Pitt's M.J. Devonshire 'a completely different person' after years of humbling experiences
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Most athletes choose to address their low moments with a short memory. M.J. Devonshire, however, took a different approach to his most notable blunder on the big stage.
Late in the fourth quarter in the 2021 Peach Bowl, Devonshire experienced every cornerback’s worst nightmare. With his team hanging on to a 21-16 lead with just 2:51 remaining, Michigan State receiver Jayden Reed leaped overtop Devonshire, snagging a 22-yard touchdown that put the Spartans ahead for good.
Rather than deleting the play from his brain, Devonshire instead made sure he’d never forget. Throughout the 2022 offseason the Aliquippa native set a photo of Reed standing over him celebrating the touchdown as his phone’s lock screen.
“I wanted to make sure I never let that happen again,” Devonshire told the Post-Gazette on Wednesday at the 2023 ACC Kickoff. “I looked at a picture of that guy ‘Mossing’ me for a year. My friends would always ask me why that was my lock screen. It was motivation.”
Pitt quarterback Phil Jurkovec speaks at the 2023 ACC Kickoff on July 26, 2023.
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That ugly moment now serves as a turning point for Devonshire, an instance that he highlights when things began to turn around. In the very next game Devonshire played, he delivered the most iconic moment of his football career: a 56-yard game-winning pick-six in last year’s Backyard Brawl.
Although he was unable to top the magic of his “Pitt-Six,” a 2022 campaign that included a 82-yard punt return touchdown against Rhode Island and two more interceptions — one being another pick-six against Virginia and the other being the final play of the Sun Bowl — were enough to earn him All-ACC recognition as both a return man and corner.
This season, Devonshire enters his senior campaign as arguably Pitt’s top NFL prospect. PFF College Football named him the Panthers’ best player, and numerous preseason publications gave him All-ACC honors once again.
For Devonshire, that type of praise is sweet, especially when he looks back on the journey that brought him to where he is today.
“My college career really started off as a humbling experience,” Devonshire said. “I arrived at Kentucky with the mentality a lot of guys have coming out of high school: I thought I was going to be there for three years and then I’d be in the NFL. I wanted to be an All-American. It didn’t go that way.”
Sitting atop a stage surrounded by reporters at the Westin Hotel, Devonshire recalled a previous trip to the Queen City — during the week Kentucky faced Virginia Tech in the 2019 Belk Bowl. Unlike Wednesday, where he was all smiles and proudly brandishing his 2021 ACC championship ring, the then-freshman was in much lower spirits.
“We were in a hotel right down the street from where I’m sitting now,” Devonshire said. “I was sitting outside with Lynn [Bowden], and we were talking about struggles and staying focused. He kept telling me my time would come. At that time, when I was 19, I was starting to believe he was wrong. I was really focused on school and was starting to believe football might not be for me.”
On Tuesday evening, Devonshire walked past that same hotel he sat outside with Bowden (who now plays receiver for the New Orleans Saints) four years ago and took a moment to recognize his growth. He’s on a new team with a bigger role. And with his senior season approaching, the Panthers defensive back is in the perfect position to achieve everything he hoped to when he left Beaver County for the SEC.
“I'm a completely different person now,” Devonshire said. “Getting to see that, getting to acknowledge that growth, acknowledge that trust in the process, it makes me thankful for everyone in my corner. It makes me thankful for everything I have today.”
One final ride
When Matt Goncalves reports to training camp at the team’s South Side facility next week, a few familiar faces will be missing.
For the bulk of his career, Goncalves has suited up for the Panthers alongside linemen Owen Drexel, Gabe Houy, Marcus Minor and Carter Warren, each who served as key pieces up front through Pitt’s success in recent years.
Now, with the four aforementioned names gone, Goncalves is one of the old men on the team. After returning for his final season of eligibility, the Manorville, N.Y., native is viewed as a key piece on the Panthers offensive line. While Goncalves admits he will miss playing alongside his longtime teammates in the trenches, the redshirt senior is also excited for his final hurrah.
“It’s kinda wild,” Goncalves said. “Knowing all of those guys are gone, it’s been a huge change for us.”
Change has become a familiar thing for Goncalves. After playing his first three years at Pitt with the same quarterback and offensive coordinator, last season he and his team were forced to adjust to a new offense, led by a new quarterback.
Once again, Pitt will trot out a new signal caller in 2023, as Kedon Slovis transferred out and Phil Jurkovec was brought in as his replacement. But throughout all the change, Pitt’s men up front have continued to provide stability.
In addition to Goncalves, who started 13 games last season at left tackle, Pitt returns four-year starter Jake Kradel and three-year starter Blake Zubovic — who are both redshirt seniors — at center and guard. Right tackle Branson Taylor and guard Ryan Jacoby are two other returning lettermen that fill out the front five.
Although last year served as Goncalves’ breakout season, when he earned All-ACC recognition, the success he had in Pittsburgh nearly never took place. Following the announcement that each of Pitt’s five starting linemen from the 2021 ACC championship team would return, Goncalves told the Post-Gazette that he highly considered transferring in the 2022 offseason, a choice he is now happy he didn’t make.
“They took a shot on me and I stayed loyal,” Goncalves said. “That’s really paid off. It’s paying off with me being here now, with the success I had last year and the success I hope to have this season. I’m looking forward to my final season as a Pitt man.”