Pitt is set to kick off its 2021 season with a matchup against UMass at Heinz Field on Saturday, and on Monday, the program released its initial depth chart for the season, revealing unresolved position battles at running back, kicker, free safety and linebacker.
The running back position is currently shown on the depth chart as a three-way tie between Israel Abanikanda, A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis. However, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi described Abanikanda as the front-runner at the position during training camp, making Monday’s indecision something of a surprise.
At kicker, Ben Sauls and Sam Scarton have been battling to succeed Alex Kessman, but Narduzzi recently noted that the position battle had not yielded a clear winner. The coach also described the indecision at kicker as negative, with neither Sauls nor Scarton stepping up to claim the role as Narduzzi had hoped.
Conversely, the defensive battles have been a result of early development and depth, signaling a wealth of options rather than a lack. Rashad Battle, a sophomore, is challenging Erick Hallett, a junior, for starting duties at free safety, while juniors Wendell Davis and SirVocea Dennis vie for the mike linebacker role. Both position battles remain undecided.
Elsewhere on the depth chart, presumptive starters claimed their first-string jobs without controversy. Among them were Kenny Pickett at quarterback; Lucas Krull at tight end; and Jordan Addison, Shocky Jacques-Louis and Taysir Mack at wide receiver. The offensive line also shook out more or less as planned, with Gabe Houy and Carter Warren as the starting tackles, Jake Kradel and Maryland transfer Marcus Minor at the starting guard spots, and Owen Drexel succeeding former team captain Jimmy Morrissey at center.
The majority of the defensive pecking order is also pretty straightforward, as the line will feature Deslin Alexandre and Habakkuk Baldonado as starting defensive ends and Keyshon Camp and Calijah Kancey as starting defensive tackles. Cam Bright and Phil Campbell will line up behind them at the star and money linebacker spots. And in the defensive backfield, Damarri Mathis and Marquis Williams have locked down the starting cornerback jobs, while Brandon Hill is slated to start a strong safety.
Of the roles that have been decided, only a few decisions are likely to be viewed as controversial. At left tackle, Matt Goncalves, a former four-star offensive tackle recruit, has drawn rave reviews during his career, while Carter Warren has struggled at times. But Warren likely benefited from his previous starting experience and status as a senior. And at defensive end, many may have expected an "or" between Baldonado and Morgan, but Baldonado has been solid by all accounts and has shined on the field when given chances in the past, as he had 4.0 sacks and 4.5 tackles for losses as a freshman in 2019.
Notable names missing from the depth chart include freshmen Elliot Donald and Nahki Johnson, both of whom were four-star recruits out of the WPIAL. As first-year players, they will likely see limited action at the most and begin seriously vying for playing time in 2022, much like fellow local standouts Dayon Hayes and M.J. Devonshire, who are currently listed as second-stringers as sophomores.