By Michaelangelo Monteleone
With a nod towards Pitt’s award-winning Philosophy department, I’ve come out of retirement for the day and put together a Fall Camp preview. It’s loosely based on René Descartes famous (maybe?) elucidation of the interplay of hope and fear. You’re welcome. I think.
For those actually interested in the philosophy part of this, here is Descartes original hope/fear statement. Lol the part about despair…
When hope is so strong that it altogether drives out fear, its nature changes and it becomes complacency or confidence. And when we are certain that what we desire will come to pass, even though we go on wanting it to come to pass, we nonetheless cease to be agitated by the passion of desire which caused us to look forward to the outcome with anxiety.
Likewise, when fear is so extreme that it leaves no room at all for hope, it is transformed into despair; and this despair, representing the thing as impossible, extinguishes desire altogether, for desire bears only on possible things.
And now on to the article.
Well it’s that time of year again, and Pitt’s fall training camp starts on Friday. A few practices without pads, then some in shoulder pads, then the real deal. Of course nobody outside of the program actually gets to see the practices, and for a program shrouded in mystery the past few years’ results have been decidedly…three star, but at the same time, the hardcore fan can’t help but feel just the smallest shred of optimism.
The carefully controlled media that’s dripped from camp will do nothing to dispel that. This small shred of hope will undoubtedly build slowly over time, until the first game, when it’s either pumped up to unrealistic levels (Austin Peay last year) only to be brought crashing down to reality a few weeks later (NC State, Boston College last year), or completely destroyed out of the gate (Pitt’s loss to UVA in 2019, A seven point “victory” over Youngstown State 2018, And eight point “victory” over Youngstown State in 2015, and that ignominious loss to those same Youngstown State Penguins in 2012).
Nonetheless, it would be remiss of the POV to not indulge those who continue to cling to optimism in some kind of pre-camp hoopla. And so, as a public service, I will take on the drudgery of that task. Below is a position by position look at the team heading up into camp, with our best hopes highlighted, and our fears called out. I’m sure Descartes would approve.
We all know the storyline. Super Senior Kenny Pickett chose not to be drafted in the later rounds because he thought he was better than that. Well maybe he is, but for a guy with a career 120 passer rating, he better have done a hell of a job in the offseason, and he better have done it better than he’s done it in the past.
The Hope: Kenny’s pocket presence and touch passing improves in his fifth year, along with the weapons he has at his disposal. Instead of leading the league in drops, Pitt finishes somewhere near the middle of the ACC and those extra dozen or so passes that Picket competes because his guys can catch lead to a half-dozen or so touchdowns.
Also we’d hope Picket has put in some extra conditioning work this summer so that he’s not totally gassed by running to the sideline each and every play. The windup is that instead of throwing for 13 TD’s and 9 INT’s, he throws for 31 and 6. That would probably make him the second-best quarterback (maybe third) in the conference and put Pitt’s offense on the track to something close to 35-40 points per game. Yep. That’s the hope.
The Fear: Nothing changes. Pickett keeps throwing uncatchable fastballs on the short routes, and receivers keep dropping the middle to long range balls that are thrown right to them. The tight end position continues to be a disaster and Whipple’s play calling is as erratic as ever, especially in the red zone.
Kenny finishes his career as Pitt’s all-time passing yardage leader and somewhere way down the list on total TD’s. After all that, he gets drafted in the sixth round by the Jaguars and becomes Trevor Lawrence’s career backup in Jacksonville.
Depth depth and more depth, that’s what everybody keeps talking about. Well when your best guy was a skinny 170 lb freshman who averaged 10 yards per catch, and you only lost one WR to graduation you damn well better have more depth than last year.
Yes, Pitt is all about development, and yes, most of the recognizable names are in year three of Whipple’s complex pro-style offense (which if you follow fantasy football in the NFL is key turning point for many pro wide receivers) but damn, do we really think Shockey Jacques-Louis or Jared Wayne is going to break out this year? Or that transfer from Hawaii is going to make a difference?
