Pitt football showcases depth of its roster at annual spring game


Hannah Wilson | Assistant Visuals Editor

Redshirt senior Jason Collier Jr. lifts junior Derrick Davis Jr. after a touchdown during the spring game at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday.

By Jermaine Sykes, Senior Staff Writer

The Panthers’ offense and defense faced off against each other on Saturday for the 2023 Blue Gold spring game. The intra-squad scrimmage consisted of starters, backups and first-year players facing off after 15 spring practices.

The defense, wearing the royal blue home uniforms, took bragging rights — and a nice dinner from head coach Pat Narduzzi — heading into the summer with a 33-32 win after staging a comeback in the second half. 

“It’ll be steak and lobster for those defensive guys tonight,” Narduzzi said. 

Here’s my takeaways from the Saturday afternoon contest.

Jurkovec, Veilleux step up as best two quarterbacks

At the end of last season, the Panthers’ quarterback room looked completely different than it does now. But a lot can change in four months, and the transfer portal brought in senior quarterback Phil Jurkovec and sophomore quarterback Christian Veilleux. Along with first-year quarterbacks Ty Dieffenbach and David Lynch, four new quarterbacks joined the Panthers this spring.

Jurkovec and Veilleux have separated themselves from the pack heading into the summer. 

Jurkovec started Saturday’s contest, and in three drives completed five of seven passes for 51 yards. Jurkovec’s familiarity with offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense from their time at Boston College allowed the quarterback to quickly find his place. 

“I thought [Jurkovec] had a great spring,” Cignetti said. “Out of the two seasons I’ve worked with him, this is the best I’ve seen him throw the ball.”

Veilleux only played in two drives of Saturday’s contest, and he delivered in one of them. The second offensive drive of the game put Veilleux and the second team offense against the first team defense. 

Veilleux completed six of seven passes for 69 yards and finished off the drive with a touchdown to junior running back Derrick Davis Jr. Cignetti gave the sophomore quarterback praise after the game.

“Veilleux is an amazing young man,” Cignetti said. “It’s not about where he is, it’s about what he can be as a quarterback.”

While Jurkovec is the favorite to land the starting job in 2023, I wouldn’t count out Veilleux. More performances like this Saturday heading into the summer and training camp will help him.

Depth, but no clear starter at running back

With the loss of running back Israel Abanikanda, the Panthers’ backfield is a big question mark going into 2023. 

The Panthers added LSU transfer junior running back Derrick Davis Jr. and first-year TJ Harvison this offseason. The duo along with the returning trio of senior Daniel Carter, senior C’Bo Flemister and junior Rodney Hammond look to emulate the production of Abanikanda, an All-ACC first-team running back and likely NFL draft pick.

Their performances on Saturday should give the Panthers hope going into the summer. Despite the heavy emphasis on the passing game, the Panthers’ backfield rushed for 122 yards. Carter led the pack with 45 yards on eight carries and a touchdown.

All five running backs rotated throughout each unit, and none separated themselves as the clear starter. Hammond started the first drive of the game but was quickly subbed for Carter and Davis. 

I don’t expect a true workhorse running back to arise come August. The Panthers’ running backs aren’t experienced as starters. According to Narduzzi, the Panthers have three remaining scholarships to distribute. I could see the Panthers searching the transfer portal for additional running back help.

The Panthers currently have five running backs rostered and could add more in the coming months. Without a solidified starter, we should expect them to utilize a rotation in 2023. Cignetti, though, is content with the group’s play on Saturday.

“It’s a talented room,” Cignetti said. “They had some nice runs, we’re blessed to have them.”

Panthers’ defense stout

The Panthers’ defense dominated the second half of the Blue-Gold game. The defense trailed 23-7 at halftime before coming back to win 33-32. The secondary and defensive line especially shined.

The loss of unanimous All-American Calijah Kancey and safety Brandon Hill raised questions about the Panthers’ defense. But they didn’t seem to miss a beat on Saturday. 

The play of the day came when junior safety Phillip O’Brien Jr. picked off Dieffenbach and returned it for a touchdown. O’Brien is Hill’s replacement for this upcoming season, and he plans on mastering the free safety position. 

“I’m putting in the extra effort on and off the field,” O’Brien said. “I need to know everything about this position, which is one of the hardest positions in football.”

The Panthers’ defensive line sacked the offense four times, and their young players shined early and often. First-year defensive lineman Samuel Okunlola and first-year linebacker Drew Foster accounted for two of the four sacks. The Panthers’ defense in total combined for 12 tackles for loss.

A menacing defense in 2023 will help the Panthers continue their two-year streak of nine or more win seasons. 

The Panthers will continue their offseason and prepare for training camp at the end of the summer. There are some questions that need answers, especially at the running back position. But I think the Panthers are happy with their performances on Saturday. 

“I appreciate all the hard work our kids did throughout the spring,” Narduzzi said. “I was happy we could get out of the scrimmage healthy and I like how we played.”