With the way Israel Abanikanda has lit up opposing defenses this season, racking up at least 130 yards in three straight performances, Pitt’s wide receivers have largely been relegated to watching Izzy’s prowess.
And then once the very, very brief period of admiration is over, it’s straight to run blocking. If Pitt’s wide receivers don’t run block, they’re on the bench after all.
The run emphasis through four games, especially with Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti sidelined by injury through large chunks of the season, has enabled Pitt’s wide receivers to hone in on run blocking. It’s been an area that Konata Mumpfield has embraced in rounding out his complete skill set.
“We’ve definitely gotten a lot better with (blocking),” Mumpfield said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “I feel like we struggled during practice, but we’ve definitely gotten a lot better with it, and it’s something to grow to make our games complete.”
It hasn’t been the most prolific season for Pitt’s wide receivers, with a new receiver corps adjusting to a new offense and a quarterback situation that has been anything but consistent. But even if the wide receiving corps isn’t making an impact through the air, Tiquan Underwood said there better be an impact on the ground too.
“It is part of the deal,” Underwood said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Every play is not gonna be a pass play. So, what are you gonna do on those remaining plays? And it’s one of the things about coach Duzz, he preaches effort — effort and attitude. So, you gotta have a good attitude towards the game plan, and you have to give tremendous effort each and every play.”
It’s not a lesson that Underwood is unfamiliar with either. As an 1,100-yard receiver with Rutgers in 2007, he was still a ready and willing blocker when called upon. Especially with a running back like Ray Rice lining up behind the quarterback during that time.
Rutgers threw just 12 passes in the contest, completing three of the 12 for a meager 42 yards. Underwood didn’t record a single catch. But Rice ran 32 times for 243 yards and two touchdowns, Jabu Lovelace ran 23 times for 81 yards and a touchdown and Mason Robinson ran 14 times for 82 yards. Rutgers racked up 400 yards on the ground and won 41-6 — that’s what mattered.
“At the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for,” Underwood said. “We get judged off of wins and losses. So, I tell the guys we have to be in. If it’s a run day and they’re not giving us those deep explosive passes, look, we’re gonna block our asses off. Now, if there’s an aggressive group and they’re in front of us pressing us up and we get the opportunity to get the ball, then we’re gonna do so. So, whatever (Frank) Cignetti comes with as far as a game plan, we, we are going be ready to go and we going to do our part.”
Underwood blocked because he had to. If hadn’t blocked, he’d have been on the sidelines. And that’s exactly what he’s instilled onto his own wide receivers. However, he was also a more than capable wide receiver that earned an NFL opportunity off of being selected in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Underwood recognizes the importance of fulfilling a role to win. He also recognizes the importance of being an impactful wide receiver. The chances will be there as the season wears on as the offense opens up. It hasn’t always been easy going for the wide receiving corps this season, despite the talent in the room, but it’s also a room that has the expectation of being great still.
“Every game and every practice is gonna be a learning experience, right? So, if it goes good, I tell those guys, stay even keeled. If it goes bad, stay even keeled,” Underwood said. “Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. And, we had a few drops, a few mistakes early on in the season, and we’ve learned from those mistakes. As long as we’re learning from it and pushing forward, I feel like this group’s gonna be fine.”
Despite the lack of opportunity in some cases, with Mumpfield having caught just 17 balls for 182 yards and a touchdown, isn’t worried about where the offense is or where it’s headed because he trusts Frank Cignetti Jr.’s plan. Defenses will have to hone in on either the run or pass, and he’s confident that Pitt will be able to do it all.
“It’s not really a challenge at all,” Mumpfield said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “I mean, yeah, we preach patience, but it’s ‘We, not me.’ I mean, we’re getting a job done, and coach Cignetti has a plan and we’re all into it.”
Jared Wayne leads Pitt with 265 yards and a touchdown on 13 receptions, despite missing the second half of the Western Michigan game and the entirety of the Rhode Island game, and his impact on and off the field is paramount for Pitt’s receiving corps going forward. He’s the old, experienced receiver in a room with two transfers (Mumpfield and Bub Means) and two youngsters (Jaden Bradley and Jaylon Barden).
It hasn’t been the easiest transition for either Mumpfield or Means, but Means’ integration into the offense has featured quite a few more rough spots. A couple of key drops and an untouched fumble plagued Means against West Virginia and Tennessee, but he didn’t give up. And that’s what Underwood has liked to see from his transfer receiver.
“I just told the guys to have a short memory,” Underwood said. “Any time a bad play happens, whether it’s a drop, a mental error or something of that sort, you gotta have a short memory. You gotta flush it and move on to the next play. And (Means’s) done a great job of that. He’s been practicing very hard. So, I look forward to this week’s practice and also the game versus Georgia Tech.”
And Bradley, with all the talent in the world in a 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame, has also seen his impact dulled by inconsistency this season. Bradley had a rough outing against Rhode Island, in the wake of his focus being narrowed to just one of Pitt’s wide receiver slots, but Underwood has also
“So, one thing I would say, when you’re learning multiple positions, your details could kind of get watered down,” Underwood said. “And just focusing (Bradley) on one spot, I thought he had a really good week of practice. In the game, he had some miscues with the slip and things of those sort. But what I loved about it is when adversity did strike and it didn’t go his way, he turned the page and went right onto the next play. He didn’t dwell on it, and I was happy to see that.
“Because you never know when that ball’s gonna come to you. So, if you’re dwelling on a previous mistake, you’re not gonna be ready to catch that ball. So, he turned the page, Kedon found him over the middle, and he made a great play in traffic. I thought it was a really good catch.”
Pat Narduzzi is a coach who is detail-oriented to a T. It’s part of the reason why Underwood relates so well with him. The process of taking what’s learned in practice and applying it to actual in-game experience takes time. A game, or two, or three. Underwood feels as though it’s progressing that way now. It’s a unit that is getting better at being detail oriented.
However, Underwood has also seen how Pitt’s been able to push the football downfield in practice too. It hasn’t quite translated in-game, through the air, at least, but he’s confident in the quarterbacks, the running backs, the wide receivers, the tight ends and the offensive line in combining to unleash a deep ball attack.
It’s an opportunity that hasn’t materialized. But Underwood is ready for it.
“I just tell the guys let’s just keep preparing and let’s be ready when the opportunity,” Underwood said. “And the way the running game is going, of course, defensive coordinators and teams are gonna notice that. So, we gotta be ready when our number’s called.”
Underwood wants the opportunity for his receivers. He’s both the receivers coach and the passing game coordinator. He wants the opportunity to show the world that his receivers are capable. But he also recognizes what he once did as a player himself. It’s about doing what’s best for the football team to win games.
“Sometimes you just have to be patient,” Underwood said. “You have to be a team player. You have to be unselfish. I told the wide receivers, I said, ‘Look, y’all were throwing it all over the yard last year. How did the running backs feel? Now the tables kind of turn, right? So, let’s just be prepared and ready for our opportunity when it comes.’ And I feel like they will be.
“I wouldn’t say one person in particular. I’m excited for the entire receiver room because I tell these guys when catches come, they come in bunches. Just be prepared for that. Don’t dwell on, ‘Okay, I didn’t get the ball here,’ or ‘We’re doing this, we’re doing that.’ Let’s just work each and every day. And when that ball comes, it’s our job to get open and catch it.”
Mumpfield feels as though he hasn’t played his best football since the season began. He’s certainly not satisfied with where he is right now as a football player. But he trusts himself, his faith and Cignetti, Underwood and the offense as a whole. Patience is a virtue, and Mumpfield will continue to work on his blocking in the meantime.