PITTSBURGH — Maurice Ffrench is a special athlete. Pitt has known that since they first recruited the 5-foot-11, 185-pound wide receiver from New Brunswick, N.J.
Ffrench was a track star in addition to playing football at New Brunswick High School and he has the jets to prove it. He showed off his explosiveness with an 11-yard jet sweep for a touchdown on Saturday.
Ffrench has always had speed — he once ran a 10.69 in the 100 meters — but it’s taken some time for him to develop the instincts of a wide receiver. Ffrench played mostly running back in high school. Pitt’s slot position has the unique characteristic of doing a lot of both, and Ffrench’s abilities fit it to a tee.
That’s why head coach Pat Narduzzi decided to take the redshirt off and get Ffrench some action two weeks ago against North Carolina. That, and the workload on starting slot receiver Quadree Henderson.
“Quadree has been a horse,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the win over Marshall. “With Ffrench, we decided to take his redshirt off two weeks ago because we felt like we needed him. We were trying to save him, but we felt like we were wearing [Henderson] out a little bit with kick returns and punt returns and all the work he’s getting.”
Filling in for Henderson, Ffrench has taken up the same role in Pitt’s offense: part distraction, part big play waiting to happen. The Panthers use that position in motion extensively, often having Henderson, Ffrench or Tre Tipton double back and return to the same spot, or take a handoff while in motion.
More-so than most receiver positions, it requires an intimate knowledge of the playbook and exactly where and when the players are supposed to go. That makes it all that much more impressive that Ffrench has been able to crack the lineup as a true freshman.
“I was an just an athlete (in high school), so they used me wherever they needed me,” Ffrench said. “I would say the hardest thing to adjust to would be just moving around, because the position I play is all over the field. Understanding where to go and what route is pretty hard.”
Ffrench assumed that when he didn’t play in the first few weeks, he would redshirt the season. So when he got word that he would get in against North Carolina, he was surprised.
“I was shocked, and then I started going crazy with my playbook even more so I wouldn’t have any mess-ups,” he said. “It was crazy.”
Ffrench isn’t the only former track star on the receiving corps, as Henderson and Jester Weah both also ran in high school and Weah was a state champion. Ffrench said it’s helped with his speed and athleticism.
“It definitely got my speed up,” he said. “At the beginning of track, I was running 11 (seconds), by the end of my senior year, I was running in the 10.5 (second range). It definitely improved my running.”
Ffrench said he’s faster than Henderson — the two have raced — and if it came down to it, either he or Weah would be the fastest receiver on the team.
But it was actually a football play that helped him score his first touchdown. He credited his high school coach for helping teach him the spin move that propelled him into the end zone. It’s a place that Ffrench certainly didn’t expect to find himself this early in his career.
“I didn’t think I would ever touch the endzone. I was so confused when I got in. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m still in shock to this day. I watch the video and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ I just have to keep my composure and act like I’ve been there.”