Pitt held their annual Blue and Gold Game Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field. The Gold team raced out to a quick 17-0 lead and held off a fourth quarter rally by the blue team for the 23-14 victory.
Now to recap a Spring game, you have to truly appreciate what a Spring game is. The offense is typically bland, defenders play hard but not urgent, and of course many guys are missing from injury. It’s a glorified scrimmage open to the fans - that’s about it.
Overall it was a good day for the program, Pitt attracted 7,706 on a nice sunny afternoon. They also brought back former stars Tyler Boyd and Jabaal Sheard to captain the teams. Larry Fitzgerald and Tyler Palko, among other past players were also there in attendance. A number of key recruits showed up as well, it was a productive day for Pitt football.
Now for the game itself. It wasn’t always pretty, but there were a few different things we saw that were notable. I’ll start with the quarterback play. Max Browne wasn’t very impressive, as he led the Blue team. Still, it would be a surprise if he was not the starter come September. His throws came up short more than a few times. A flea-flicker to open the game came with a pretty severe under throw. Arm strength is somewhat of question for me moving forward with Browne. However, he does appear to be pretty poised and confident, just like a senior quarterback should look. The final drive of the game was capped off with a 27 yard touchdown pass from Browne to Tre Tipton in the back of the end zone on a nice throw.
The other Blue quarterback was Tom MacVittie, and he completed just 1-1 passes for four yards. He seemed to be flushed from the pocket a bit, and never had the chance to stand in and make some throws. He did rush for a 12 yard touchdown in the third quarter showing some mobility.
The Gold team saw about equal snaps given to Ben DiNucci and true freshman Kenny Pickett. DiNucci was 5-5 for 60 yards on the day, while Pickett 6-13 for 36 yards. Pickett also rushed for 35 yards. I came away very impressed with Pickett. He’s much faster than I anticipated and actually has some running skills, and he looks comfortable extending plays and throwing on the run. Just didn’t expect that from a true freshman, but he impressed.
Pat Narduzzi commented on his young quarterbacks play on Saturday, “ To be able to turn those guys lose - some of the best quarterbacks we’ve ever had – really showed when it was live. You watch Kenny scrambling, Thomas scored a rushing touchdown, so it was nice to see those young guys get an opportunity to go out and do something and try and manage the game that way.”
Now onto the rest of the offense, starting with the running backs Qadree Ollison and Chawntez Moss were the only scholarship backs available with Darrin Hall recovering from a surgery. Moss was clearly the more effective player, netting 57 yards on eight carries. Ollison had a tough time, and averaged just 1.3 yards per carry on 18 attempts. This will be a race to watch in Fall camp, as true freshmen Todd Sibley and AJ Davis should push for carries.
There wasn’t much to see from the tight ends, as the roster just doesn’t have many at the moment. Chris Clark sat out and they have three freshman coming for next season. It was also strange to see George Aston not touch the ball once after being one of Pitt’s best weapons last season. I’m not reading much into it, but with a new offensive coordinator in Shawn Watson, I was curious how tight ends and fullbacks would be used.
The wide receivers looked good, but inconsistent. They made some really good players, but there were plenty of easy drops mixed in as well. Quadree Henderson was fantastic on Saturday, as he rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown and caught five passes for 53 yards. It’s hard to imagine Henderson not being in the top 3 in the country this season in all-purpose yardage. He’s a special talent.
Aside from Henderson, Maurice Ffrench, Ruben Flowers III, and Tre Tipton stood out, and they did have the benefit from playing with Browne on the Blue team. Flowers looked good after taking a redshirt last season. Jester Weah was really quiet, hauling in just one catch for nine yards.
The offensive line was split up, and that’s a unit that works better when all five guys are working together. Brian O’Neill came up hurt in the second half, but it wasn’t anything major. Being a potential All-American, Pitt really needs to keep him healthy. Also noteworthy, true freshman Jerry Drake is a very big guy, he stands out even among the other linemen.
Now moving to defense, and one of Pitt’s biggest priorities is finding a pass rush without Ejuan Price. Top candidate Dewayne Hendrix did not dress. Other presumed starter Rori Blair looked good, as he notched two sacks. Allen Edwards got one too. He’s expected to be right in the mix for yards. Still, I have to say the redshirt freshman really impressed. Rashad Weaver had a sack and another tackle for loss, and provided pressure on numerous occasions. Kaezon Pugh looked good for just moving to end, and Patrick Jones II looked the part physically.
We did not see much out of the interior linemen. It was a quiet day for them, redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp came up hurt on one play in the second half, but other than that we did not hear much from the position.
Pitt is starting out fresh at linebacker and these young players are starting to look like they can be real quality players. I could see a potential starting lineup of Quintin Wirginis, Saleem Brightwell, and Elijah Zeise. Actually, Zeise did not not suit up Saturday, but won the Ed Conway award for his work this Spring as the most improved player. It could be a much more athletic linebacking corps than in previous years. Chase Pine also looks like he can see the field, the redshirt freshman is 6’2” 250 and can really move.
Jordan Whitehead and Bricen Garner manned the safety spots for the Gold, while Jay Stocker, Henry Miller, and Dennis Briggs held down the Blue team. Stocker led all players with 7 tackles. Whitehead showed no ill-effects from his injury last season, and I thought Bricen Garner did some good things. Henry Miller is a very big guy and made a few nice plays as well. Now remember, Pitt has Paris Ford coming in for next season, and he will change the dynamic entirely of this position.
And of course, now for the cornerbacks. This unit took a beating last year, and hopefully some fresh faces help out. Avonte Maddox was undoubtedly the best corner yesterday and will be the #1 guy in Fall. He broke up two passes, and recorded 3 tackles. Therran Coleman worked opposite of Maddox, and I have hope he can be an effective player soon. Dane Jackson and Phillipie Motley started for the Blue team, and I liked Dane Jackson’s play. He can be a factor. Also something to consider, Damar Hamlin did not play and he will be expected to push for a starting job if he can stay healthy.
New kicker Alex Kessman was 3-4 on field goal attempts, making three from inside of 40. He attempted a 60 yarder to end the first half and it missed very far wide right, but he had enough leg, and that was impressive enough.
That’s the rundown. Now recruiting should take center stage for the football program. Pitt typically does well in May and June, and we should start seeing some commitments. The team will reconvene in August for Fall camp.