USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s offense grew stale over the course of his three years at the helm of the Trojans’ offense, and perhaps no one — outside of the USC running backs — suffered more than Kedon Slovis.
Harrell, a Mike Leach disciple, implemented the Air Raid offense at USC. It worked in his debut season in 2019. Although, it would be unfair to disregard the fact that Michael Pittman Jr. and Amon-Ra St. Brown racked up 1,000 yards each and Drake London debuted as a freshman. While Slovis excelled in a surprise role as the Trojans’ starter, garnering legitimate NFL Draft buzz, USC’s offense wasn’t exactly breaking records.
USC went 5-0 in the regular season in 2020, and Slovis performed well enough, but he still took somewhat of a step back as a sophomore — albeit in a COVID-19 impacted season. 2021 was a disaster for USC and Slovis, with head coach Clay Helton let go early in the season and Slovis struggling through a season of injuries on a poor team.
With Lincoln Riley brought in to lead the ship at USC, Slovis — and now fellow quarterback Jaxson Dart — entered the transfer portal seeking a fresh start. As much as Slovis was a breath of fresh air for the Trojans in 2019, the stifling SoCal heat suffocated him and his progress within the program.
Slovis wound up committing to Pitt in December, Harrell signed with West Virginia as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks on Monday and now if Dart lands in Morgantown, the Backyard Brawl could be a California affair.
However, while Slovis is expected to step in and immediately take over as Pitt’s heir apparent to Kenny Pickett and fill his huge shoes to a great degree, there will be uncertainty right up until the Backyard Brawl in September.
But Slovis is exactly what Pitt needs, and Pitt is exactly what he needs. It’s a great opportunity for both sides.
Away from the glitz and glam of USC, Slovis will have the opportunity to get back to work in a market that will not be breathing down his neck. Pittsburgh is a football city, sure, but the spectacle that is USC football is far behind. Without rumors of the head coach being fired and replaced by literally every relevant name in football or the next five-star recruit stepping in to take his job, Slovis will be able to just work.
With a full offseason, able to compete in spring ball and build rapport over the summer, Slovis has the opportunity to have a fairly normal offseason for the first time in college. Of course, Pitt still needs to hire an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, but it’s unlikely Pitt’s offense will look all that much different next season.
Slovis threw the ball at USC — a lot. The Trojans threw the ball 44 times per game in 2020 and 42 times per game in 2021, and while Pitt ran a pass-first offense in 2021, Slovis shouldn’t be throwing the ball that many times over the course of a game.
Of course, USC ran an Air Raid offense. So, he was going to be throwing the ball a lot, but USC’s lack of run game over the past two seasons, opposing defenses knew what USC was going to do and make life hard for Slovis.
Add in a team that was playing behind more in 2020 — despite winning often — and especially in 2021, and Slovis was forced to throw the ball more and take more and more hits from defenders — which may have led to his injuries over the course of the season.
Pitt’s offense with Slovis still should be pass-heavy, but with a greater emphasis on using burgeoning star Israel Abanikanda on the ground. With more talent around him, Slovis won’t have to be the focal point, he can be the facilitator and hit receivers coming open downfield.
With Abanikanda operating with a larger workload in 2020, along with both Vincent Davis and Rodney Hammond Jr. at times, defenses will need to account for a running game — which is something Slovis hasn’t had much of lately.
Whoever Narduzzi hires as offensive coordinator, which will likely be drawn out knowing him, will obviously leave his fingerprints all over the offensive scheme, but it’s one that shouldn’t change too much from last season. Pitt is still going to throw the ball a lot, target Jordan Addison and hopefully, use Abanikanda a bit more.
Slovis should be a perfect fit in the system. While no one will confuse him as a dynamic, do-it-all quarterback who will run away with the Heisman Trophy, Slovis’s strengths should allow for a high-scoring offense that doesn’t fall off a cliff post-Pickett.
In Slovis’s excellent freshman season, his pinpoint accuracy and touch on deep balls opened up the offense. With talented teammates at the skill positions around him, he got them the ball — simple concept. As the talent decreased at USC over the last two seasons, along with the offensive protection, Slovis’s play slipped with it.
With Pitt’s entire offensive line returning in 2022, a unit that protected Pickett well last season, Slovis will have more time to progress through reads and stand in the pocket than he did at USC. In 2021, Slovis’s average time to throw on drop backs was 2.69 seconds, Pitt’s offensive line gave Pickett 3.19 seconds.
Addison’s presence for Pitt is obvious, able to rack up 114 yards through the air and 28 on the ground with a third-string quarterback in the Peach Bowl, but Slovis will also have Konata Mumpfield, Jared Wayne, Gavin Bartholomew and a deep receiving corps to pass to.
While Slovis displays solid footwork, able to evade defenders with multidirectional movement in the pocket, his lack of mobility is concerning. He isn’t going to offer up any highlight plays a la the infamous Pickett Slide.
Slovis has run for -154 yards in his college career — including impressive back-to-back -57 yard seasons as a freshman and sophomore. Pitt knew what it was getting in Slovis, and it was never a runner. However, he isn’t a statue in the pocket. His anticipation and awareness in the pocket are good enough to extend plays, but he isn’t going to add much outside.
With a clean pocket, according to Pro Football Focus, Slovis was highly rated in all three seasons at USC. With pressure in his face, his play dropped off significantly. That’s common, but the degree to which his play suffered isn’t.
As a freshman, Slovis held a 90.8 grade with a clean pocket and 40.6 grade when pressured. He completed 52 percent of his throws for 665 yards and four touchdowns to two interceptions — but he committed 13 turnover-worthy plays with an average depth of target of 12.2 yards. That’s not uncommon for a true freshman who wasn’t expected to start stepping in as a Power Five starter.
And his grade spiked from a 40.6 to a 51.7 as a sophomore, cutting way down on turnover-worthy plays.
It’s not too surprising that his grade took a sharp downturn in 2021. With offensive line play that slipped all season, Slovis’s play slipped with it. On 72 dropbacks, he completed just 33 percent of his passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns to three interceptions.
However, Slovis has graded well across all three seasons at USC when facing a blitz (79.7 in 2019, 79.4 in 2020, 73.1 in 2021). So, he’s able to read and identify blitzes well enough, agile enough to step out of pressure, but when the pocket breaks down, his effectiveness drops dramatically.
Even with limited mobility, Slovis has shown that he is capable of navigating the pocket when under pressure.
Pickett’s 94.3 grade with a clean pocket dropped to 60.0 when under pressure in 2021, for reference. Pickett’s grade under pressure in 2020? 41.0. Pitt’s offensive line will run it back once again in 2022…
With a more talented cast around him at Pitt in 2022, Slovis should be able to showcase the talent that allowed him to garner NFL Draft hype over the last handful of seasons. Even in an up-and-down 2021 season, Slovis’s best area was throwing downfield.
He completed 44 percent of his passes beyond 20 yards for 690 yards and six touchdowns to just two interceptions. He also showed excellent decision-making and deep ball prowess with 13 big-time throws to just three turnover-worthy plays. Addison was one of the top deep ball wide receivers in college football last season.
The road to success with Slovis is there. If the offensive line can protect Slovis as it did Pickett, Slovis has the poise, accuracy and deep-ball threat needed and the ability to supply his talented teammates with chances to keep Pitt’s offense elite. With a very talented offense back for Pitt, Slovis is in a great situation to reignite his NFL hype.
However, Slovis shouldn’t be confused with Pickett. They’re two different quarterbacks. But both have the ability to lead Pitt.