Pitt football season preview: ‘Player-led’ group hopes to make a difference in 2023

It can be difficult for a team to escape the shadow of one of the program’s most successful players. That challenge can be even greater when his presence still exists in the practice facility, albeit on the other side of the wall, with his new team.
Last fall marked the first time since 2016 that Pitt couldn’t rely upon Kenny Pickett to save the day. While there were many highs included in the Panthers’ 2022 campaign — such as a thrilling victory in the Backyard Brawl, a five-game winning streak to wrap things up and a spot in the AP poll’s final top 25 rankings — two things more than anything else prevented last year’s group from reaching its full potential: quarterback play and team-wide leadership.
Pat Narduzzi’s team feels as though it has made upgrades in both areas heading into the 2023 season.
“This team is more player-led,” starting tight end Gavin Bartholomew told the Post-Gazette. “You see a lot of players holding each other accountable now.”
That accountability led to a far more relaxed vibe during Pitt’s 2023 fall camp, compared to the year prior. Despite the team not appearing in the preseason national rankings, coaches and players alike are less tense and more confident.
Make no mistake. Pickett still remains in the NFL, and other former Panther standouts such as Israel Abanikanda, SirVocea Dennis, Erick Hallett II and Calijah Kancey have joined him. Just two players who started in Pitt’s 2021 ACC championship game win over Wake Forest remain on the roster.
While a few others who also played a big role in the success both that season and last year remain, altogether, the Panthers will have numerous new faces on display when they take the field to play Wofford in their season opener Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Acrisure Stadium. But with a new group comes a new opportunity, and the 2023 Panthers seem eager to get to work now that the page has been officially turned.
“The best teams are when players take ownership of the team,” Narduzzi said Friday following his team’s kickoff luncheon. “We can talk as people, as parents until we’re blue in the face. We can tell them what we want to be done. But you have a good football team when they understand what’s important and they lead themselves.”
One newcomer on Pitt’s roster who should understand what is and isn’t important is sixth-year senior and starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec. A former standout at Pine-Richland high school, Jurkovec has experienced plenty of highs and lows throughout his collegiate career, which has included previous stops at Notre Dame and Boston College.
Jurkovec’s best collegiate season came in 2020, when he was running an offense coached by Frank Cignetti Jr. Cignetti left Boston College to return for a second stint as Pitt’s offensive coordinator in 2022. Jurkovec then reunited with his old coach this past offseason. Since his arrival, players have quickly bought into Jurkovec as both a player and a leader.
“It’s been great,” sixth-year senior and starting center Jake Kradel said when asked about Jurkovec. “He’s a Western PA guy, so we kind of like the same things. It’s good to hang around him and see his leadership and his development throughout this spring. He demands our attention, he demands us to be locked in. He brings a factor that I don’t know if we had last year.”
Jurkovec’s leadership is one thing, but his play will be equally crucial when it comes to determining how far the 2023 Panthers can go. Although Pitt received consistent production in the run game, which is again expected to produce at a high level, the offense possessed little to no threat at times through the air.
Now in Year 2 of Cignetti’s offense, the team claims to have a far better understanding of how things work and believes that understanding will translate to an increase in both balance and production. Bub Means and Konata Mumpfield both return as starters at the receiver position, as does Bartholomew at tight end. In addition to those weapons, a four-player group of true freshmen headlined by Kenny Johnson has also received high praise throughout camp.
“Anytime you can be in the offense for the second year, guys are going to be comfortable,” said receivers coach and passing game coordinator Tiquan Underwood. “I feel like the older guys have done a great job helping the younger guys and just making plays down the field.”
When Jurkovec drops back to pass, he can rely upon protectors with experience. Kradel, Matt Goncalves and Blake Zubovic boast 17 years of combined collegiate experience and 74 collective starts. Pitt will also have experience in its backfield, which includes two-year letter winner Rodney Hammond Jr., sixth-year senior C’Bo Flemister and fifth-year senior Daniel Carter.
No area of Pitt’s team is older than its defensive front, which features three sixth-year defensive tackles, including David Green, who, along with Goncalves and linebacker Shayne Simon, was named a team captain Friday afternoon. Simon and Bangally Kamara both enter 2023 coming off their first season as starters for the Panthers, looking to build off momentum that was displayed during team’s strong finish in 2022.
M.J. Devonshire, Marquis Williams and A.J. Woods each return for yet another season at Pitt, giving the Panthers one of the most experienced cornerback rooms in the country. That veteran wisdom will certainly be beneficial as the defense looks to usher in a pair new safeties and a pack of new pass rushers.
On paper, Pitt looks to have far less talent than it did last season. The Panthers are replacing their leading passer, rusher and receiver on offense and had four defensive players selected in last year’s NFL draft. However, while some feel Pitt’s 2022 group underachieved, the collective confidence with this year’s group could lead to an opposite result.
“We’re going to be a better team this season,” Bartholomew said. “This year, we’re all on the same page.”

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