It’s funny how one season can change the course of a storied, historically great program, but if Kenny Pickett did anything during his super-senior at Pitt, he breathed life back into a program that desperately needed it.
Pitt has produced some incredible talent since the turn of the century, with Aaron Donald, Larry Fitzgerald, Darrelle Revis, LeSean McCoy, James Conner, Jordan Whitehead, Brian O’Neill, Andy Lee and more successfully making the jump to the NFL, but there hasn’t been a quarterback at Pitt like Pickett since Dan Marino.
Just the fact that Pickett’s name can be uttered in the same breath as Marino, and while some may scoff, Pickett’s earned it, is incredible on its own. But his Heisman-worthy, ACC-winning campaign transformed Pitt unlike any of the others in this century. He’s a game-changer. And his impact on Pitt likely extends far beyond his time as a Panther.
But! But. Pitt’s offense next season, while it may not score 43 points per game, should still be enough to guide the Panthers toward 10 wins and another berth in the ACC championship game.
Let’s take a quick look around the ACC. In the Coastal, of course, Pitt is the reigning champ. Miami will enter its first season under new coach Mario Cristobal, with star freshman Tyler Van Dyke gaining another offseason of experience, but the ‘Canes are hit-or-miss every season. Virginia Tech also enters the new season with a new head coach and no quarterback. Virginia will also enter with a new head coach, but star quarterback Brennan Armstrong will return. Georgia Tech and Duke… yeah. North Carolina will lose Sam Howell to the NFL, but head coach Mack Brown has taken the ACC by storm as a master recruiter. His success on the field, however, hasn’t quite added up.
With Miami and North Carolina looking to be the biggest threats in the Coastal, Pitt should be the favorite.
In the Atlantic division, despite Clemson seemingly hitting its stride as the season came to a close, Wake Forest should be the favorite to repeat. Star Sam Hartman returns, and head coach Dave Clawson is receiving his national respect. But it would be foolish to count out Dabo Swinney and Clemson, even with both coordinators leaving this offseason.
The Atlantic is a tougher division, with North Carolina State returning star quarterback Devin Leary, Boston College returning star quarterback Phil Jurkovec and Florida State and Louisville both figuring to gain more consistency.
However, Pitt should not only be expected to win the Coastal but win the ACC once again. And it all starts with the offense.
Yes, Pickett is done. He will be impossible to completely replace. But with USC transfer Kedon Slovis transferring into the program, having been the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2019 and first team All-Pac-12 in 2020, he will enter 2022 with high expectations.
Slovis’s stock has taken a bit of a hit in 2021, but he produced two excellent seasons as the starting quarterback of the Trojans. With an increase of talent and stability around him at Pitt — a setup similar to USC’s 2019 offense with wide receivers like Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown and Drake London — he should be better equipped to display the talent that made him a top NFL prospect.
In his first two seasons starting for USC, Slovis threw for 5,423 yards and 47 touchdowns on 459-of-656 passing attempts (70 percent completion) at 8.1 yards per completion with just 16 interceptions.
And, it’s fair to say that without Pickett’s success in 2021, Slovis likely doesn’t come to Pitt. Pickett’s on- and off-the-field impact cannot fully be measured yet.
While Pitt doesn’t have a bell cow, lead back as of this moment, the three-headed monster of Vincent Davis, Israel Abanikanda and Rodney Hammond Jr. is full of potential.
The youthful duo of Abanikanda and Hammond, in particular, points toward the future of Pitt football, but all three backs made their impact in 2021 — and all three will once again form a running back by committee in 2022.
Davis provides the blocking back, Abanikanda provides the potential breakout star and Hammond is the X-factor.
Jordan Addison was the best wide receiver in college football this season, winning the Biletnikoff Award to confirm it. His rise from freshman sensation to a wideout who helped Pickett just as much as Pickett helped him this season has established Addison as one of the top football players in the country.
Despite losing top options like Taysir Mack and Lucas Krull, Pitt’s receiving corps is full of young, up-and-coming options. Jared Wayne and Jaylon Barden provide a healthy complement to Addison, and the freshman duo of Jaden Bradley and Myles Alston has been touted as being ready to make an impact.
The most impactful addition though is Akron transfer wide receiver Konata Mumpfield. A true freshman who excelled on a very bad Akron squad (team-leading 63 receptions for 751 yards and eight touchdowns), Mumpfield will immediately step into Pitt’s offense as a high-impact player.
With Krull leaving for the NFL, freshman All-American Gavin Bartholomew will take the next steps toward superstardom. With a stellar true freshman season in the books, Bartholomew will provide a safety blanket for Pitt’s next quarterback.
With three capable to more-than-capable running backs, the best wide receiver in college football, a solid support corps with an additional difference-maker at wide receiver and a freshman All-American tight end, what could make it better?
Maybe… the entire offensive line returning for another season? Yes, Pitt’s veteran offensive line is returning. All five members — Carter Warren, Marcus Minor, Owen Drexel, Jake Kradel and Gabe Houy — will all return for one more ride. And that decision is likely the most important of the offseason.
With the offensive line secured, the foundation of Pitt’s offense remains sturdy. While replacing Pickett, Mack, Krull and others will be a tall task, the pieces are in place. Even without an offensive coordinator or wide receivers coach in place, Pitt’s offense hasn’t missed a beat — excluding the Peach Bowl — and that’s a testament to both Narduzzi and Pitt’s success this season.
Potential Offensive Depth Chart
WR – Jared Wayne / Jalen Bradley
WR – Konata Mumpfield / Myles Alston / Addison Copeland
Slot – Jordan Addison / Jaylon Barden
LT – Carter Warren
LG – Marcus Minor
C – Owen Drexel
RG – Jake Kradel
RT – Gabe Houy
TE – Gavin Bartholomew
QB – Kedon Slovis
RB – Israel Abanikanda / Rodney Hammond Jr. / Vincent Davis