When Pat Narduzzi spoke to the media in January, the only scheme that he explicitly ruled out for Pitt’s offense going forward was a triple option. Pitt isn’t going to look like Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech teams, but it won’t be the same team from 2021 either.
A lot has occurred since Pitt’s ACC championship win over Wake Forest on Dec. 4. Mark Whipple and Brennan Marion have exited, and Frank Cignetti Jr. (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach) and Tiquan Underwood (wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator) have entered in their places. Kenny Pickett has left for the NFL, and Kedon Slovis — along with a couple of high-profile transfers — has arrived.
It’s going to be a new Pitt offense in 2022, and it will be shaped by Cignetti, Underwood and the strength of Pitt’s returning and arriving offensive cast.
In Cignetti’s first tenure as Pitt’s offensive coordinator in 2009, instead of forcing the offense to adapt to a new, rigid offensive system, he decided to build his offense around the personnel already in place.
Bill Stull matured from a quarterback who threw more interceptions than touchdowns the year before to one of the highest-rated quarterbacks in college football. Dion Lewis immediately jumped onto the scene as one of the best running backs in college football as a true freshman. And misused receiving threats in Jon Baldwin and Dorin Dickerson were finally unlocked as key pieces in Pitt’s offense.
Pitt’s 2009 offense scored 32 points per game, won nine regular-season games and concluded the season with a win over North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. And it was made possible by Cignetti building his offense around the pieces already in place at Pitt.
The playmakers in Pitt’s offense for 2022 are apparent — and plentiful. With the Biletnikoff winner in Jordan Addison leading the way, he’s already one of the best players in college football. Addison’s blend of route running, speed and strength allowed him to serve as a weapon who could make plays from any area on the field in 2021. With third-string Davis Beville playing against Michigan State in the Peach Bowl, all he had to do was recognize where Addison was on the field and throw in his direction — and Addison was more than likely going to haul the pass in.
Jared Wayne and Konata Mumpfield provide a legitimate three-headed monster at wide receiver and young players like Jaylon Barden, Jalen Bradley, Myles Alston and 2022 signees Che Nwabuko and Addison Copeland will all fight for continued playing time in Pitt’s pass-happy system.
Israel Abanikanda should be the next of the breakout stars at Pitt, but he’s joined by Vincent Davis and Rodney Hammond Jr. to offer Pitt three starting-caliber running backs.
Gavin Bartholomew returns after a freshman All-American campaign, and he’ll line up out wide and along Pitt’s entirely returning offensive line that features left tackle Carter Warren — who turned down the allure of the NFL this season.
And perhaps most importantly, Kedon Slovis has arrived as the heir apparent — seemingly, as a quarterback competition has been promised through the spring and summer — to Kenny Pickett.
With Cignetti’s success in recruiting Phil Jurkovec to Boston College from Notre Dame and molding him into an NFL-caliber quarterback, he’s a uniquely qualified candidate to work with USC transfer Slovis. Cignetti has spent a lot of time with a lot of quarterbacks, at the college and NFL level, so he’s more than capable of quick adjustments and building relationships.
How Slovis will be utilized by Cignetti should come in tandem with his greatest strength: using his superb accuracy to get the ball to Pitt’s offensive weapons.
In looking at Cignetti’s two year run as the Boston College’s offensive coordinator, it was a tale of two seasons. In 2020, Boston College experienced an aerial renaissance as Cignetti and Jurkovec effectively ran BC’s pass-first offense.
Jurkovec threw for 2,558 yards and 17 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He only completed 61 percent of his 336 passing attempts, but he led the BC offense to the third-best passing offense in the ACC. With a stud lead receiver in Zay Flowers and an athletic tight end in Hunter Long, some pieces were in place, but inconsistent offensive line play and the absence of a rushing attack limited the overall efficiency of BC’s offense.
A season’s worth of injuries to Jurkovec hamstrung the BC offense in 2021, but if there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that Cignetti is going to stretch the field in his pro-style offense and get the ball to his top players. As Cignetti continued to attempt to push the ball downfield even with backup Dennis Grosel.
Narduzzi said earlier this year that Pitt’s 2022 offense will be new, with aspects of both Pitt’s and Boston College’s 2021 offenses. And it will all come down to building those relationships and forming a system around the pieces already in place at Pitt.
Slovis, the likely Week 1 starter against West Virginia on Sept. 1, has operated solely in an Air Raid offense — largely to great success — during his career at USC. He’s not someone who’s going to offer much with his legs outside of the pocket, but he’s clean in the pocket, reads defenses well and perhaps most importantly, he’s accurate.
Despite not boasting the type of cannon-like arm strength that jumps off the screen, Slovis can make every throw on the football field — and his arm strength will be more than enough to run Cignetti’s offense.
Like Pickett before him, Pitt’s offense in 2022 is going to run through Slovis. His ability to make any throw on the field, with pin-point accuracy, meshes perfectly with a stable of excellent route runners and deep threats. Slovis thrived at USC as a freshman with Michael Pittman Jr. and Amon-Ra St. Brown, and he’ll be throwing to NFL-caliber wide receivers once again.
And with wide receivers coach Tiquan Underwood serving as Pitt’s passing game coordinator, he’ll be able to add his own flair in working with Slovis and the wideouts to attack opposing secondaries.
However, while Pitt will still be a pass-first team in 2022, Cignetti still wants to establish a run game identity. With three strong options at running back, he’s aware of the advantages a running back by committee approach offers. But if one of the three takes the next step and proves to be able to carry the load, he’ll be given the opportunity to carry the load.
Abanikanda’s blend of size, speed and power, along with strong pass-catching chops, gives him the completeness of a modern college running back. But the competition from Davis and Hammond will be ongoing.
Underwood, who is joining Cignetti and Slovis as new faces in Pitt’s offense, has already expressed his excitement in being able to build from the ground up. The three most important facets of Pitt’s offense joined at roughly the same time, and the spring and summer months will be used to build the offense together.
It won’t be the offense led by Pickett, but it’ll once again be an offense that makes the most of all its weapons and leads the ACC.