By Jody Diperna
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The fog hasn’t burned off the field yet, but Damar Hamlin is flashing in DB drills; backpedaling like Rod Woodson; coming up in run support like Donnie Shell. Taysir Mack is stomping on his routes and catching everything, including a nice one-hander on a skinny post. The defensive line creates rhythmic steel drum thunder soundtrack for all of it as they crash into blocking sleds.
But at this mid-August practice, it’s hard to get a sense of just who this Pitt team will be when they face off against the University of Virginia in prime time on August 31. For coach Pat Narduzzi, heading into his fifth season at Pitt, the biggest challenge may be to simply maintain some consistency throughout and not play themselves into a 2-3 hole to start the season.
But there are question marks nearly everywhere. The linebackers are completely overhauled, with Saleem Brightwell moving to the middle where the coaches are confident the senior can provide essential leadership from his ‘mike’ position. Even so, the open competition for starting spots continues, with Chase Pine and Phil Campbell III leading the hunt. All the changes bring more versatility at LB than ever before.
Rashad Weaver, the best defensive linemen on the team, tore his ACL in early practices and half of last year’s starters are gone. Senior Amir Watts will need to push the young guys at DT, but Narduzzi went out of his way to praise redshirt sophomore Jaylen Twyman.
“Really, it’s a three-man war in there, but Twyman is playing at a high level right now, maybe as high as you can get,” he said. “Jaylen is a gym rat, he’s in that film room as much as the coaches. He studies the game, he’s got a plan every day. That guy is about as focused as you can get. It’s amazing, his desire on the field.”
Citing three freshmen, Keyshon Camp, David Green and Tyler Bentley, Narduzzi said he feels really good about the depth on the line, even with the losses.
Starring McKees Rocks native Damar Hamlin, the defensive backfield is loaded. Hamlin and fellow senior Dane Jackson are legit NFL prospects; both are electric, even during the most anodyne drills. Add sophomore Steel Valley product Paris Ford to the mix and the defensive backfield is dangerous.
New offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, known as a passing master, is installing an entirely fresh offense, and there is reason to hope it won’t be so soporific as last year’s iteration. Whipple’s UMass team passed for 3,577 yards last year, with wideout Andy Isabella clocking 1,698 yards all by himself, nearly as much Pitt’s entire production of 1,985 passing yards. The new focus puts intense pressure on junior quarterback, Kenny Pickett, to improve his accuracy from 58.1% if this offense is to take off.
Four offensive line starters from last year are gone. Nolan Ulizio, a graduate transfer from Michigan, likely will fill one of those spots, as will redshirt sophomore Carter Warren, whose opening snap against Virginia will be his first. Can they keep Pickett upright in the pocket?
And can they open holes for A.J. Davis, Todd Sibley, Jr., and prized four-star recruit, redshirt freshman Mychale Salahuddin? It’s not clear how the coaches will use the running backs, or if they’ll use some sort of three headed monster. That said, replacing the production of Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison who combined 2,300 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2018, is a monster task.
The receivers look to be one of their strengths, with four seniors getting most of the work. Mack and Mathews looked particularly sharp in drills.
“They’ve got unlimited potential. I think they can be as good as any group in the conference,” said wideouts coach Chris Beatty, highlighting the speed of Mack and Maurice Ffrench, the size of Mathews, and the attention to detail that Tre Tipton brings to camp, adding that they’ve all really embraced the new system, routes, and nomenclature. “They’ve been really receptive to that,” he said.
But nobody gets near the cone of silence where offensive gameplans are kept. But both running back Vincent Davis and tight end Will Gragg all but raved about working with Whipple, about his ingenuity and creative playbook.
“Last year we relied on the run,” said Gragg. “But we can do a lot of things in the run game, pass game, RPOs, play action.”
They will pass more, no doubt. Can Pickett be efficient and accurate with the new gameplan? Can Whipple’s philosophy be shaped to play to his strengths? Can the young guys on both sides of the line produce? Whatever it is, it will be different.