Optimism runs wild as Pitt football opens 2021 training camp

Pat Narduzzi played the hits – “Everyone is bigger, faster, stronger”, “We have to improve in everything”, “I won’t name him starter yet.”

Training camp snaps flew fast and furiously from the Pitt Football head coach – as they do every year from his counterparts across the country – on the Panthers’ first day of official preparation for the 2021 season.

On a sunny, scorching Friday in Pittsburgh, heading into the Sept. 4 opener against Massachusetts, Pitt’s football got to practice as a full team for the first time this season. With some in shoulder pads and others wearing only helmets, the Panthers opened 2021 training camp with a light workout, in which everyone was still getting their feet up under them, according to Narduzzi.

“We’re talking about improving by 3%,” Narduzzi said. “Our guys are doing well today, practice one. They looked like they had been training all summer, which they were. For the most part, they did just by themselves. It’s getting sloppy. Players come up to me, ‘Coach, that was bad.’ Its good. This is where we are, and this is where we are going. Every day they will show improvement because they have coaches there.

Contact was kept to a minimum, if any, with drills focused on fundamentals and full team work performed either in the air or against skeletal opposition. It was day one, a time when everyone is crying out for answers that aren’t there yet.

There’s competition on the offensive line, running backs, defensive backs and special teams. A lot of pieces need to be put together over the next month before the Panthers know what the team hosting UMass at Heinz Field will look like. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said while updated depth charts will be 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 this Thursday before Game 1,” Partridge said.

Details of personnel groups are currently unclear, but coaches and players have given some insight into how Pitt is approaching this year. At the Panthers, there is a sense of urgency.

“We have to win, you know? said junior redshirt linebacker Wendell Davis. “It’s great to be the No. 1 defense, to lead the nation in sacks, this and that, but if we don’t win consistently, what’s the point really? We’re not trying to discredit what we’ve done, but we have to win.

On paper, it looks like Pitt is well positioned to do just that. Seasoned quarterback Kenny Pickett is back for a fifth year – with redshirt junior Nick Patti cemented as a replacement, according to Narduzzi – and will pitch to a group of passers and running backs who, according to Pickett himself, is the best around him since his arrival. at Pitt in 2017. The defense is young in the zones, but talented.

Super senior quarterback Kenny Pickett kicks the ball with the Cathedral of Learning in the background. (Jon Moss | Editor)

The combination of abundant returning production and a favorable schedule adds to the pressure.

The consensus was clear – this experienced group is desperate to win and win big. Perennial ACC bully Clemson lost program stalwarts in the draft and will rely on a new cast to maintain his 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 seventh straight ACC titlebut the Tiger Dynasty is as vulnerable as it has been in recent memory

But those issues remain far down the road for Pitt. The training camp consists of separating the starters from the reserves and the reserves from the substitutes.

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

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

This year’s coaching staff has an easier task than usual. An abnormally high number of returning veterans makes it a bit easier to enter names on the depth chart.

The attack seems to be mostly set with some changes to be made along the line and to the running back.

While there is always competition between redshirt freshman Branson Taylor, redshirt sophomore Matt Goncalves, redshirt senior Gabe Houy, and redshirt senior Carter Warren on tackle points, according to Narduzzi, Fifth-year Owen Drexel is almost a sure bet to fill the hole left by former All-League center Jimmy Morrissey.

Drexel has had to wait for his turn for a while, but he’s finally on his way to starting and Houy can’t wait to see him get the most out of a consistent role.

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

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

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

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

Sophomores Buddy Mack III and Rashad Battle, alongside juniors AJ Woods and Judson Tallandier II form a quartet of secondary long defenders who will compete for playing time at the second cornerback position.

The Panthers have big ideas on the plan right now. They want a better running game and aggressive, innovative defense, but that comes later. For now, as the team recovers and meaningful games unfold in the distance, the air around Pitt’s 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 for free on Friday — could be long dead. But like at the start of every season, hope is eternal and the Panthers work with overwhelming optimism.

“It may seem like nothing now,” said Jacques-Louis. “But we will get there.”

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