Position-by-position breakdown as Pitt opens 2023 training camp

TribLIVE's Daily and Weekly email newsletters deliver the news you want and information you need, right to your inbox.
When Pitt football opens training camp Tuesday, Pat Narduzzi will enter his ninth season as the Panthers head coach, a distinction no one who has followed the program this century should take lightly.
Pitt has not had nine seasons of coaching stability since John Michelosen was in charge from 1955-65. Only Michelosen and the legendary Jock Sutherland (1924-38) have coached at Pitt longer than Narduzzi, who is second all-time to Sutherland with 62 victories and third behind Jackie Sherrill and Sutherland in the past 100 years with a .602 winning percentage.
The 2023 season presents a special challenge. A difficult schedule is fraught with obstacles, especially after Pitt sent six draft choices to the NFL and must replace 12 starters (six on either side of the ball).
Only two schools that were ranked at the end of last season — No. 11 Florida State and No. 18 Notre Dame — appear on the schedule. But the Panthers, who ended up No. 22, must travel to West Virginia, Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Duke while dealing with the Seminoles, new Big 12 member Cincinnati and North Carolina among home opponents. North Carolina’s Drake Maye and Duke’s Riley Leonard may be the two best quarterbacks in the ACC.
Pitt’s 20 victories the past two seasons — the first time that’s happened in 40 years — mean the standard has been raised. And guess what? It will not get lower.
Recruitment and development of players are the keys, and Pitt has been good in those departments, securing verbal commitments from four four-star 2024 prospects among its current 21-man class.
But is the ‘23 roster good enough? Here is a position-by-position breakdown:
Narduzzi might have learned his lesson after last season when he waited until Aug. 24 to name Kedon Slovis the starter. Slovis was the presumptive starter from the day he transferred from USC, but Narduzzi wanted to watch him slug it out with Nick Patti in camp.
As it turned out, Patti may have been the better choice. Slovis struggled and decided to transfer before the bowl game while Patti shrugged off an injury and led Pitt to a dramatic comeback victory against UCLA in the Sun Bowl.
This year, Phil Jurkovec will open camp as the starter, making three transfer quarterbacks under Narduzzi. During spring drills in April, Narduzzi made a point of remarking that Penn State transfer Christian Veilleux and Nate Yarnell are battling for the No. 2 job, leaving QB1 for Jurkovec, who previously played at Notre Dame and Boston College.
“Phil has been outstanding, like we thought,” Narduzzi said in April after 11 practices.
Last week at the ACC Kickoff Media event, the coach said of Jurkovec, “The best is yet to be seen.”
Of course, no jobs are safe after whistles blow for the start of camp. Jurkovec has a huge edge in experience and has worked previously with offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. Both things matter greatly.
But Veilleux is talented and ticketed for the starting job in 2024. What if he is better than Jurkovec in camp?
If Narduzzi won’t start a quarterback controversy, you always can count on the media to trigger one.
Running back
There is a nice stable of veteran running backs, mixed with a transfer and two freshmen, all of whom should increase the odds of somebody getting hot each week.
Back are Rodney Hammond and C’Bo Flemister, who combined for 681 yards behind Izzy Abanikanda, now with the New York Jets.
There were some positive remarks made in the spring about Gateway graduate and redshirt sophomore Derrick Davis, who transferred from LSU. Davis, a redshirt sophomore, rushed for 3,898 yards at Gateway, but went to LSU as a safety before transitioning back to offense.
Hammond, a junior who stands 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, has rushed for 964 yards and 10 touchdowns in two seasons at Pitt. He’ll get the first crack at the starting job.
Running backs coach Andre Powell will give freshmen T.J. Harvison and Montravius Lloyd ample opportunity to impress him. Harvison was with the team in the spring after rushing for 2,026 yards and 23 touchdowns last season at Bowdon (Ga.) High School.
Wide receiver/tight end
A quarterback can’t function if his pass catchers don’t get open, and Pitt hopes another year of seasoning for wide receivers Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means and tight end Gavin Bartholomew will produce more than the trio’s total of 1,235 yards and five touchdowns and an average of 11.7 per reception.
With Jared Wayne taking his 1,063 yards to the NFL, Jurkovec must find his own go-to guy. Could it be Florida transfer and redshirt sophomore Daejon Reynolds (6-2, 210)?
There are plenty more capable sets of hands and legs, including sprinter and returner Che Nwabuko, a redshirt freshman who won Texas state gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters and 400-meter relay.
There is depth at tight end, with USC transfer Malcolm Epps (6-6, 255), plus holdovers Karter Johnson, Cole Mitchell and Jake Renda.
Narduzzi was especially complimentary of Epps last week. “I don’t know if anybody knows about him,” he said. “Big, freaky guy (in an athletic sense), who’s 6-6, 255, who can really run and catch.”
Offensive line
There is experience from left to right, anchored by senior center Jake Kradel, with guards Ryan Jacoby (an Ohio State transfer) and Blake Zubovic and tackles Branson Taylor and Matt Goncalves. Kradel could grow into the ACC’s best center.
It will be difficult to keep redshirt freshman Ryan Baer off the field. He’ll get a long look at tackle, but he’ll be impossible to miss at 6-7, 330.
Defensive line
Veteran line coach Charlie Partridge demands his players pay attention to details and technique, and his instruction has paid off in a big way. This unit is accustomed to reloading and discovering success. Over the years, Patrick Jones, Rashad Weaver and Jaylen Twyman have been lost to the NFL, but there has been no dropoff in production.
This year, Calijah Kancey, a tackle, was a first-round draft choice of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and ends Deslin Alexandre and Habakkuk Baldonado are also gone.
Kancey’s ability to shed blocks and meet running backs in the hole will be missed, but senior tackles David Green, Tyler Bentley, Devin Danielson and Deandre Jules are no strangers to the nasty confrontations that occur in the trenches.
At end, West Mifflin’s Nahki Johnson has waited a long time for an opportunity, and Dayon Hayes (Westinghouse), another senior who has collected eight sacks in three seasons, may be ready to assume a leadership role on the line.
Coaches also have had good things to say about ends Bam Brima, Jimmy Scott, Sam Okunlola and Nate Temple. They’ll get a chance to back up those words in camp.
Starting the season without SirVocea Dennis in the middle for the first time since 2019 won’t be easy. But Shayne Simon and Brandon George have experience, and Simon can move outside, where he started 12 games last season before moving inside for the bowl game.
There is some thought that Bangally Kamara and Solomon DeShields could be among the best linebackers in the ACC.
M.J. Devonshire, A.J. Woods and Marquise Williams might be the best trio of cornerbacks in the conference. Given these collective stats — 12 interceptions, 297 return yards and four touchdowns — Narduzzi should feel secure when the ball’s in the air.
Safety is another story after the Panthers lost Erick Hallett and Brandon Hill to the NFL.
The transfer portal brought Peters Township graduate Donovan McMillan from Florida, while coaches hope holdovers Javon McIntyre, P.J. O’Brien and Stephon Hall are ready to take the next step.
Special teams
Pitt wouldn’t have been a nine-victory team without kicker Ben Sauls, who drilled five of his 20 field goals in the bowl game.
Caleb Junko, grandson of longtime Pitt assistant Bob Junko, and Elon transfer Jeff Yurk will compete for the punting duties. Junko recorded an 85-yard punt in the Sun Bowl, an all-time collegiate bowl record.

