5 takeaways from Pitt camp: New leadership not an issue for Pat Narduzzi's Panthers

Published August 5, 2023, 1:33PM
When a program not named Georgia or Alabama loses six or more key players to the NFL draft, usually there’s a void of leadership that forces younger players to step into roles before they’re ready.
After the first week of Pitt’s training camp, it doesn’t look like that’ll be a problem for Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers.
The Panthers saw six of their players selected in the draft, tying the most in a single year by the program since 1990. They also saw players like Habakkuk Baldonado, Deslin Alexandre and Jared Wayne signed as undrafted free agents.
After the first week of camp, it seems each position group that lost leaders to the NFL had veterans waiting to step into the role.
On the defensive line where Calijah Kancey, Alexandre and Baldonado left, seniors Devin Danielson, David Green and Dayon Hayes have taken the reins in leadership. Narduzzi mentioned Danielson and Green specifically in his opening remarks of training camp on Wednesday.
“I would say David Green and Devin Danielson are two of the guys,” Narduzzi said. “Maybe David Green would be the Number 1 guy right now. I know David Green is on our leadership council. Devin I don't think is, but Devin is a vocal guy, and he's physical. He leads by example on the field. So I would say those two guys for sure are guys that are leading up front.”
The same goes for the Panthers’ wide receivers, where position coach Tiquan Underwood points to redshirt senior Bub Means and junior Konata Mumpfield as players who are helping teach talented freshmen receivers Israel Polk, Zion Fowler-El, and Lamar Seymore.
The offensive line still has redshirt seniors Jake Kradel, Matt Goncalves, Ryan Jacoby and Blake Zubovic as experienced starters who lead the group, as well.
Where Pitt lost a captain of its defense in SirVocea Dennis, it gains an experienced leader in redshirt senior Shayne Simon, who told the Post-Gazette he still talks with Dennis about how to be a leader.
Additionally, Pitt saw both of its safeties in Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett II get drafted. But safeties coach Corey Sanders says players like Javon McIntyre, Phillip O’Brien and even newcomer Donovan McMillan have stepped up for the group.
Top freshmen
When pressed to identify freshmen who’ve stood out, Narduzzi identified one on offense and defense: receiver Fowler-El and defensive back Cruce Brookins.
“I’m impressed with Zion Fowler-El right now,” Naruzzi said Friday. “He wasn’t at spring ball and he’s been one of those surprises. But also Cruce Brookins, who’s been really impressive for a young guy. He’s a local guy who didn’t practice in the spring, but he got in for summer early and got in the weight room.”
Fowler-El is a 6-foot, 190-pound receiver from Jersey City, N.J., who displayed impressive highlights as a playmaker in high school and is battling for who might be the third Pitt receiver behind Means and Mumpfield. But that will have plenty of competition with Polk and Seymore, who’ve also looked impressive.
Brookins is the local product from Steel Valley High who joins a packed secondary and won’t get as many opportunities at playing time. But if he makes headway, that opportunity could come next season when M.J. Devonshire, Marquise Williams and A.J. Woods all get ready to transition to the NFL.
Heavy defensive line rotation
Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge won’t be short on talented players he can rotate in at defensive tackle or defensive end. While Danielson and Green are ready starters and leaders at tackle, Tyler Bentley, Elliott Donald, Deandre Jules and Sean FitzSimmons all are in competition for a spot in Pitt’s rotation.
Pitt’s edge rushers also look plentiful with seniors Hayes, Bam Brima and Nate Temple as the most experienced players. But don’t overlook the potential of junior Nahki Johnson to earn the starting job by the end of camp, or for redshirt freshman Samuel Okunlola to be part of the rotation.
Who will play Mike?
Pitt’s defensive system relies on three linebacker spots in their 4-3 called Mike, Money and Star. But the most important role is Mike, who plays in the middle of the defense and is most involved in calling out adjustments, communicating with teammates and making sure the unit is ready for the upcoming play.
That role belonged to Dennis for the past three seasons, but now there’s a legitimate chance for Simon and Bengally Kamara to win the job, or at least rotate. Simon is a redshirt senior who transferred to Pitt from Notre Dame last season and will get first crack at the role, while Kamara is a senior who will start out at Star linebacker. But don’t be shocked to see both players get reps at each spot.
Open battle for No. 2 running back
It’s clear junior Rodney Hammond is the leader to start at running back. But the depth chart behind him is still taking shape. Redshirt senior C’Bo Flemister is the presumed top backup for the job, but Narduzzi has said transfer sophomore Derrick Davis has impressed with how quickly he’s picked up the running back position after playing defensive back at LSU.
Davis’ athleticism is what made him an attractive high school recruit and explosive in practice for the Panthers. But running backs coach Andre Powell will emphasize the importance of mastering each element of the running back position. Whoever plays more not only has to know how to run behind different run schemes, but also how to pass protect for Phil Jurkovec and catch out of the backfield.
Flemister should have the edge to start camp, but don’t be surprised to see Davis close the gap this summer as he takes on the learning curve.

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