Riding the wave of an ACC championship with a team that returns a large portion of those champions gives Pitt a bit of a boost entering the 2022 spring practices, but there are still some questions left to be answered and storylines to follow.
Pitt will need to replace just three offensive starters in 2022. There’s a hole to fill at quarterback, wide receiver and tight end. However, Pitt returns its top two wide receivers, top three running backs, all five offensive linemen and two top transfer additions figure to immediately step in and fill the cracks.
Mark Whipple and Brennan Marion have left, and Frank Cignetti Jr. and Tiquan Underwood have entered the picture as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach and pass game coordinator/wide receivers coach, respectively.
It’s not going to be the same offense that scored 43 points per game in 2021, but with the pieces in place and the additions of some key transfer starters, there’s no reason that Pitt shouldn’t once again rank among the highest-scoring teams in the ACC all season.
So, let’s dive into some questions and storylines to follow as Pitt’s spring practices kick off on Monday morning.
Can Kedon Slovis Regain His Heisman Hype?
The task of replacing Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett in Pitt’s offense, and Pitt’s identity as a whole, is the biggest question mark not just offensively but as a whole team as Pitt’s spring practices begin. Pickett held the post for four seasons, and the new guard will have to step in.
It’s nearly impossible to describe just how vital Pickett was not just on the field, as his program-record stats indicate, but in the locker room, in the town and in the community. There isn’t someone who is going to step in and fill Pickett’s cleats, it would only add an unfair expectation to expect it, but that doesn’t mean the offense cannot continue without much of a hitch.
The pieces are in place, as we’ll touch upon, but the first task is to see just who will start Pitt’s opener against West Virginia on Sept. 1 at Heinz Field. USC transfer Kedon Slovis and long-time backup Nick Patti are the contenders for Pitt’s starting spot, but with Patti still recovering from an offseason surgery after injuring his collarbone in the Peach Bowl, Slovis has the early edge — and his pedigree as a former star in SoCal.
Slovis threw for 7,576 yards and 58 touchdowns, at a 68 percent clip, during his three seasons as a Trojan. He exploded onto the scene as a true freshman in 2019, throwing to NFL-caliber wide receivers, with 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns to nine interceptions at just under 72 percent completion.
He’s already garnered Top-10 Heisman hype entering the 2022 season and is expected to regain the NFL Draft hype he earned after his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Patti packed up Pickett over the last handful of seasons, and with a Peach Bowl start, he was expected to showcase his extended growth in Pitt’s system as a potential challenger to Slovis. A heart-breaking injury in the first quarter of the Peach Bowl ruined his game and his offseason.
Pat Narduzzi has said, like all position groups, an offseason competition will determine the starter in Week 1. By all accounts, the fit between Slovis and Pitt’s offense points toward a match that’s beneficial on all sides.
Slovis’s continued growth and the rapport he can build with Pitt’s offense during his first official practices will go a long way in determining what could be in 2022.
Can Pitt’s WR Room be the Best in the Country?
It’s tough to boast the best wide receiver room in the country without the best overall wide receiver, but Pitt doesn’t have to worry about that.
Jordan Addison is undeniably one of the two best wide receivers in college football entering the 2022 season. The reigning Biletnikoff Award winner reached heights previously unseen by Pitt wide receivers, and his potential is astronomical. However, it’s not a one-man show.
Sure, Taysir Mack is off to the NFL (maybe), Tre Tipton and Melquise Stovall graduated, and Shocky Jacques-Louis transferred, but Pitt is as loaded along with the starting unit as ever. It will be somewhat of a new unit, but the pieces are set to challenge for the best in the nation.
Jared Wayne is one of the more underrated wide receivers in the ACC; the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Canadian providing a perfect complement to Addison in 2021 with 658 yards and six touchdowns at a robust 14 yards per reception. He’s already locked down a starting spot out wide. And a freshman All-American will likely join him out wide.
A ready-made replacement for Mack arrived from Akron in the form of Konata Mumpfield. Despite a bad Akron offense averaging under 20 points per game in 2021, Mumpfield provided an instant jolt as a true freshman in the form of 749 yards and eight touchdowns to pace the Zips.
In turning down offers from nearly every school in the country to join Pitt, including childhood favorite SEC schools, he’s given Pitt a legit starter and further breakout star all rolled up into one.
The versatility in having Wayne and Mumpfield lined up out wide, Addison lined up in the slot and Gavin Bartholomew able to line up in-line, in the slot or out wide, Slovis will have options wherever he looks — even options coming out of the backfield.
And Pitt’s depth may have taken a hit when looking at 2021 production, but there are a lot of young options waiting for the chance to showcase their own talent in Pitt’s new system.
Jaylon Barden will play a bigger role in 2022, serving as Addison’s backup. Jaden Bradley and Myles Alston have both grown in Pitt’s system, and 2022 signees Che Nwabuko and Addison Copeland both offer intriguing packages — especially with Copeland already on campus.
There are a lot of talented wide receivers in college football, and the ACC will have some talented duos, but Pitt’s completeness in 2022 will be on full display. With a stud No. 1 option to lead three extremely talented starters and depth options waiting to contribute, it’s a strong group.
