High expectations and fresh faces: 5 Pitt football training camp storylines to watch

The long wait is over. This week players and coaches from the Pitt football program will report to the team’s facility on the South Side for the start of training camp.
While the Panthers are coming off a two-year stretch that has featured the most success the program has seen in decades, the bulk of the players responsible for those victories are no longer around. After sending 10 players from last year’s squad to the NFL — six drafted, four undrafted free agents — Pat Narduzzi’s team entered 2023 with many holes to fill.
Despite the roster turnover, expectations remain high for Pitt. Players and coaches alike believe this team has what it takes to once again compete for an ACC championship. In order for that to happen, however, numerous questions must be answered. Here are five storylines to watch this August while the Panthers prepare for their upcoming season:
A more confident offense?
Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner James Phillips leaves the stage following his presentation during the first day of the Atlantic Coast Conference college football media days in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, July 25, 2023.
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Last season, Pitt’s offense primarily ran through one player, and that player is no longer around. With All-American running back Israel Abanikanda now competing for a starting spot on the New York Jets, the Panthers no longer have their most reliable weapon — but he’s not the only one missing from last year’s group.
Leading receiver Jared Wayne is now on the Houston Texans, and starting quarterback Kedon Slovis made the decision in December to play his final collegiate season at BYU. Yet despite having to replace last year’s leading passer, rusher and receiver, the word within Pitt’s facility is that this year’s offense will be much better.
“We’re going to be able to run the ball and pass the ball efficiently,” senior receiver and returning starter Bub Means said in March. “There were a lot of plays left on the field last year, and I feel like [Frank Cignetti Jr.] is going to make up for every one of them. He’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re trying to score 60 points a game if we can.’ I’m looking forward to what our offense can do this year.”
Pitt’s offense will of course be led by incoming graduate transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who was officially named the starter by Narduzzi in a 1-on-1 interview with the Post-Gazette on Wednesday at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. Jurkovec’s history with offensive coordinator Cignetti played a big factor in him choosing to play his final season for the Panthers.
With two returning starters at receiver, along with Gavin Bartholomew returning at tight end, the expectation is for Pitt’s passing attack to be far more reliable than it was in 2022, when it ranked 10th out of 14 teams in the ACC.
While some still need to see results through the air before they become a believer in the passing game, few have doubts that Pitt won’t be able to once again effectively run the football in 2023. Rodney Hammond Jr. steps in for Abanikanda, with veterans Daniel Carter, C’Bo Flemister and incoming LSU transfer Derrick Davis Jr. all in the mix to receive touches, as well.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi speaks at ACC media days in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, July 26, 2023.
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Combine that with an offensive line that boasts three returning starters, and there is certainly potential for a more productive group as a whole. As is the case with any offense, it will all start with the team’s quarterback. All eyes will be on Jurkovec not only throughout camp, but throughout the first month of the season to see if Pitt indeed found the right guy in the portal.
Position battles
Each side of the football features at least one notable position battle to keep an eye on. On offense, redshirt senior Ryan Jacoby and redshirt freshman Ryan Baer are competing for the starting job at right guard.
Since transferring to Pitt in 2021 from Ohio State, Jacoby has been used as a versatile extra lineman for the Panthers. Two seasons ago, Jacoby got the start in the Peach Bowl against Michigan State as a sixth offensive lineman. Last fall, Jacoby started five games as a third tight end, primarily used as a blocker.
Though Pitt would also use Jacoby as a reserve guard in 2022, this season he will play the position full-time. Jacoby’s experience should help him a bit in his battle against Baer, who played in just three games last year to maintain his redshirt. However, if the Panthers are looking for long-term upside value, Baer might be the guy.
Rated a four-star recruit by Rivals, Baer was the highest-ranked recruit in Pitt’s 2022 class. After coming into the program as a tackle, Pitt’s coaching staff decided to have Baer learn guard this spring, with hopes to get the 6-foot-7, 335-pound freshman on the field earlier.
As for the position battle on defense, both safety spots are up for grabs. A source tells the Post-Gazette that redshirt sophomore Javon McIntyre and junior Donovan McMillon, an incoming transfer from Florida, are the two favorites to win the jobs heading into camp. However, junior and spring game MVP Phillip O’Brien Jr. and redshirt sophomore Stephon Hall will also be pushing to receive major playing time.
