‘Going hunting ourselves’: Panthers look to prove they’re more than one-hit-wonders


Image courtesy of Pitt Athletics

Head coach Pat Narduzzi at Pitt football’s first practice of training camp on Monday.

By Dalton Coppola, Sports Editor

Pitt football’s facility looks a little bit different than it did last year at training camp. Most notably, the 2021 ACC Championship trophy is on full display for everyone to see. The Panthers are the defending conference champions and teams are hoping to dethrone them this year. But head coach Pat Narduzzi doesn’t see that as a bad thing and said all it does is motivate his team more than ever.

There’s no target on our back and we are not really defending anything because [the ACC Championship trophy] is not going anywhere — it’s there,” Narduzzi said. “We are not going to be the hunted. We are going hunting ourselves… we are going after them and we are going after them harder than we did a year ago, and we are going to go after them in a different way. It will be a different attack offensively, defensively, and there will be a different attack on special teams.”

Narduzzi and the Panthers began their hunt for another championship on Monday as the team had its first practice of training camp. Narduzzi said the Panthers will carry 110 players during this year’s training camp, in accordance with NCAA rules. 

But of the 110 players he’s carrying, the media asked a lot about two players in specific — quarterbacks senior Nick Patti and redshirt junior Kedon Slovis. With former quarterback Kenny Pickett departing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the starting quarterback position is up for grabs.

The two have had very different career arcs. Patti has spent his entire collegiate career backing up Pickett. Meanwhile, Slovis took the college football world by storm a few years back when he took over for USC as a first-year quarterback. After earning FWAA First-Team Freshman All-American honors, he regressed in his subsequent seasons for the Trojans. The former standout entered the portal and Narduzzi quickly brought him in to fight for playing time.

Fans and media alike will talk about the quarterback battle until the Panthers kickoff against West Virginia. But Narduzzi said he won’t give a date for when he announces who will start against the Mountaineers. The head coach said he doesn’t want to make the decision — he wants the two of them to decide it on the field.

“What I love is it’s going to come down to what they are doing and really, I want the whole team to know who that guy is,” Narduzzi said. “If I have to make the decision, then we got issues, okay. Everybody should know and when we make that decision, it’s not like everybody is going, ‘Oh, man, I thought it was the other guy.’ I don’t want controversy. I want everybody to know, that’s the guy.”

While there is a question mark looming at the quarterback position, the rest of the offense is returning a multitude of playmakers for whoever steps in under center. Wide receivers senior Jared Wayne and junior Jaylon Barden are both back this year and Narduzzi added a first-year All-American with Akron sophomore transfer Konata Mumpfield. 

Of course, Pitt infamously lost Biletnikoff winning receiver Jordan Addison to the USC Trojans, via the transfer portal. While he said everyone has to do what’s best for them, wide receiver coach Tiquan Underwood said when Addison left it was definitely a punch to the gut, for him personally and the team. But Underwood said his players have banded together since then and told him they “have his back” this season.

“To get [texts] from some of the wideouts in the room saying ‘coach, we got your back and we’re going to put in work and we’re going to make this thing happen,’ that meant everything to me,” Underwood said. “That just told me the type of character we have in that room. We know that we lost a talented player and great person, but it opens an opportunity in the room… we just gotta go out there and do our job.”

It’s much of the same on the defensive side of the ball — while a vast majority of its starters are coming back in 2022, there’s a few very important holes to fill. Pitt bid farewell to several linebackers after 2021, most notably seniors Johnny Petrishen, Phil Campbell and Chase Pine. Pitt will return senior SirVocea Dennis to play the middle linebacker spot, but both outside linebacker spots are up for grabs.

Linebacker coach Ryan Manalac said while there’s certainly holes to fill, he thinks that the competition amongst his players for playing time will make his players better.

“There’s a lot of guys that I think are pushing that envelope,” Manalac said. “The message is ‘just continue to be a consistent performer’ and we’ll figure out who the best three are and who will start… everything is earned as it should be in football.”

Senior linebacker Brandon George said he and his teammates don’t look at the situation like it’s a competition for playing time. Rather, he said they’re all just trying to make one another better.

“As a unit, it’s not necessarily ‘who’s going to start?’ because we have an experienced group for the most part,” George said. “We have a lot of guys that can make a lot of good plays which is really helpful for our defense as a whole. We have guys that can rotate through, we’ll never get to the point where someone is real tired… which makes our room really deadly because we have so much depth.”

Narduzzi and his staff have plenty of questions to answer before their opening game against the West Virginia Mountaineers on Sept. 1. But there’s one question that Pitt doesn’t want to leave any doubt about — 2021 was not a fluke. Senior defensive lineman and Pitt’s 2021 sack leader Habakkuk Baldonado said he doesn’t feel like Pitt gets the respect it deserves and he wants to prove this year that Pitt is here to stay.

“As you know, respect is something you have to earn,” Baldonado said. “For a long time we have not won many games, but now that has changed. Hopefully we’ll go on a streak of having great seasons… as good as last year was, it was one year.”

Baldonado and the Panthers have the opportunity to earn the nation’s respect off of the bat when they take on West Virginia at Acrisure Stadium on Sept. 1. The game will air on ESPN and kickoff at 7 p.m.