Underwood has very, very high expectations for his unit, and the spring practices will go a long way in building chemistry with a new leader in Underwood and quarterback in Slovis.
Can an RB Emerge as the Bell Cow?
Pitt hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since both Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall eclipsed the mark in 2018, as Pickett threw the ball 310 times in leading Pitt to a 7-7 season, and while two 1,000-yard rushers in 2022 are very unlikely, a running back on the roster should hit the mark again.
Pitt has a complete, ultra-talented back in Israel Abanikanda, a former starter and key blocker in Vincent Davis and a dark horse option in Rodney Hammond Jr. entering the 2022 spring practices.
Davis entered the 2021 season as Pitt’s lead back, and while he led Pitt in carries last season, he eventually gave way to both Abanikanda and Hammond as the season wore on — especially Abanikanda. Narduzzi admitted that Pitt’s offense failed the running backs last season, but all three made legit contributions, nonetheless.
Abanikanda led the way with 651 rushing yards and 197 receiving yards, and his blend of speed, power and pass-catching in a 5-foot-11, 215-pound frame provides the blueprint for a modern three-down running back. However, Davis did still lead Pitt in carries in 2021, and all three backs broke the 500-yard mark last season.
Cignetti has spoken about wanting to establish a run game identity in 2022, and he’s well aware of the advantages a running back by committee approach could provide. But he’s also said that if a running back takes the reins, he won’t hesitate to increase the workload of the guy who steps ahead of the others.
Abanikanda was Pitt’s best running back in 2021, continuing a steady development during his two seasons in Pittsburgh, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he finally takes the reins in 2022. But regardless of when or if a running back emerges as a bell cow, the running back position should be more of a boon to Pitt next season.
It will be worth watching the reps each running back receives in the spring practices, and if one is able to establish a legitimate edge over the others in usage and performance.
How Much Consistency Remains and What Will the New Offense Look Like?
The foundation of Pitt’s 2021 offense — in the form of Carter Warren, Marcus Minor, Owen Drexel, Gabe Houy and Jake Kradel — remains in place in 2022. The veteran offensive elected to run it back for one last ride, and Pitt’s offense should reap the benefits because of it.
It’s uncommon for a college offensive line to return every single member of a strong unit, especially a veteran unit of seniors like Pitt, but that’s exactly the case. A strong offensive line is vital at any level, and Pitt’s foundation is a big reason why someone like Slovis decided to commit. The consistency will be decided by the new quarterback after all.
The transition of an offense run by Cignetti and Underwood from the one run by Whipple, with a likely brand-new quarterback, is one that will take time. Pitt has a new offense to implement and install, but as Underwood has said, the entire process comes together.
Even with Slovis and Mumpfield entering the system earlier this year, the pair has already begun to form those bonds with the returning players in Pitt’s offense, and the new offense is being learned by everyone collectively.
Cignetti has had success in adapting to new environments and new players during his coaching career, Underwood has been lauded for the closeness of his wide receiver’s room at Rutgers and the Pitt system appears to be as strong as it’s ever been.
On paper, it’s a unit that should mesh well. But there will always be bumps in the road. 15 spring practices will go a long way in establishing not only the bonds forged during the 2021 and the new arrivals but Pitt’s 2022 offense.
Is there a Rodney Hammond Jr., Jordan Addison or Gavin Bartholomew?
A true freshman making an instant isn’t surprising at a school with five-stars like Ohio State or Alabama, but most schools shouldn’t expect results like Pitt has over the last couple of seasons.
Addison broke onto the scene as a true freshman with 666 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 2020, and Hammond and Bartholomew provided impact depth at key positions in 2021 as true freshmen.
Expecting a third season of instant impact results in 2022 is likely wishful thinking, but there are some talented youngsters at Pitt this spring just waiting for the chance to make that wishful thinking a reality.
Jaden Bradley, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound wideout from DeMatha Catholic in Maryland, arrived at Pitt as a low three-star recruit, the 1,252nd-ranked recruit in the class of 2021, but he’s made waves during his time at Pitt already.
Narduzzi said that it looks like Bradley has already grown in height and stature during his lone season in Pittsburgh, and it will be interesting to see just what sort of rapport he can build with Slovis during Pitt’s spring practices.
Addison Copeland, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound wideout from Western New York Maritime Charter School in New York, arrived in January as an early enrollee in Pitt’s 2022 class. The 1,075th-ranked recruit in the class has already established a relationship with Underwood, and he’s someone that impressed Narduzzi during live practice viewing during his high school days.
It will be tough to break into Pitt’s wide receiving corps as a true freshman, but the talented, young wideout will have the leg up on fellow 2022 signee Che Nwabuko with the benefit of spring ball.
Even a starter like Mumpfield enters 2022 as a true sophomore, just his second season in college football, so while there is veteran leadership across Pitt’s offense, there’s plenty of youthful talent and production across the lineup. It’s a similar situation on the coaching staff as the veteran leadership of Cignetti and the youthful energy and ideas of Underwood meet together as the guiding voice of Pitt’s offense.
It’s a time of change for Pitt’s offense, yes, but it’s one that should have Pitt fans excited. And it all starts at the spring practices.