The Hope: Jordan Addison takes the next step to become Pitt’s first 1000 yard receiver in a long, long time (Last one was Tyler Boyd in 2014.) Addison is going to have to work in his run after the catch skills in order to take that next step, and also work on beating double coverages since he’s now a known commodity in the ACC. Taysir Mack comes back healthy and stays healthy. Shockey Jacques is fully healthy and improves his route running ability (check out his high school film, it’s always been a weakness).
Jaylen Barden and/or the New Hawaii Guy adds yet another step and takes the top of the defense, and a walk on (Keep an eye on Luke DelGaudio!) gets a chance to get on the field, where he turns into Pitt’s version of Jared Abbrederis. New coach Brennon Marion plants JUGS machines in random places all over campus and hires interns to shoot balls at the entire WR room all day, every day. Watchout!
The Fear: Defenses key on Addison and he posts another 60 catch, 600 yard season. Nobody else steps up, and Pitt’s receiving corps again leads the nation in drops. This would get Whipple fired by the way. Which maybe is actually a hope of some of y’alls.
I chuckle a bit when I see all the preseason hype that Lucas Krull is getting. Here’s a guy that had three passes thrown his way in 2021 and two of them clanged off his hands. Krull posted one catch for six yards before he got hurt. Let’s put him on a watch list!
The Hope: Oh the hope. The hope. The hope. The hope, my friends, is that Krull lives up to the ballyhoo. That Danny Moraga learns how to block and develops a rapport with Pickett in the passing game. That Somebody, Anybody, steps up and becomes a competent #3. (Kyi Wright we are calling your name…)
The Fear: Krull’s stone hands remain. Moraga just doesn’t mesh with the team and his (lack of) run blocking continues to keep him off the field (author’s note the day after I wrote this Moraga entered the transfer portal). We are stuck with (former) walk on fullback Jake Zilinskas as our best option.
Soooo…did you want the 5’9” guy who weighs 170 lbs soaking wet, the super senior who has shown nothing in four years, or the new guy who can’t pass block? Doesn’t really matter because Pitt’s going to have a 40/60 run/pass ratio anyway. Cheers!
The Hope: Pat Narduzzi locks Mark Whipple in a room, straps him to a chair, tapes his eyes open and forces him to watch game films of the 2018 offense on loop until Whipple breaks down into a blubbering mess. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Narduzzi was on record last week saying that “the offensive line will be better than we are getting credit for”. My confidential sources coming out of the spring camp said the OL was shaky. Neither of those opinions should be considered entirely credible.
The Hope: Old Dave Borbley still has something left in the tank. I mean, he transformed Carter Warren from a matador (steps aside and lets the bulls run by!) in 2019 into a serviceable ACC Left Tackle in 2020, and he did put two guys into the NFL…barely. (Jimmy Morrissey, 7th round, Las Vegas Raiders, Bryce Hargrove UDFA, Atlanta Falcons). Can he work a little more magic across the entire line?
Tapping Matt redshirt Sophomore Matt Goncalves as the starting Left Tackle and flipping Warren to swing tackle or over to the other side might be a good start. If you dig deep I think you’ll find the offense performed a tick better when Goncalves was on the field last year. Regardless of who starts at Left Tackle, the hope is that Pitt’s line improves over last year, opens up some running lanes like it did late in 2020 (FSU, GT games come to mind) and keeps Kenny Pickett upright.
The Fear: Borbs actually is washed up, the loss of Jimmy Morrissey as the glue that keept it all together is bigger than expected, and Pitt’s lack of recruiting on the OL comes back to bite them. The entire unit regresses, run blocking sucks and Pickett spends the entire season running for his life.
