Preview | Pitt football looks to showcase its talent at Blue-Gold Spring Game


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Wide receiver Gavin Thomson runs with the ball during the Blue-Gold spring football game on April 9, 2022.

By Brian Sherry, Assistant Sports Editor

Pitt football is back. The Panthers will showcase their new-look roster in the Blue-Gold Spring Game on Saturday at 1 p.m. The game will allow fans to get a first look at the revamped Pitt team in an intrasquad exhibition game. 

But don’t think that just because it’s an exhibition game, it doesn’t mean anything. The Spring game will feature several intriguing storylines, depth chart battles and first-year players. 

Here’s what to look out for.

The quarterback battle will take center stage

The Panthers are in the midst of a quarterback battle. Redshirt senior Phil Jurkovec, redshirt sophomore Christian Veilleux and redshirt sophomore Nate Yarnell are all duking it out for the starting job. Jurkovec is the clear favorite to win the job, but the spring game will offer fans a chance to judge these quarterbacks for themselves. 

Jurkovec, a Boston College transfer, has garnered high praise from the Panther coaching staff. The redshirt senior had an up-and-down college career, with his best season coming in 2020 when he threw for 2,558 yards and 17 touchdowns. Now, the Pittsburgh native is returning home to finish his career on a high note with the Panthers. 

But he faces stiff competition for the starting job. Veilleux is his closest competitor, but Yarnell is not far behind. Veilleux, who transferred from Penn State, was solid in his limited playing time with the Nittany Lions. Meanwhile, Yarnell is Pitt’s only returning quarterback from 2022. The returning quarterback started in one game for the Panthers against Western Michigan, where he threw for 179 yards and one touchdown. 

While Jurkovec is the favorite, this game still offers an opportunity for Veilleux and Yarnell to catch up. With the starting job on the line, fans should look out for either Jurkovec to secure his position or allow either Yarnell or Veilleux to step up.

Who will step up on defense?

The Panther defense is going to look completely different in 2023. As stars like Calijah Kancey and SirVocea Dennis are leaving for the NFL, Pitt will need several players to step up and fill the void left by their departures. But there are a few key candidates to at least make the transition less jarring. 

Redshirt senior defensive back M.J. Devonshire had an electric start last season, as he posted a game-winning interception against West Virginia and ran back a punt return against Rhode Island. Devonshire slowed down later in the year, but he still proved himself capable as a dynamic defensive player for the Panthers. Devonshire has the potential to become Pitt’s star player on defense, so look out for him to make a statement at the spring game. 

Another defensive player with the potential to have a breakout in 2023 is junior defensive back Donovan McMillon. The junior transferred to Pitt from Florida in the offseason and will look to make waves in his debut with the Panthers. McMillon played in most games with the Gators and compiled  20 tackles and one tackle for a loss in 2022. 

But the biggest story around McMillon is that he’s a Western Pennsylvania native. Like Jurkovec, McMillon left the Pittsburgh area after high school, but is now returning to play in the blue and gold. As he returns to his Western Pennsylvania roots, McMillon has the potential to become a fan favorite and a star on defense at the spring game. 

While the secondary looks secure in 2023, the defensive line is a different story. After losing key pieces such as Kancey and Habakkuk Baldonado, the defensive line is in serious need of a breakout player. A potential candidate to fill the void is senior Dayon Hayes. The senior lineman was overshadowed by Pitt’s star lineman last season but is now free to shine in 2023. Hayes showed extreme promise in last season’s game against Miami, where he earned himself ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week. 

With many unanswered questions on defense, the spring game will provide fans a chance to evaluate the players themselves. Look out for players like McMillon and Hayes to prove themselves as capable leaders of the defense in Saturday’s exhibition. 

Who will win the starting job at running back?

Pitt’s running back room is always crowded. Last season, the competition was mitigated because Israel Abanikanda was the clear starter. Now, with Abanikanda’s departure, Pitt has several capable players competing to take the reins. The spring game will give fans a good sense of who will replace Abanikanda. 

Junior Rodney Hammond is the most likely successor to Abanikanda. The junior running back played behind Abanikanda for two seasons, learning the offense and waiting for his opportunity to shine. Despite playing behind one of Pitt’s all-time great running backs, Hammond still made his presence felt, running for 459 yards and five touchdowns.

But Pitt still has several other running backs competing for playing time. Junior Derrick Davis Jr. transferred from LSU this offseason and is looking to shine as a running back. Davis primarily played at safety at LSU, but will switch to running back with the Panthers. 

Redshirt senior C’Bo Flemister is another key piece in the running back room. Flemister played behind Abanikanda and Hammond last season, but will likely see more playing time in 2023. 

The biggest question with the running backs isn’t who will play, but rather how they will play. Last season against Syracuse, with Abanikanda out of the game, head coach Pat Narduzzi chose to give several running backs significant playing time. Maybe the Panthers will opt to run this system in 2023, with all three running backs playing big-time roles. 

The spring game probably won’t completely answer all of these questions, but it is a piece of the puzzle. With spring practices nearing the end and training camp on the horizon, the Panthers will begin to take shape and get ready for the 2023 campaign.