At 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, Jules looks the part of a Power 5 defensive tackle with broad shoulders and thick forearms. He said his game also is improving from a mental standpoint.
“I know the playbook better,” he said. “I’m bigger, obviously, than I was in 2020 (his first active season). I believe I’m much faster. You guys will see this season how (far) my game has come over the years.”
Pitt is fortunate to have a deep group of veteran tackles after losing Kancey, the All-American and NFL first-round draft choice. Not only will that help on a hot September day when Partridge can rotate his tackles in and out. But it keeps everyone hungry, Jules said.
“It never stops motivating me to get better every day,” he said. “We have to come out there every day and practice. That’s how we get better.”
At end, Hayes comes into this season after recording 13 1/2 sacks in the previous three seasons.
“He’s shown flashes of brilliance,” Partridge said. “Our goal is to get the flashes to become what he is. He’s taken steps in the right direction.”
Partridge is eager to see if Johnson, Okunlola, Temple and Scott can provide depth to the line, or even crack the starting lineup.
”They’ve made tremendous leaps,” he said. “Are they game ready? We’ll find out.”

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