Pitt’s wide receivers’ room grew leaps and bounds under Brennan Marion in 2021, with Jordan Addison emerging as the nation’s leading receiver and wideouts like Jared Wayne and Jaylon Barden just behind him. It’s a deep, talented wide receivers’ room — one strengthened by Akron’s Konata Mumpfield arriving in January — that is now being passed off to new wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Tiquan Underwood.
There isn’t a wide receiver on Pitt’s roster — with the exception of Mumpfield — who wasn’t impacted by Marion in one way or the other, but he’s in Texas now. Underwood has taken over, and he realizes as the new guy, Pitt’s wideouts are still feeling him out. But at the end of the day, he wants to help them grow into players who can follow in his footsteps.
“When I met with the receivers, one of the first things I said is, ‘Look, I’ve been in your shoes before. You guys didn’t sign up to play for me. I dealt with that in college, I know how you feel, but I’m a resource for you guys. I want to elevate everyone in this room, I want to help you do better. Whatever you’ve done in the past, I want to help you grow even better.’,” Underwood said at Pitt’s South Side facility Wednesday.
While Underwood was starring at Rutgers in the 2000s, he went through three different wide receivers coach himself while he pursued his eventual NFL dream, so he does get it. He understands that building that bond takes time, that strong relationships grow through open, direct and honest conversation.
The work on the field — whether at practice or on gamedays — will come. The first step is building those relationships and his first task was to reach out to John Ford Jr., Pitt’s assistant director for football operations, to find out some pivotal information: birthdays.
“As soon as I got here, I asked John Ford, I said, ‘Can you shoot me all the wide receivers’ cell phone numbers?’” Underwood said. “No. 1, so I could contact them, and No. 2, I need their birthdays because we all were born on a certain day, and it feels good to be celebrated and acknowledged. Some people’s upbringings sometimes you didn’t have birthdays or maybe you didn’t get a birthday cake or whatever situation is, so I look forward to bringing that here.”
While Underwood doesn’t bake the cakes himself — he doesn’t have that many skills, he laughed — he does favor ice cream cakes for all of the birthdays celebrated by Pitt’s wide receivers. Carvel’s ice cream cakes actually.
Rutgers’ wide receivers’ room in 2021 was renowned for the closeness of the tight-knit group, headlined by Bo Melton, and even in a short period of time in Pittsburgh, Underwood has gotten a pretty good idea of just how close the current room is already.
“We had built something pretty special in the receiver room at Rutgers and coming here, they have something very similar,” Underwood said. “My style, I just try to tell the guys, everyone is running their own race. So, don’t worry about the next man, worry about yourself. How can you get better today? We’re all here for the same common goal. … And we have to do that together.”
The common goal for Underwood and Pitt football is another ACC championship and then a College Football Playoff championship. It’s a goal that’s accomplished by just one team every season, one that requires the collaborative efforts of an entire football team. But even at the positional level, Underwood is aiming high. How much higher than having the Biletnikoff winner? Well, not just the best wide receiver but the best wide receiving corps in the entire country.
“I’m not shy about saying it, I want to have the best receiving corps in the country. Period,” Underwood said. “And we can do that with the people we have on the offensive side of the ball. We can do that, but to do something great, you have to put in the work. So, I challenged those guys.”
While Underwood is now at Pitt, already prepping and preparing for spring ball with new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr., it wasn’t easy for him to leave his post as Rutgers’ wide receivers’ coach. At the end of the day, head coach Pat Narduzzi provided an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up.
“I would just say coach Narduzzi No. 1, and just what he’s built here,” Underwood said about being drawn to Pitt. “Last year, they were the ACC champions. The culture, the people that are here, I was really drawn to the people personally. Not that – the place that I left had great people also but having that first conversation with coach Narduzzi over the phone, it just felt right.”
The connection already established between Narduzzi and Underwood is strong, with the pair bonding over the shared interest of direct, honest conversation. The toughest question that Narduzzi actually asked during the job interview actually came at the end, with the job offer itself.
“I would say when he offered the job,” Underwood said when asked about his interview process. “Because Rutgers is my alma mater, I played there, coached with coach Schiano, played for coach Schiano and to leave the school, that’s home. That’s where my heart is, it will always be there, but when he offered the job, to me, it was like, ‘Man, this is real, and if I do decide to go to Pitt, I know that some people might not take that well, but at the end of the day, I had to do what’s right for my family and also for myself and my career.”
Underwood’s official title of wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator gives him the most professional responsibility he’s had during his coaching career. That added role, serving as Pitt’s passing game coordinator, is a responsibility that helped push Pitt over the edge as he continues to chase his professional growth and added experience.
“What that means, No. 1, I’m responsible for the wide receiver unit, and No. 2, just more responsibility when it comes to the pass game,” Underwood said. “More of a voice, more of an input, and I look forward to collabing with coach Cignetti and also learning from coach Cignetti.”
The opportunity to have open dialogue and assume more of a role in building Pitt’s offensive strategy when it comes to attacking defensive secondaries with Pitt’s loaded wide receiving corps is a first, but it’s an exciting prospect. In coming in together with Cignetti, the offense is being built together — Underwood has already told the wide receivers, everyone’s in this process together, players and coaches.
And while Pitt’s wide receivers will still be putting up huge numbers, they’ll be blocking for the new-look rushing attack too — or they won’t be playing.
“They did a good job in the run game, and what I try to tell the wideouts, when we’re running routes or scoring touchdowns, the o-linemen and the running backs are blocking for us. So, in the run game, we have to return the favor … if you want to play receiver here at Pitt, you have to block in the run game.”
It’s not exactly a new era of the Pitt offense under Cignetti and Underwood, but the accountability, respect and passion for the game will start at the top in 2022 — and the ultimate yet again is the win an ACC title and eventually a national title.
In Underwood’s relatively short time as a coach, a year at Lafayette College, a year with the Miami Dolphins and two years with Rutgers (as the wide receivers coach at both collegiate stops), he’s established himself as a young, energetic voice that’s connected well with his players. Pitt is the next stop, and he’s excited to bring that same flair to Pittsburgh.