It’s safe to say that Pitt’s offense will look quite a bit different than last season’s version, and with offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. now at the helm, his new-look offense will emphasize using its playmakers above all else.
Kenny Pickett is out, and Kedon Slovis is in. Jordan Addison is out, and Konata Mumpfield is in. Lucas Krull is out, and Gavin Bartholomew is stepping up for an even bigger role. And just about everyone else is back again.
There was a battle to replace Pickett’s vacated spot at quarterback, and Slovis and long-time backup Nick Patti competed through the spring and well into the summer before Pat Narduzzi and the coaching staff felt comfortable enough to name a starter. Narduzzi pointed to Slovis’s accuracy when he named the starter last week, and Cignetti echoed the sentiments Monday afternoon.
“They both were great,” Cignetti said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “So proud of both of them. I think the biggest thing might be the accuracy. The game experience. Nick had a great camp. I feel really confident in both of them, and we can achieve our goals with both if needed.”
The experience, which Slovis has racked up in 27 games and All-Pac-12 honors at USC, was a key factor in the decision to name the man to lead Pitt’s offense going forward. It’s not Patti’s fault that he doesn’t have the same experience, stuck behind Pickett over the last three seasons, but Slovis’s complete profile was enough to take a step ahead.
Cignetti said that Slovis is just a football player. He’s a smart, natural passer with a great delivery. By all accounts, he’s a “blessed young man,” but that doesn’t mean that he — and Patti, for that matter — hasn’t worked hard to get to where he is in Pitt’s offense.
“I think Nick and Kedon both worked very hard,” Cignetti said. “And when you teach the passing game, it’s about timing and rhythm, everything goes through the quarterback’s footwork, the more you work with those guys, the more trust you develop.”
Slovis isn’t exactly a dual-threat quarterback, but he’s more than capable of traversing the pocket and maneuvering out pressure to make an off-platform throw to move the offense downfield. And he has some weapons now that will help make his life a little bit easier.
It starts up front with the offensive line, all five starters from last season earning — legitimately earning — their respective spots against a highly competitive second unit that “could’ve been” the starting unit this season. That experience continues into the running backs room. But it starts with Israel Abanikanda.
Pitt released the initial two-deep depth chart on Monday, and unlike seasons past, Abanikanda didn’t have an “OR” designation. He’s the No. 1 running back, bar none. Narduzzi joked Monday that he forgot to put that “OR” in there, but it’s clear that Abanikanda’s continued progression since emerging as the most complete running back on the roster last season has been significant.
“(Abanikanda’s) been really steady, so we’ll find out,” Narduzzi said. “Again, doesn’t have an ‘OR’ right now. I didn’t forget. He came out of fall camp looking really good.”
Narduzzi remained mum on Monday, speaking of the depth in the room and warning against getting too comfortable with all of the depth behind Abanikanda. Cignetti also pointed out the depth in the room, with five players who will legitimately receive carries this season. Still, Abanikanda has been such a threat in breaking off big plays during the offseason.
“If one thing separated Izzy,” Cignetti said, “it might be the decisiveness and the flat-out speed where he can hit home runs.”
Cignetti said that each running back in the room has good vision, enough balance and body control to run through tackles and enough short-area burst to also run by would-be tacklers. Rodney Hammond Jr. is listed as Pitt’s sole No. 2 running back, Vincent Davis and C’Bo Flemister share that “OR” designation at that No. 3 spot. And Daniel Carter lurks as a full back hybrid. Cignetti has confidence in the entire group.
In staying true to holding his cards tightly to his chest, Narduzzi feels that while Abanikanda is listed as the starter on the depth chart, the true test comes Thursday.
“(The running backs) can look talented against our defense, in a drill period,” Narduzzi said. “But for me, it is Thursday, 7 p.m. We’re going to find out who is that guy. We feel comfortable with all those guys in the backfield that not only can they make yards after contact, they can also protect the quarterback.”
The pass protection phase of being a running back has been an area of importance for all of Pitt’s running backs this offseason, and if Slovis is given enough time to step back and process his reads, his new wide receiving corps is talented enough to make plays. Even if they give Narduzzi chest pains.
The loss of Addison dominated the national discussion, but the addition of Mumpfield dominated the local discussion — and those who were actually paying attention nationally. He joined a constant in Jared Wayne, a deep threat in Jaylon Barden and a high-upside receiver in Jaden Bradley. And Bub Means also joined the room in the summer.
“Konata was in spring ball,” Narduzzi said. “Quick twitch. Got really good speed. He’s a playmaker, has really good hands. That’s what he does. Good knowledge of the offense. Really smart football player.
“Then Bub Means is a guy that came in the summer. He’s worked well with the rest of the receivers. He’s worked well with the quarterbacks. He’s huge. His thighs are bigger than yours. He’s a wideout. And he can run, okay? He’s probably a four-six guy. He’s long. He’s got good hands.”
And when it comes to why the new-look wide receiving corps, which officially features Wayne and Means outside and Mumpfield in the slot, gives him chest pains, he wouldn’t exactly elaborate.
“Just drive me nuts,” Narduzzi said. “Leave it at that.” Could he elaborate?
“I wish I could,” He said. “I won’t.” He wouldn’t elaborate, but the pains don’t stem from being defensive-minded.
“Little detail stuff all the time. Little details. Got to be detailed.”
Okay. So, what does Cignetti think of his new wide receivers? It helps that wide receivers coach Tiquan Underwood is around.
“First off, (Mumpfield and Means are) both very talented,” Cignetti said. “Like Kedon, they have the experience. They’ve both had success at the college level already, they’ve got a tremendous coach in coach Underwood — who played in the National Football league and is a tremendous teacher — they’ve bought into the fundamentals and techniques we are reaching, and they’re both great kids.”
And it’s not just Mumpfield and Means that have bought into his and Underwood’s system either. Cignetti feels like the entire wide receiving corps is a great group that works hard and competes every single day.
The running backs room has depth, the wide receivers room has depth, even the quarterbacks room has depth and the offensive line room might have the most depth of all.
When a team loses a Heisman finalist quarterback and Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver, the offense is supposed to fall off a cliff. That isn’t the case with Pitt. It’s a deep, talented offense that has a new quarterback and wide receiver duo in Slovis and Mumpfield and returns the offensive line, four running backs (plus Flemister), a couple of stud wide receivers (plus Mumpfield and Means) and a freshman All-American tight end in Gavin Bartholomew.
The offense may not score 40 points a game in 2022, but it’s a unit that will move the ball downfield with balance and put points on the board.