It should’ve been a routine catch for Jared Wayne, who worked himself open on a deep post route in which he raced by North Carolina’s Tony Grimes and created space over the top of the safety.
Kedon Slovis faked a handoff to Israel Abanikanda, stood in a clean pocket and fired the football about 55 yards downfield — leading Wayne a bit toward the sideline. Wayne had the ball in his hands for a big play, but it came loose as he fell to the turf.
Myles Alston failed to reel in his third down target, and Pitt punted the ball away.
It was a disappointing second offensive possession, especially after an inspired touchdown drive on the first possession, but wide receivers coach Tiquan Underwood made sure to remind Wayne that he needed to control what he was able to control.
“You’re the leader of our group,” Underwood told him, “I need you to make that play.”
Underwood has watched Wayne practice every day, seen the consistency with which he carries himself, and knows that he’s a player capable of changing games. Slovis laid a ball out for Wayne that wasn’t caught though, and that can’t happen. Underwood’s goal is to make life easier on the quarterback. And Wayne recognized it too.
“I left a couple of plays out there,” Wayne said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “No game is ever going to be perfect, but I expect to make those plays that I left out there. There’s a couple of blocks I wish I had back. There’s definitely a couple of things, but my 100% will always show up on Saturday.”
When Wayne’s next chance on a similar deep post, beating UNC’s Storm Duck in coverage this time, he came back to highpoint a Slovis pass and haul in a 41-yard reception — setting up a short Abanikanda touchdown. It was a bit of redemption, the start of a night in which Wayne hauled in seven receptions (half of Slovis’ completions) for a career-high 161 yards.
“The one thing I can say about Wayne, he’s consistent,” Underwood said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Each and every day, you’re going to get the same person on and off the field. He’s done a great job leading the receivers unit, and for him to have the game he had last game, honestly, I wasn’t surprised because he comes to work each and every day.”
If there’s been a constant in Pitt’s passing game this season, it’s been Wayne. He’s fifth in the ACC in receiving yards, having hauled in 32 receptions for 572 yards (17.9 yards per reception) and a touchdown this season.
In the ACC this season, Wayne ranks:
- Receptions: 32 (9th)
- Yards: 572 (5th)
- Yards/Receptions: 17.9 (5th)
- Yards/Game: 81.7 (4th)
- Touchdowns: 1 (T-16th)
However, outside of Wayne, it’s been anything but consistent for the wide receiving corps this season. Six receivers have caught passes this season, and one of those receivers is now sitting in the transfer portal.
It’s been a tough season for Underwood and Pitt’s receiving corps as the passing attack has been seemingly out of sync all season.
|Bub Means||19||207||10.9||0||25.9||Redshirt Sophomore|
|Jaden Bradley||10||130||13||2||21.7||Redshirt Freshman|
|Gavin Thomson||3||27||13.5||0||4.5||Redshirt Junior|
Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means were the transfer entrants expected to fill the holes in Pitt’s receiving corps — Mumpfield especially. It hasn’t been easy for either in Pitt’s offense this season. Mumpfield has shown flashes of greatness, but he’s also been inconsistent and a non-factor downfield. Means has had an even tougher road, struggling with drops throughout the season.
The mystery of Jaylon Barden has continued, leaving off most recently with a supposed start turning into a no-snap performance against UNC. Gavin Thomson, who earned his scholarship before the season, has more catches this season than Barden.
It’s a five-man unit going forward — with maybe Myles Alston seeing the field. The starting trio of Wayne, Mumpfield and Means will see heavy playing time, and it appears Barden, Thomson and Alston will fill in when needed.
And while it’s been a deeply disappointing season for Pitt’s passing attack as a whole, from Slovis to the wide receivers, Underwood hasn’t given up. He’s seen the results in practice, the work put in over the last few months, and he believes it’s coming.
“Just keep working at it,” Underwood said. “That’s what practice is for. You complete balls in practice, you execute in practice, you have a good chance of completing them and executing in the game. So, keep hammering it in practice, and it will turn into completions in the game.”
Even with a few late deep balls against Georgia Tech’s prevent defense in October, Slovis had only completed five passes of 20+ yards entering the UNC game. He completed 4-of-8 passing attempts of at least 20 yards, but it was a still performance in which he and Pitt’s receivers left too much on the field.
Like Pat Narduzzi, Underwood has preached execution. Whether it’s a dropback pass, a play-action pass, or whatever the play call, it comes down to executing anything that is called. He said UNC played well defensively down the stretch, yes, but Pitt’s 11 men offensively needed to execute better.
No matter the opportunity provided for Pitt’s wide receivers, whether it’s a true freshman or fifth-year senior, Underwood wants to see a level of competition that leads to execution. Underwood wants to get his players into position to be successful, but he wants his players to then take those steps on the field to actually be successful.
“At this point, I just tell those guys, ‘I don’t care who’s on the field, we’re just going to play hard.’ That’s what I want to see,” Underwood said. “When I cut on the tape or when other teams cut on the tape, I want them to see that we play hard. I thought we did that against North Carolina, came up short, definitely would like have a better fourth quarter and finish the game.”
It won’t always be consistent for wide receivers, on any team at any level, but if Underwood has learned anything during his time playing the position, it’s that plays usually come in bunches.
While Slovis struggled to complete passes down the stretch run of the fourth quarter against UNC, it wasn’t necessarily all on his shoulders. It comes down to play calling and putting players in positions, which then comes down to defensive schemes, coverages and looks on any individual play.
Pitt can call a play for Wayne or Mumpfield, but if a defense takes the targeted receiver out of any individual play call, there needs to be a second read. Defenses can — and will — dictate when and if a player is targeted. It’s about Pitt’s coaches putting their players into the best situations to succeed.
“I would say whenever you’re a play caller or game planning, you want to stack the structure of the defense, right?” Underwood asked. “And based on down and distance, situation or area of the field, ‘Okay, they play this defense a majority of the time, they play this defense the second most…’ And you’re just basically playing the odds.”
There needs to be a level of built-in chemistry from the offense on the field, which is typically the result of repetition, hours and hours and hours of offseason work, throwing at every possible opportunity, but Underwood said it takes time nonetheless.
There have been flashes of offensive success in the passing game, especially in the first half against UNC, but there have been just as many — likely more, honestly — lulls. Why is that?
“It’s 11 guys on the field,” Underwood said. “If one person screws up on offense, the play is probably not going to work. On defense, 10 guys can fall down, and if one guy can make a sack or that tackle, they’re good. So, offensively, it takes all 11 guys all the time.
“Football is hard. I tell my guys all the time, ‘Everybody can’t do it. You guys are special, but we gotta figure out, okay, what is our job? And we gotta execute it.’ There’s no excuses.”
Execution, sustaining longer drives with more plays, could also be the way to get Gavin Bartholomew involved in the offense. He’s only caught 16 passes this season, turning it into 253 yards (15.8 yards per reception) and two touchdowns, but he’s frequently an afterthought in the passing game.
There’s talent across the offense, and Bartholomew is a supremely talented receiving tight end. Wayne and Mumpfield are a talented duo. Abanikanda is one of the best offensive players in college football, and Rodney Hammond Jr. is healthy now. It’s about putting it all together.
“We just gotta keep making those plays,” Wayne said. “I think we’ve shown that we can throw the ball deep, we can throw the ball around the field, obviously, we can run the ball, but now we just need to put it all together.”