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Pitt’s Offense Is Way Ahead of Where It Was A Year Ago, What Does That Mean?



A shift in offensive coordinator often results in a new scheme, new players and new ways to move the football. As Pitt shifted from Mark Whipple to Frank Cignetti Jr. last offseason, there was a corresponding shift in identity.

Whipple and Cignetti operate their respective offenses in very different ways, so it only made sense that there’d be a shift in values and ideals. But I don’t know if anyone was prepared for not just the shift in the scheme but the sheer responsibility of learning Cignetti’s offense. It’s a very, very expansive playbook, after all.

Let’s just look at where Pitt, according to Cignetti himself, stands now in terms of offensive installation compared to where it was this time last year.

As Cignetti looked back on last year’s spring session, after two spring practices, he estimated there was about 15% of the offense installed. At the same point this year? He estimated about 60% of the offense is installed.

Despite a new quarterback, among other positions breaking in new starters, Pitt isn’t installing the basic foundations of an offense — a run scheme, how to protect or anything of the sort. It was a methodical install last spring, one that took time. It’s time that can be utilized differently this year.

“We had a system to teach,” Cignetti said Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Well, the system’s been taught. And the players know the system, so as coaches, we don’t ever want to hold them back, we want to come out here and play football as fast as we can, so when you looked at practice one and two, you saw a lot of offense. You saw a lot of volume, and you saw different styles of play.”

It was, according to Cignetti, two good days to kick off the spring, but I’d have been surprised to hear anything else. The pads were off, quarterbacks were largely throwing against the air and the players haven’t even hit the outdoors yet.

But as Pitt’s offense doesn’t have to install a base pass or run scheme, a system of how to run a no-huddle offense, it’s more of a ‘hit-the-ground-running’ kind of deal here. Cignetti feels like Pitt’s offense is just picking up where it left off against UCLA.

“The players — I think — have really enjoyed it because we’re not holding them back going through methodical installations,” Cignetti said. “We come out here and we play ball. The other thing I can tell, and all of us can tell as offensive coaches, is that our players know what they’re doing.

“Take a look at the receiver group. Last year at this time, it was a methodical installation. They were learning a new system, and when you look at guys like Bub Means and (Konata Mumpfield), you can not only see they know exactly what they’re doing but you see the leadership and what a great job they’re doing helping others.”

That’s telling. There wasn’t great quarterback play in 2022, but outside of Jared Wayne, there wasn’t consistent wide receiver play either. There never appeared to be any sort of cohesion. It was strange in the sense that it just didn’t get better. It was as if each week, fans — and the team alike — held their breath in anticipation of the offense clicking, of the wide receiver running the correct routes, the right patterns at the right tempo, but it didn’t happen.

When Pat Narduzzi would defend Slovis, he would often allude to the fact that it wasn’t just Slovis who was out of sorts. The chemistry between Slovis and his wide receivers just wasn’t there. Mumpfield, Means, Daejon Reynolds and a plethora of young, exciting options are back.

Pittsburgh Panthers wide receiver Konata Mumpfield (14) September 24, 2022 David Hague/PSN

Who’s back at quarterback? Well, there’s one guy who knows Cignetti pretty well.

It’s Phil Jurkovec’s third year, technically, in Cignetti’s offense — reunited this season after spending the 2020-21 seasons together at Boston College. And as Cignetti has watched Jurkovec through the very early portion of the offseason, he’s seen a guy who knows the offense, who knows what he’s doing across all phases.

Jurkovec — despite just a couple of spring practices — has made the right reads both with his arm and his legs, making quick reads in the passing game and choosing the right time to exit the pocket, and he’s displayed a level of leadership that perhaps he didn’t even have when he quarterbacked Cignetti’s offense at BC.

Cignetti has seen Jurkovec’s growth as a leader, but he made sure to include all of his quarterbacks when talking about the maturity that he’s seen this spring.

Jurkovec is a new arrival, but of course, he’s not alone. Christian Veilleux arrived from Penn State and Ty Dieffenbach arrived as an early enrollee. Nate Yarnell was the only true holdover from last season’s roster. Cignetti likes the room as a whole.

“It’s a great room,” Cignetti said. “First off, bringing in four new quarterbacks, they have really worked well together. I think they’re having a lot of fun together; they’re competing with each other and it’s a great room. Jon DiBiaso and the new guys, they’ve put a lot of time into it, they’ve had great effort, great preparation in the offseason for spring practice.”

Jurkovec and Veilleux (who Cignetti praised as a guy who throws a beautiful ball, possesses the right football IQ and puts the necessary time and work into it) were the big-ticket transfer additions this offseason, potentially arriving as the present and future of the position, but Cignetti has made sure to emphasize that it’s a battle that doesn’t just feature those two — Yarnell is around, too.

Cignetti said that when both Jurkovec and Veilleux arrived in Pittsburgh, they knew it wouldn’t just be a competition between the two; it’d be a three-way battle. It’s unlike last season’s battle, according to Cignetti, because there are three guys in the mix.

“Last year at this time, Nate wasn’t even practicing,” Cignetti said. “We didn’t even know who Nate was yet. And you got guys, like last year, that have won football games before. Just like last year when we had Kedon (Slovis) and Nick (Patti), they had some experience to them, and we’re fortunate enough this year to where Phil and Christian — they’ve won games. Phil’s won a lot of games, Christian beat Rutgers up there at Penn State and Nate beat Western Michigan.”

However, even as Yarnell’s name is thrown around as a contender, it still feels like it’s a battle between Jurkovec and Veilleux. You don’t bring in two high-profile quarterbacks — one with one season of eligibility and one with three — without a plan.

Jurkovec has the very early advantage, knowing both Cignetti and his offensive gameplan very well, considering their years together, but Veilleux will push him hard.

If there’s a reason for optimism, it’s that familiarity. Slovis, at the risk of sounding bitter, clearly wasn’t a fit in the system. Jurkovec is more familiar, more athletic and better equipped to run Cignetti’s offense. And Veilleux, and Yarnell, clearly know the offense well. The offensive install is well over halfway complete.

Of course, while the quarterback competition will dominate headlines going forward for good reason, the task of replacing Israel Abanikanda in the offense is not enviable. But as Rodney Hammond Jr. sat behind Abanikanda last season, continually growing within Cignetti’s system, he’s the perfect player to step forward. Don’t be surprised if Hammond emerges as the best running back in the ACC.

Rodney Hammond (9) – September 25, 2021 David Hague/PSN

Pitt’s offense will make the most of a deep stable that includes C’Bo Flemister and Derrick Davis Jr., but it’s clear that Cignetti’s offense does allow for a guy to stand out. It was Abanikanda last season, and it will be Hammond this coming season.

They’re two very different kinds of running backs, but regardless, Hammond will be a perfect complement to whoever comes away with the starting job in the fall.

And that’s all without accounting for the growth Gavin Bartholomew should have in the system, his second season with Cignetti, and any emerging options at wide receiver, someone like Lamar Seymore.

Pitt’s offensive woes in 2022, as Slovis was seemingly unable to find the next level with his personnel, were confusing. But if Pitt’s able to fully implement Cignetti’s offense, spend a full season with a quarterback and wide receiver who are on the same page, to go along with an All-ACC running back, the sky is the limit.

It will be very interesting to follow the progression of the offense throughout the spring.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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