CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When it was announced that Pitt was hiring Mark Whipple as its new offensive coordinator this past offseason, Maurice Ffrench went to the film room.
He wanted to familiarize himself with the x’s and o’s that the 62-year-old implemented at UMass, which finished 14th in FBS in passing yards per-game last season.
And then Ffrench started focusing on his position and saw Andy Isabella, who led the nation with 1,698 receiving yards on 102 catches. Isabella, who was drafted in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals, also scored 14 touchdowns.
Ffrench lit up while watching Isabella and seeing his production. And then he met Whipple, who he called “a mastermind” on Thursday at the ACC Kickoff at the Westin in Charlotte. Ffrench has been on-board with the coordinator switch since then, and he’s looking forward to himself and Pitt’s offense taking a leap this season.
“(Whipple) just moves the ball all around. He makes sure he gets his players involved. So, I’m definitely loving his offense,” Ffrench said. “I just watched (Isabella’s) film, his reps, to figure out how to be a better player and fit in that offense correctly.”
Ffrench, who was recently named to the watch-list for the Maxwell Award, comes into this season as one of the elder statesmen in Pitt’s receiving corps. He’s one of three seniors on the wide receiver depth chart, but finished last season as the team’s leader in receiving touchdowns with six, and was second in receptions and receiving yards, hauling in 35 passes for 515 yards.
But the 5-foot-11 product of New Brunswick, New Jersey also has a special relationship with starting quarterback Kenny Pickett. The two grew up about 30 minutes away from each other and have been connecting for touchdowns since they played seven-on-seven games together in high school. Even now, when they’re at home kicking it with family while on breaks from school and football, they still find a field to meet up at.
He’s hoping that extra bit of chemistry with Pickett, and some x’s and o’s magic from Whipple, will make Pitt’s offense into a high-powered scoring machine.
“Every time I’m with (Whipple), I try to pick his brain,” Ffrench said. “He been through a lot of football, he knows a lot. With us, he goes through everything, make sure that we know the details of a route, why we’re running this route, making sure we do it to full speed, full detail. We’re just taking that and going a hundred miles speed with it. We just trying to have a way better offense and come out stronger than we did last year.”
Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said Thursday that the Panthers are still a football team that will lean on its running game, but replacing Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison – who each eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards last season – will be no easy task. And if Pickett, Ffrench and the rest of the receiving corps improve and click early, and the passing game becomes a real threat, Pitt may be inclined to switch up its offensive identity a bit.
“I want to be better at throwing it, but we still have to be able to run the ball,” Narduzzi said. “If we throw for 500 yards and run for 32, I guarantee you that we lose.”
Nevertheless, even if Ffrench doesn’t approach Isabella-like numbers, he’s proven that he can impact the game with his top-flight speed and play-making abilities in other ways.
He ran the ball a bit last season, covering 164 yards and scoring twice on 19 carries. Ffrench was also a superb kick returner in 2018, notching a pair of touchdowns on 20 returns. His average of 27.4 yards per-return attempt ranked first in the ACC.
This season, Ffrench will have another avenue to rack up yards and potentially score, as he’s been named as the teams starting punt returner on the preseason depth chart. He caught just one punt last season, losing two yards on its return.
“It’s nothing different for me. I’ve done it since high school, there’s always just been someone ahead of me there. I just had to wait my turn,” Ffrench said. “Punt returning is way faster. The blocks are right there and you have to adjust as soon as you can. Kick returning, you have time to read and 20 yards or so before you can really get hit.”
Added Narduzzi: “It’s nice when you have a guy (returning kicks) who has confidence. When he took that one back against Notre Dame, that wasn’t against a bunch of slow guys. He’s got a chance to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.”
Indeed. Ffrench’s quick feet was one of the first things Pitt cornerback Dane Jackson pointed out when he was asked about his teammate, but he also mentioned his brain too.
“(Ffrench is) fast, he’s physical and he’s very smart,” Jackson said. “I think a lot of people underestimate his physicality just because he’s fast. He’s able to push off at the top of those routes, get that separation he needs to get a good judgment on the ball.”
For Whipple, who has previously coached at Brown, Miami, and with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns, Ffrench’s combination of pace, sharpness, toughness and sure hands might just be the weapon he needs for Pitt’s offense at wide receiver.