‘Lot of pieces to put together’: Narduzzi looks for players to stand out in Blue-Gold Game


TPN File Photo

Heinz Field.

By Dalton Coppola, Assistant Sports Editor

Since winning the ACC Championship last December, head coach Pat Narduzzi has stayed busy.

The eighth-year head coach has been hot on the recruiting trail, utilized the transfer portal, put his team through months of spring practices and signed a contract extension to keep him in Pittsburgh until 2030. The Panthers will look a little different in 2022, from a coaching and roster perspective. But Narduzzi said that’s what spring is for — constructing the best possible roster.

“We’ve got a lot of pieces to put together,” Narduzzi said. “That’ll be the big thing of spring ball. Finding out who the 2022 offense, defense and special teams are going to be.”

Pitt fans will get their first glimpse at the 2022 team this Saturday at Heinz Field for the annual Blue-Gold game at 1 p.m. Team captains will draft their teams to decide who is on which team.

While much of the team is returning, two of the most pivotal pieces in the program departed following the ACC Championship — quarterback Kenny Pickett and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Pickett and Whipple led the most prolific offense in the ACC last season, but both moved on. Pickett is heading to the NFL and Whipple is taking the same position at Nebraska.

But when you win your conference championship and play in a New Year’s Six Bowl, it isn’t hard to find someone to fill these roles. Narduzzi decided to bring in someone with deep ties to Pittsburgh to replace Whipple — Frank Cignetti Jr. Cignetti brings with him more than 30 years of coaching experience, including serving as quarterback coach to Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers in the NFL.

The longtime coach is known for running a “pro-style” offense, and it’ll take time for the Panthers to install the new play calls. Cignetti likes to employ 12 personnel in his offense, which bodes well for the tight ends and the running game. Narduzzi is confident in how things are progressing, and said Cignetti’s offense should help the Panthers improve their running game.

“I’d say we’ve probably got about 80% of it in,” Narduzzi said. “Some of the new stuff that we’ve added in is going to really help us, especially our run game … just some of the things we have in for the run game will help us get some better runs. Install is going great.”

Compensating for the loss of Pickett — a potential top-10 NFL Draft pick and Heisman finalist — will not be as easy. Pitt leaned heavily on Pickett in 2021, as he threw for an ACC single-season record 42 touchdowns and amassed more than 4,000 yards passing.

Narduzzi capitalized on Pickett’s success and lured Southern California transfer senior quarterback Kedon Slovis out of the portal.

Slovis was a standout performer in his first year at USC, receiving Freshman All-American honors as well as PAC-12 Newcomer of the year. He regressed a bit in the following years, but brings pedigree and proven ability. The knee-jerk reaction from most fans and media alike was that Slovis would start. But it doesn’t seem Slovis has the job locked up.

Senior quarterback and Peach Bowl starter Nick Patti is returning to the Panthers and, if things go the way he hopes, he’ll be under center against West Virginia in week one. In his introductory press conference, Cignetti said whoever gives the Panthers the best shot to win will play. Narduzzi didn’t give any indication if either Patti or Slovis were winning the position battle.

“It’s too early to be discussing that so I’ll probably just stay away from it for now,” Narduzzi said. “Nick Patti’s done great things. Slovis has done great things … it’s a work in progress.”

It’s worth noting that whenever reporters ask coaches or players about Slovis, they are usually quick to add that Patti is doing a solid job at spring camp as well. While the quarterbacks will don red jerseys on Saturday, fans will get their first looks at what each quarterback can do in a semi-live game setting.

On the other side of the ball, Narduzzi has more than a couple of holes to fill. The Panthers are losing several linebackers who saw significant playing time to the transfer portal as well as the NFL Draft. On top of the gaps between the hashes on defense, cornerback Damarri Mathis and defensive tackle Keyshon Camp also declared for the NFL Draft. Luckily for Narduzzi, senior linebacker SirVocea Dennis is returning for 2022.

Narduzzi said Dennis might be the most cerebral player on the roster, and will play a crucial role in helping mold younger linebackers.

“SirVocea is maybe one of the smartest guys on the defense, if not the smartest guy on the defense,” Narduzzi said. “He’s great, we can challenge him mentally with a bunch of different stuff. Obviously, he’s going to be huge in coaching the rest of the guys up and he’s taken them for the last two months really … he’s a coach on the field.”

Dennis is the most experienced linebacker on the roster, and the player that the younger linebackers have looked to this spring for guidance. Narduzzi is looking for one of his younger, less experienced linebackers to step up and play alongside Dennis. According to linebackers coach Ryan Manalac, junior Bangally Kamara and redshirt sophomore Solomon DeShields have taken some steps in the right direction to earn a starting spot in 2022.

“You look at them and they certainly look awesome,” Manalac said. “Both have great range and ability to long-arm, the length to get off and make plays … each of those different things, they’re growing in each of those little things every day and it’s fun to watch.”

While the Panthers will look different this year, there are several players who opted to stay and play for another championship. Narduzzi has made Pitt a desirable place for players to play. Senior defensive lineman Deslin Alexandre could have left for the NFL, but said he wasn’t done playing with his “brothers.”

“Just to be able to play with a bunch of guys that are my brothers, and there’s opportunities to get better at a lot of things,” Alexandre said regarding why he came back for 2022. “Just to go back and win another championship.”

The Panthers will draft teams on Wednesday at noon for the Blue-Gold game, and wrap up their spring practices later this week. The game will kick off Saturday at 1 p.m., and fans will get a firsthand glimpse at the quarterback battle, the new linebackers and Cignetti’s offense.

Sophomore tight end Gavin Bartholomew said this season’s goal remains the same — to win a championship.

“I think every year, your goal is to win a championship,” Bartholomew said. “I don’t think it’s anything special coming off of [the ACC Championship win]. I think it should be the goal every year.”