If there is one unit where you can expect Pitt to deliver year in and year out, it’s the defensive line. We hope. When you lose two All-American Defensive Ends nothing is a given, and questions abound. Does pre-season All-American Kalijah Cancey deliver? Does Deslin Alexandre step up now that he has the chance to be The Man? Does Dayon Hays break through? Does original paisano Habakkuk Baldonaldo turn into the Italian Stallion?
The Hope: All (or most) of those questions are answered with a resounding “yes”. Narduzzi, in his own coy way, mentioned that “yea we’ll probably have to blitz more this year”, but you have to know he was blowing smoke. Pitt’s D line accounted 26.5 sacks last year. The hope is that they can do that again.
The Fear: These guys read their own press clippings and coasted through summer workouts. A hungry wolf runs wild, and if these guys aren’t hungry, the only wolves running wild will be the opposing teams’ tailbacks.
Pitt may be the only team in America where an all-conference linebacker is coming off the bench. (Junior SirVocea Dennis is currently sitting behind one Senior -Cam Bright- and two Super Seniors -Chase Pine and Phil Campbell-). That’s real. The hope for this unit is also as real as any hope can be, and the downside fear is probably a pretty low probability (famous last words, right?).
But if you look closely there are some holes. All those tight ends down the seam last year? They usually had a linebacker a step and a half behind them.
The hope: The D-line reloads so these guys can roam free and make things happen. The top four LB’s accounted for 29 TFL last year and 15 sacks. Do we dare hope they could hit 40 and 20? (and figure out how to cover the Tight End too)
The fear: The injury bug bites hard and Pitt has to break in two new guys. Strength into a weakness quicker than you can say “Penn State Sucks!”. The D-line thing is a risk too. If the D-line takes step back, the LB’s are going to be spending a lot more time getting off of blocks rather than making plays. These super seniors better hope Charlie Partridge is on his game.
I’m afraid. I’m very afraid. Pitt lost three starters ladies and gents, and those three accounted for 73% of the team’s Interceptions. Yes Paris Ford’s early exit did allow Pitt the “luxury” of braking in Brandon Hill, so that will help. And yes Pitt gets back former starter Damarri Mathis who sat out last year due to a freak off-the-field accident.
And yes, Rashad Battle is a four star guy out of Georgia who is now a sophomore and *could* probably contribute. And yes, Pitt landed talented local son MJ Devonshire out of the transfer portal. But if the secondary was in good shape to begin with, would they have needed to go after Devonshire? Inquiring minds want to know…
The Hope: Battle is the real deal and turns into a lanky, lean lockdown corner. Mathis comes back at full strength and pushes the diminutive Marquis Williams back to slot corner which is probably a better fit for him overall. (I need to point out that Mathis is only listed as 2” taller at 5’11”, but I’ve never been a fan of 5’9” corners, no matter how high they can jump).
Brandon Hill develops a bit and makes us forget all about that Ford guy, and Devonshire picks up the defense quickly and provides a talent upgrade over the steady-if-unspectacular Eric Hallett (who in fairness did notch 20 solo tackles, 1 INT and 4 passes defended in limited action last season).
The Fear: Battle proves to be too green to make an impact, Mathis falls off his bike crossing Forbes Avenue, Williams has to go up against 6’5” receivers all season, Hill goes into a sophomore slump and Devonshire shows us why he never really saw the field and Kentucky. Lord help us if that all comes true.
Heeeyyyy! Pitt gets to break in a new kicker!!! Wooooooo!!!!!
The Hope: Pitt’s new kicker (whomever it may be), proves to be a lot more accurate then Mr. Kessman was inside of 40 yards. Our Aussie friend and Ray Guy Watch List nominee Kirk Christodoulou lays off the Fosters on Friday nights and continues to regularly drop bombs inside our opponents’ 20.
Kick coverage is sound. The punt returner (whoever that may be) doesn’t muff any of them. And Pitt finds a suitable replacement for DJ Turner’s kick return magic.
The Fear: Andre Powell spends so much time teaching Izzy Abanikanda to block that the wheels come off of the special teams. Yoy!