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Spring football thoughts after the Pitt Panthers’ Blue-Gold Game

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NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pitt football program held its annual Blue-Gold Spring Game on Saturday with the Gold Team dominating, 30-0.

As in past years, the teams were selected by captains — the Gold Team was captained by Lucas Krull and Phil Campbell with the Blue Team captained by Kenny Pickett and Damarri Mathis.

You might think that the Blue Team getting Pickett as the starting quarterback would give them a huge advantage. But Pickett barely played, making only a couple of throws before calling it a day. That, of course, made perfect sense and there was no reason to play him and risk an injury. He’s the starter and what Pitt really needed to do was get some work to the backups.

With Pickett mostly sitting this one out, Joey Yellen got the bulk of the playing time for the Blue Team. He completed half of his passes (7-14) but didn’t have a great day, throwing a pick and taking a sack while passing for only 67 yards. Nick Patti and Davis Beville got the work for the Gold Team, looking much sharper. Patti was 7-10 for 133 yards and a touchdown while Beville was a perfect 6-6 while throwing for 102 yards and a touchdown. Beville also ran for a touchdown.

Those three guys will be in competition to win the backup job this fall and the fan sentiment will probably lean heavily towards Beville for the simple fact that we’ve seen both Patti and Yellen to only mixed results. Beville is the wild card here, even if he’s not necessarily the favorite. But if Pickett remains healthy, obviously, there’s less importance on the backup job.

So what else? First, here’s the full box score if you need it. Let’s stick with the offense.

The running back job is one that we all seemingly keep an eye on. The reason for that is because it’s been a position where Pitt has not had a lot of stability in recent years, frankly. Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall provided a memorable 1-2 punch in 2018 with both getting over 1,100 yards each. But you have to back to 2016 as the last time that Pitt had one guy really grab the job and run with it — and that, of course, was James Conner. Conner had 1,092 yards on that ground that year as the premier back. Ollison was the guy in 2015 while Conner battled cancer after he put together a tremendous 1,765-yard season.

The bottom line is that Pitt has not had a single go to back in some time and that isn’t likely to change in 2021. For one thing, Narduzzi himself has acknowledged he likes the multi-back approach. And for another, no back on the current roster has ever managed to grab hold of the job and really prove to be a dominant guy.

But if you’re looking for the most impressive guy at the moment, that’s probably been sophomore Israel Abanikanda. Abanikanda played some last year but this spring was named as the offensive recipient of the Ed Conway Award, given to the most improved player on that side of the ball. Narduzzi says he is ‘really putting it all together’ and he could be the guy to watch in the backfield this year.

His solid spring carried over into the game on Saturday. Playing for the Blue Team, he led all rushers on either side with 77 yards on only six carries for a gaudy 12.8 ypc average. Abanikanda’s day was highlighted by a 42-yard run. Todd Sibley was the top rusher on the Gold Team, racking up 56 yards on only six carries, and adding a touchdown. The running game, of course, is more than those two guys. Daniel Carter (eight carries for 31 yards), Vincent Davis (nine carries for 42 yards, and A.J. Davis (six carries for 32 yards) all had solid games and you’ve legitimately got five guys fighting for carries.

Who emerges from the carnage that’s left is anybody’s guess. All of these guys have, at one point or another, had fans thinking they were the top back. Abanikanda looks like the early leader in the clubhouse but one thing is certain — whoever is the No. 1 guy will cede plenty of carries to the others. I don’t see one guy, excuse the pun, running away with this thing.

To the receivers, Jordan Addison was the Panthers’ top wideout last year, leading the team in receptions (60), yards (666), and touchdowns (4). He led both teams with four grabs Saturday but plenty of others will be in the mix for targets in 2021. That includes several guys who all produced on Saturday, such as Jaylen Barden (three catches for 41 yards), Taysir Mack (two catches for 57 yards), Kyi Wright (two catches for 57 yards), Gavin Thomson (three catches for 24 yards), and Jared Wayne (two catches for 40 yards). That doesn’t even include Tre Tipton, who returns for yet another season, or emerging tight end Lucas Krull, who has garnered high praise this spring. On Saturday, Krull had two grabs for 40 yards and a touchdown.

Addison was the dominant guy last year without question. And he proved he deserves those targets as someone that holds onto the ball and makes things happen. But Pitt has so many guys competing for balls this year that I’m not sure he pulls off statistical hat trick that he did last season with the most catches, most yards, and most touchdowns. There are a lot of guys in the mix and Pickett is going to have plenty of targets, assuming folks stay healthy.

Defensively, who stood out?

Statistics on that side of the ball aren’t held in the same regard but if you like the numbers, there are some worth noting. I’ll hit on those in between some random thoughts on positions.

Three guys recorded sacks (defensive back Rashad Battle had two with linebackers Brandon George and Wendell Davis each getting one). So what about the defensive line?

Pitt’s defensive line is going to be drastically different with the Panthers losing the likes of Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver, and preseason All-American Jaylen Twyman, who sat out last season. The question is, how much pressure will the new guys be able to bring?

Really, I think those guys will be fine. You’ve already got Calijah Kancey, who is a force. Keyshon Camp is back or another year. Dayon Hayes (a tackle, hurry, and fumble recovery on Saturday) was a highly-touted recruit. John Morgan, Habakkukk Baldonado, and Deslin Alexandre are other returnees with the bulk of the experience. Then, two of the Panthers’ top incoming freshmen are both on the defensive line in four-star recruits Nahki Johnson and Elliot Donald. Johnson played in the game, recording a pair of tackles, including a tackle for loss.

And if you’re talking front seven, Pitt’s other big-time defensive recruit was linebacker/defensive end Naquan Brown, also a four-star kid. He joins linebackers Cam Bright, SirVocea Dennis, and Phil Campbell, who all brought pressure last year, combining for 13 sacks. That’s not even to mention backup returnee Chase Pine or John Petrishen, who was named as the defensive recipient of the Conway Award this spring to glowing reviews from Narduzzi. The linebackers look stacked and some very good players are not going to get as many reps as they would elsewhere. My sense is that the front seven should get plenty of pressure. I don’t expect it to wreak quite as much havoc as last year but Pitt has continued to pile up talent there.

The secondary is where the questions are with Pitt losing both safeties, Paris Ford and Damar Hamlin, as well as cornerback Jason Pinnock. The blow is lessened a bit by getting Damarri Mathis back after his season-long injury last year and starter Marquis Williams returning, but again — lots of questions. Battle and defensive back Buddy Mack led the teams in tackles (Battle with seven for the Gold Team and Mack with six for the Blue Team). Defensive back M.J. Devonshire also recorded an interception as did A.J. Woods, who was picked on quite a bit last season. Lots to sort out back there.

Pitt’s also going to be breaking in a new kicker in Ben Sauls with four-year starter Alex Kessman passing on a return in pursuit of the pros. I can’t state how big of a deal this is. Kessman was an incredibly reliable kicker for a team that had trouble finding the end zone. If the offense struggles there, we’ll have to see what they get from Sauls (who, for the record, made a 35-yarder and missed a 49-yarder on Saturday). How reliable he is could go a long way to deciding if the Panthers win, say, seven games or nine games.

Was great for Pitt to be back in action this weekend and now we begin the long wait until the start of next year.

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