Pitt redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tre Tipton will miss the entire 2017 football season, the team announced on Monday.
It’s a big blow to the offense that was expected to use Tipton in an increased role this season after getting his feet wet and proving his meddle in 2016.
The thing that Tipton excelled at last season was intermediate routes. Pitt had Jester Weah as a deep threat. He averaged 24.2 yards per catch. Underneath, Quadree Henderson was a catch-and-run specialist, while George Aston and James Conner caught check downs, swings and screens.
In between, when the Panthers were looking for a 10-yard gain or a big first down, it usually came down to tight end Scott Orndoff and wide receivers Dontez Ford and Tipton. They each averaged between 11 and 16 yards per catch and were the chain-movers that Pitt needed to stretch together big drives.
Now, they’re all gone. Tipton was slotted to inherit Ford’s role as an inside receiver that could run good routes and makes tough catches in traffic. With the tight end position missing both of its top players from 2016 in Orndoff and Jaymar Parrish, the expectation was that Pitt would end up playing a lot more three-receiver sets in 2017.
Here’s an example from last season of how Tipton was effective in that role. Pitt has three receivers to the right of the formation and Orndoff at the top. Chawntez Moss remains in the backfield as an extra blocker. Weah sucks in the corner on a short route, which lets Tipton beat the safety over the top for a touchdown.
That’s a 15-yard pass and those are Tipton’s bread-and-butter routes. Without him, Ford and Orndoff, Pitt doesn’t have a lot of experienced options to shoulder the load.
Redshirt sophomore Chris Clark figures to be the starting tight end, but the Panthers have had trouble keeping him on the field since he arrived as a transfer from UCLA before the 2016 season. He had a knee injury that kept him from practicing while he served a year for transferring in 2016, then missed Pitt’s spring game due to injury this year. Clark has a lot of talent and was highly recruited out of high school and as a transfer, but he remains unproven.
That’s the mantra at wide receiver, as well. Sophomore Maurice French and redshirt junior Rafael Araujo-Lopes got decent amounts of playing time last season, but most of their efforts were in the Henderson role of running jet sweeps and catching short passes instead of down-the-field passing.
The best option might end up being sophomore Aaron Mathews. The 6-foot-4 Clairton product has the size and speed to be another Weah, and not just a possession receiver, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do both. Mathews spent the spring working on catching balls in traffic and getting the natural toughness that allowed him to be recruited as a safety out of high school and cover kicks for the Panthers to translate to the offensive side of the ball. Mathews also brings the added bonus of being an excellent blocking receiver, which would allow offensive coordinator Shawn Watson to more comfortably use more three-receiver sets.
Beyond the use of Mathews, the Panthers could simply shy away from three-receiver sets and use more multiple-back looks. With Moss, Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison all experienced returning players and promising freshmen A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley in addition to blocking stud Aston, the backfield is probably the deepest offensive position for Pitt.
Tipton’s loss will be a big one for Pitt for this season, but there is some good news for the future. His redshirt season in 2015 was also due to an injury, so Tipton should be able to apply for a sixth season and be eligible to play in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
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