PITTSBURGH – It’s no secret Pitt’s offensive line has had its share of struggles in recent years.
Left tackle Carter Warren says the offensive line had just an “OK” year in 2020 and believes there’s a lot the unit needs to work on, though he pointed to one area in particular where he thinks the offensive line could improve. “I feel like the main focus should be working on the run game,” Warren said. “Now once we get that run game down pat, then everything thing else will fall into place.”
Heading into 2021, the unit lost two veteran starters to the NFL as the departures of two-year starter Bryce Hargrove at left guard, and four-year starter Jimmy Morrissey at center left the Panthers with some large holes to fill.
Senior Owen Drexel is the heir to Morrissey at center, with coach Pat Narduzzi saying this spring: “Owen is the guy right now.”
“I’d say Owen Drexel stepped up big this winter. I think he’ll be out there with me Day 1,” quarterback Kenny Pickett told the media at the time.
Drexel started one game at center last season when Morrissey was shifted to right guard due to injuries on the offensive line.
Maryland transfer Marcus Minor seems poised to take over for Hargrove at left guard after spending much of the spring working at that position. As a Terrapin, Minor made 17 starts, with 13 at tackle and four at guard.
The rest of the starting offensive line from 2020 – Warren, right guard Jake Kradel and right tackle Gabe Houy – all return this year. Kradel has 15 starts under his belt over the last two seasons and seems likely to be the starter once again but junior Blake Zubovic made two starts last year and could challenge Kradel during camp.
Warren and Houy may have to contend with sophomore Matt Goncalves to keep their starting jobs. Warren and Houy have started 21 and 15 games, respectively, during their Pitt careers but Goncalves started the final three games of 2020 at left tackle. His efforts last year earned Goncalves Freshman All-American honors from the Football Writers Association of America.
Senior Keldrick Wilson and redshirt freshman Branson Taylor both served as reserve offensive tackles last season and will likely see time rotating in for the starters again this year, while sophomore Jason Collier Jr. and redshirt freshman Michael Statham Jr. will be looking to see the field as they both have yet to play in any games at Pitt. Trey Andersen, Terrence Enos, Kyle Fugedi and Terrence Moore are the newest members of the offensive line, all members of the 2021 recruiting class.
For the past several seasons, the defensive line has arguably been Pitt’s best unit. Now the line is facing the challenge of replacing two consensus All-American defensive ends as Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver are both headed to the NFL. The task is daunting, but the Panthers have plenty of options at the position.
“We got a lot of guys in our room that can make plays, a lot of guys who work very hard,” senior defensive end Deslin Alexandre said this spring. “We’re well-prepared. Coach (Charlie) Partridge teaches us very good techniques. We’ll all be ready.”
During spring drills, Narduzzi said Alexandre, John Morgan III and Habakkuk Baldonado are the top three guys at defensive end.
It seems likely that Alexandre will get the nod at one of the defensive end positions. He’s the most experienced defensive end on the team after starting all 13 games in 2019, replacing Weaver who missed the season with an injury. Alexandre filled in for Weaver admirably, notching 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. He played in all 11 games in 2020, starting two, and posted 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and a fumble recovery.
Morgan might have the edge over Baldonado for the other starting defensive end spot. He’s played in 27 games over three seasons at Pitt, including every game of the past two years. Morgan served as a reserve defensive end during that time and in the last two seasons, he’s compiled 11 TFLs and six sacks.
Baldonado should be the top defensive end off of the bench despite missing seven games last season due to injury. In 2019, Baldonado had 5.5 TFLs, four sacks and a fumble recovery in 13 games. Sophomore Dayon Hayes could see more time this season after playing in five games last year. The Westinghouse product had 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble as a true freshman. Freshman Nahki Johnson, a four-star recruit from West Mifflin, enrolled early and participated in spring drills making it more likely that he’ll see the field this fall.
Returning players Bam Brima, Nate Temple, Emmanuel Belgrave, and Sam Williams will provide depth at the position and be joined by four-star recruit Naquan Brown from Virginia Beach.
Time will tell where Pitt’s highest-rated 2021 recruit will play on the defensive line. Elliot Donald seems more likely to wind up playing defensive tackle than end, though he played both positions in high school. Donald was ranked the No. 8 defensive tackle by Rivals and No. 17 by 247Sports as well as being ranked the No. 9 defensive end by ESPN.
The Panthers have five defensive tackles with starting experience returning, giving them a plethora of options. Keyshon Camp, Devin Danielson, Calijah Kancey, David Green and Tyler Bentley all have starts under their belts. Camp, a fifth-year senior, has the most experience of the group, but missed five games last year with injury. He also missed 12 games in 2019 after sustaining an ACL tear in the opening contest. Camp is a favorite to start inside as long as his health obliges.
Kancey is the other likely starter at defensive tackle after playing in 11 games last year and starting the final four. He racked up 27 tackles, seven TFLs and 1.5 sacks. His play garnered national attention as he was named a Freshman All-American by several outlets. On Monday, Kancey was named to the Bednarik Award watch list for the best defensive player in college football.
Danielson, Bentley and Green can also make cases for the starting job and the starters may be decided by who shines during training camp. Sophomore Deandre Jules played in six games last season while junior Noah Palmer saw time in two games. Freshman Dorien Ford from Baldwin will round out the position.
Though Jones and Weaver are gone, their influence is still felt among their former teammates who played with the two.
“Those guys showed me the way. They showed me how to watch film, how to work hard,” Alexandre said. “I’m ready for it.”