An additional position battle that could also still be in place is for the starting punter job. Sam Vander Haar, who won the starting spot in camp last summer, transferred out of Pitt following the spring game. Redshirt sophomore Caleb Junko stood out the most in the spring game, averaging 49.5 yards on four punts. Junior Jeff Yurk, an incoming transfer from Elon, looks to be Junko’s primary competition.
Who is the next star on the defensive line?
From Rashad Weaver, to Patrick Jones II, to Jaylen Twyman to Calijah Kancey, Pitt’s defense has had no shortage of star power in the pass rushing department in recent years. But with each of them now competing on Sundays, it’s time for the next man to step up.
Pitt replaces its entire starting defensive line from last season. Kancey, along with Deslin Alexandre and Habakkuk Baldonado all left for the NFL, and John Morgan III transferred to Arkansas. Charlie Partridge’s group still boasts experience, especially at the interior spots with sixth-year tackles Tyler Bentley, Devin Danielson and David Green. But who will be the main guy getting after opposing quarterbacks?
Numerous players and coaches say senior Dayon Hayes is the leading candidate. After waiting his turn behind NFL talent, Hayes, a former four-star recruit out of Westinghouse High School, showed a glimmer of his potential against Miami in the 2022 regular season finale, when he recorded three sacks.
But Hayes isn’t the only defensive lineman hoping to capitalize on an opportunity this camp. Redshirt seniors Bam Brima and Nate Temple have one final year to make a splash, while younger talents like redshirt sophomores Nahki Johnson and Elliott Donald, or redshirt freshmen Samuel Okunlola and Sean FitzSimmons are a few candidates for a potential breakout season.
Which freshmen will earn playing time?
With the wave of super-seniors exercising their extra season of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic becoming thinner, expect to see more true freshmen getting playing time on Saturdays throughout the country over the next few years.
Although Pitt’s roster still features strong experience in most position groups, a handful of true freshmen enter camp with an opportunity to potentially earn a spot on special teams — or more. Pitt’s most talented freshman is defensive lineman Isaiah “Ghost” Neal, a four-star out of national high school football powerhouse St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, Md. However, for Neal to see the field this year, he’d have to leap numerous sixth-year seniors, along with other former high-profile recruits that are currently ahead of him on the depth chart.
An area where we could see freshmen get true opportunities in 2023 is wide receiver. Means and Konata Mumpfield both return as starters, and Florida transfer Daejon Reynolds is expected to fill Wayne’s spot. But after that, the next spots on the depth chart look to be wide open.
Though older receiver options exist, this could be an opportunity for the Panthers to get some young talent in the mix earlier than we typically see. Israel Polk received plenty of praise for his efforts in spring ball as an early enrollee, as did Lamar Seymore. Zion Fowler-El and Kenny Johnson are two other young pass catchers who enter camp with a bit of buzz.
On the defensive side of the ball, Narduzzi went out of his way multiple times last spring to highlight the play of Braylan Lovelace, a three-star linebacker out of Leechburg. While he likely won’t see time over returning starters Bangally Kamara and Shayne Simon, or even returning lettermen Solomon DeSheilds and Brandon George, should Lovelace remain in Narduzzi’s good graces, he could land himself a spot on special teams and avoid a redshirt.
Who gets the final scholarship?
Based on the Post-Gazette’s roster monitoring throughout spring ball and the summer, Pitt still has one scholarship spot left on its 2023 roster. Narduzzi typically hands out a scholarship to at least one walk-on player each camp. If he intends to do so once again in 2023, there are a few deserving candidates.
At the conclusion of spring ball, Junko, the team’s projected starting punter, was still a walk-on, although his scholarship could’ve already been earned following the departure of Vander Haar. Pitt’s thin depth at receiver could create opportunities for a player like Jake McConnachie, who played in four games last year and caught a 24-yard pass in the spring game.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Nick Lapi played in each of Pitt’s 13 games last season on special teams. Perhaps his efforts were enough to be rewarded? Or maybe it will go to another player who asserts himself better than anyone expected over the next few weeks.

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