When DeKalb and Dartmouth graduate Derek Kyler talked to Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi for the first time, the quarterback and former Daily Chronicle Athlete of the Year was surprised by a lot of things.
He was surprised he was considering playing again after graduating from Dartmouth. He was surprised the Panthers, who signed high-profile junior transfer Kedon Slovis from USC, were interested in him. And he was surprised to be discussing dining choices in DeKalb with Narduzzi, who was an assistant at NIU from 2000-2002.
“It was definitely the first thing he talked about, because I had no idea,” Kyler said. “The first phone call he was like ‘Yeah, I heard you’re from DeKalb,’ kind of giving me the whole rundown of when he was there. Talking about all the different places in DeKalb, obviously Fatty’s cause it’s big with the NIU football team. It was cool to be able to relate to him about that.”
Kyler said that DeKalb connection didn’t really play into his decision to transfer to Pitt for one more college season. It was the chance to eventually become a coach that intrigued Kyler in May, after he had decided a few months earlier he was going to step away from the game.
He had explored the transfer portal after he used up his eligibility at Dartmouth – the Ivy League does not grant redshirts. He still had a year of eligibility at other schools since he did not play as a freshman.
But after about a month in the portal, he decided to start putting his degree to work. He said he felt accomplished in the sport, going 18-2 as a starter at Dartmouth with a 164.55 career passer efficiency, an Ivy League record. Plus he helped turn around a perennially struggling DeKalb team into a playoff squad. Kyler guided the Barbs to the team’s first state semifinal appearance in 36 years in 2016.
“I realized I was very fortunate, very content with how my football career unfolded up to that point,” Kyler said. “I had a lot of success in DeKalb with my team, then I got to Dartmouth and I think we had the best run they ever had in program history. Part of me was very content with what I had done with football. I was fully content to use what I had gone to Dartmouth for in the long run, which was that degree.”
So Kyler pulled his name from the portal and would shoot down coaches as they reached out to him. But when Pitt offensive grad assistant Jonathan DiBiaso contacted him, Kyler listened. He asked if Kyler was interested in coaching.
Pitt’s new offensive coordinator, Frank Cignetti Jr., had extensive NFL experience as a quarterback coach, working with QBs like Sam Bradford, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
Kyler said after the season is over, he’ll be able to work as a grad assistant for the Panthers.
“That was really what kind of interested in me,” Kyler said. “I feel like that really kind of opened doors to every avenue I really wanted and give me a lot more time to figure it out. It really came down to me taking the visit, and the culture I saw here and how nice the guys were... it was kind of a win-win situation for me coming here.”
Kyler arrived in Pittsburgh in mid-July and has been working on learning the playbook and working out with the team.
He said he knows his role, even if it is a new one for him – an experienced veteran who is coming in as the backup. He said he knows Slovis is the starter.
“I think a lot of people were confused with that aspect of it. I was actually confused when they told me they needed a quarterback,” Kyler said. “I knew they had Kedon, knew he was coming in. But they said they just needed depth. That’s really all their looking for, a veteran who can help in their QB room. It’s a different role for me. I’m always going to be ready to compete, but he came here for a reason.”
While he was in the portal in January, Kyler said he didn’t entertain the notion of a return to DeKalb and NIU. Aside from the Huskies having a Michigan State transfer at QB entering his second season in Rocky Lombardi, the team also features two former DeKalb teammates of Kyler’s in wide receiver Cole Tucker and cornerback Jordan Gandy.
“It’s always been joked around, everyone telling me I should go to NIU, I should go to NIU,” Kyler said. “I mean, I know the team pretty well because I was always around. But I know Rocky, I love Rocky, he’s got that role locked down over there. I’m always rooting for Cole, Gandy, all my boys. But it never crossed my mind and I don’t think it crossed theirs either.”