Latest Player Notes

If that really was Drake Maye’s last game in Chapel Hill, it provided a fitting full-circle ending

UPDATED NOVEMBER 13, 2023 2:49 PMHere was Drake Maye in the middle of it all late Saturday night, in the middle of the kind ...

Shedeur Sanders closing in on CU Buffs single-season records through pain of all the sacks and hits

PUBLISHED November 13, 2023 at 12:38 p.m. | UPDATED: November 13, 2023 at 12:40 p.m.BOULDER — Shedeur Sanders is closing ...

Tenth Anniversary of Kick Six: Inside video, "Official" look at Historic Iron Bowl Shocker

Published Nov. 13, 2023, 6:00 a.m.By Creg Stephenson See and hear history behind Kick Six (excuse the ads, but this is ...

Goodman: Jimbo Fisher is out and Nick Saban wins again

Updated: Nov. 13, 2023, 10:00 a.m.|By Joseph GoodmanJimbo Fisher is out at Texas A&M, which goes to show that even when a ...

Huard on Huskies: Why a win over No. 10 Oregon St would be huge

The No. 5 UW Huskies’ quest to make the College Football Playoff went through the two-time defending Pac-12 champions on ...

USC’s loss to Oregon exposes clear flaws in program-building up front

EUGENE, Ore. — In January, Lincoln Riley was on the sidelines at SoFi for the College Football Playoff championship game, ...

Two years after winning school-record 12 games, Brady Hoke out as Aztecs football coach

Brady Hoke is out as San Diego State’s football coach.SDSU released a statement Monday morning saying that Hoke is retiring, ...

Oregon’s Bo Nix named Pac-12 offensive player of the week for third time in 2023

Oregon’s Bo Nix earned his third weekly honor from the Pac-12.Nix, who went 23 of 31 for a season-high 412 yards with four ...

Oregon Ducks’ head coach Dan Lanning mentioned as a leading candidate for Texas A&M job

Oregon Ducks head coach Dan Lanning has been mentioned as a leading candidate to replace Jimbo Fisher as coach of the Texas ...

After ‘tough day,’ Boise State AD searches for a football coach; defensive analyst promoted

Boise State athletic director Jeramiah Dickey was on the job for less than a week the last time he began a search for a football ...
See More Player Notes