Optimism runs wild as Pitt football opens 2021 training camp

Myles+Alston%2C+a+first-year+wide+receiver+at+left%2C+faces+off+against+Khalil+Anderson%2C+a+first-year+defensive+back+at+right.

Jon Moss | Editor-in-Chief

Myles Alston, a first-year wide receiver at left, faces off against Khalil Anderson, a first-year defensive back at right.

By Stephen Thompson, Senior Staff Writer

Pat Narduzzi played the hits — “Everybody is bigger, faster, stronger”, “We need to get better at everything”, “I won’t anoint him starter yet.”

The training camp clichés flew fast and furious from Pitt football’s head coach — like they do annually from his counterparts around the country — on the Panthers’ first day of official preparation for the 2021 season.

On a sun-washed and steamy Pittsburgh Friday, with the Sept. 4 opener vs. Massachusetts nearing, Pitt football got to practice as a full team for the first time this season. With some in shoulder pads and others wearing just helmets, the Panthers opened 2021 training camp with a light practice, one in which everyone was still getting their feet back under them, according to Narduzzi.

“We talk about getting 3% better,” Narduzzi said. “Our guys are okay today, practice one. They looked like they’ve been coaching themselves all summer, which they have been. For the most part they’ve done solely by themselves. It gets sloppy. Players come to me, ‘Coach, that was bad.’ It’s good. This is where we are, and this is where we’re going. Every day they’ll show improvement because they have coaches there.”

Contact was kept to a minimum, if there was any at all, with drills focused on fundamentals and full-team work was done either on air or against a skeleton opposition. It was the first day, a time when everyone clamors for answers that aren’t there yet.

There’s competition on the offensive line, at running back, defensive back and special teams. A lot of pieces need to come together over the next month before the Panthers know what the team that greets UMass at Heinz Field will look like. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said that even though there will be updated depth charts released throughout training camp, the final edition is the only one that carries much weight. 

“The depth chart, at least in my mind, isn’t final until that Thursday before the first game,” Partridge said. 

The specifics of personnel groupings are currently foggy, but coaches and players offered some insight into how Pitt is approaching this year. Among the Panthers, there is a sense of urgency. 

“We got to win, you know?” redshirt junior linebacker Wendell Davis said. “It’s great to be the No. 1 defense, lead the nation in sacks, this and that but if we’re not winning consistently, what is it really for? Not trying to discredit what we did, but we need to win.”

On paper, it looks like Pitt is in a good spot to do just that. Seasoned quarterback Kenny Pickett is back for a fifth year — with redshirt junior Nick Patti cemented as his backup, according to Narduzzi — and will throw to a group of pass-catchers and running backs that Pickett himself claims is the best that’s surrounded him since arriving at Pitt in 2017. The defense is young in areas, but talented.

Kenny Pickett, the super-senior quarterback, throws the ball with the Cathedral of Learning in the background. (Jon Moss | Editor-in-Chief)

The combination of plentiful returning production and a favorable schedule add up to pressure. 

The consensus was clear — this experienced group is desperate to win and win big. Perennial ACC bully Clemson lost program pillars to the draft and will lean on a new cast to sustain recent dominance against a deeper-than-usual field of contenders. Who will win the conference isn’t exactly a toss up. Dabo Swinney’s Tigers are once again the runaway favorite to win their seventh straight ACC title, but the Tiger dynasty is as vulnerable as it’s been in recent memory 

But those problems remain far up the road for Pitt. Training camp is about separating the starters from the reserves and the reserves from the benchwarmers. 

Without any live contact to speak of, coaches are instead more process-oriented, according to defensive coordinator Randy Bates. He wants to see who knows their positioning and scheme well. 

“What you look at is the way you play,” Bates said. “You can’t tackle, you can’t take on blocks, which are really key parts of playing football. But what you can do is train them in how we want to play.”

This year’s coaching staff has an easier task ahead of them than usual. An atypically high number of returning veterans makes penciling in names on the depth chart a little easier. 

The offense appears to be mostly set with some shuffling left to do along the line and at running back. 

While there is still competition between redshirt first-year Branson Taylor, redshirt sophomore Matt Goncalves, redshirt senior Gabe Houy and redshirt senior Carter Warren at the tackle spots, according to Narduzzi, fifth-year senior Owen Drexel is almost a sure bet to fill the hole left by former all-league center Jimmy Morrissey. 

Drexel had to wait his turn for a while, but is finally on the inside track to starting and Houy is eager to watch him make the most of a consistent role. 

“I’m really excited for him,” Houy said. “He’s been one of my best friends since I got here at Pitt and he’s a roommate with me and Carter. So it’s been really exciting for all of us to play together.”

In the backfield, sophomore Israel Abanikanda has earned his way to the top of Narduzzi’s unofficial depth chart with his size, speed and consistency. 

The defensive backfield is where the stiffest battles for playing time will take place. The Panthers lost starters Paris Ford, Damar Hamlin and Jason Pinnock to the draft, leaving redshirt sophomore Brandon Hill and redshirt junior Erick Hallett II as the presumed starters. 

The return of Damarri Mathis, a redshirt senior cornerback that missed all of 2020 with a shoulder injury sustained while boxing in the offseason, gives Pitt’s defensive coordinator a secure option on one side of the field, but there is a battle for the remaining snaps during the remainder of training camp.

Sophomores Buddy Mack III and Rashad Battle, alongside juniors A.J. Woods and Judson Tallandier II make a quartet of lengthy secondary defenders that will contend for playing time at the second cornerback position. 

The Panthers have grand ideas about scheme right now. They want a better running game and an aggressive and innovative defense, but that comes later. For now, as the team gets back in shape and meaningful games sit far in the distance, the air around Pitt football is filled with hope. 

By November, promises of an ACC Championship or College Football Playoff berth — like the ones senior receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis offered freely on Friday — may be long dead. But like the start of every season, hope springs eternal and the Panthers are working with overflowing optimism.

“It may sound like nothing now,” Jacques-Louis said. “But we’re going to get there.”

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