What the Tight End Room Looks Like After Malcolm Epps’ Arrival
The addition of Malcolm Epps gives Pitt another chess piece, in terms of both how the tight ends are utilized and how the offense is able to operate as a whole.
Frank Cignetti Jr. loves his 12 personnel, and it would be hard to find a better “depth” addition than Epps. He’s a 6-foot-6, 255-pound grown man, who is able to line up inline, in the slot or out wide. A willing lead blocker and a jumbo receiver in one.
“I’m an older guy, so I can come in, learn the playbook, learn the offense, block my tail off and catch a lot of passes,” Epps told PSN. He wants to help the team win.
With a much more mobile option like Phil Jurkovec under center, and Rodney Hammond Jr. lined up behind him, the play-action opportunities should be plentiful. And with Epps, Gavin Bartholomew and Karter Johnson, Pitt can mix up its tight ends frequently — and use all three in passing and rushing opportunities.
With Epps inline, Bartholomew can be motioned anywhere — or even just line up at H-back. If Cignetti wants to get creative, he could draw up packages where all three are on the field at the same time.
Epps’ addition, while it may not seem like too much at first glance, should help both Bartholomew and Johnson.
So, let’s just recap who Pitt is working with in the tight ends room now.
Gavin Bartholomew — Jr.
2022 stats: 21 receptions for 283 yards (13.5 yards per) and two touchdowns
Career stats: 49 receptions for 609 yards (12.4 yards per) and six touchdowns
Karter Johnson — R-Sr.
2022 stats: six receptions for 89 yards (14.8 yards per)
Career stats: six receptions for 89 yards (14.8 yards per)
Malcolm Epps — Sixth
2022 stats: three receptions for 18 yards (six yards per) and two touchdowns
Career stats: 37 receptions for 483 yards (13 yards per) and seven touchdowns
Jake Renda — R-So.
2022 stats: N/A
Career stats: N/A
Cole Mitchell — R-So.
2022 stats: N/A
Career stats: N/A
Bartholomew could’ve spoken his mind and let rip when asked about his lack of opportunities at times last season, but as a consummate professional, he kept it light.
As long as Pitt was winning, he said, he couldn’t care less about his personal statistics.
When he also said he was going to have a big 2023, I didn’t need much convincing. I expected the coaching staff was going to find ways to utilize his considerable talent more frequently than last season well before Epps arrived, and now that Epps is here, I’m convinced.
It may be a bit of unfounded optimism, but I don’t see why a three-man tight ends room of Bartholomew, Johnson and Epps can’t impact the team in the same way Bartholomew and Lucas Krull did in 2021.
It was about the passing attack in 2021 because Pitt had Kenny Pickett and Addison and it was about the rushing attack last season because Pitt had Israel Abanikanda (and we’ll leave it at that), but the story of the offense this spring was offensive balance.
There isn’t a Jordan Addison who will haul in 100 catches. Rodney Hammond Jr. is stepping into Abanikanda’s shoes, but I do think Cignetti’s offense in Year 2 will be much more balanced — much more reminiscent of a Cignetti offense.
And C’Bo Flemister said something interesting this month.
He had been talking to Hammond and Daniel Carter earlier that day at practice. He wasn’t sure if his running mates noticed, but Jurkovec certainly wasn’t afraid to check the ball down this spring. And as we saw in the spring game, Christian Veilleux took what the defense gave him, too. Seems to be a theme.
The addition of Epps and a second year in the system for Johnson should allow Cignetti to move Bartholomew around as he pleases. Whether that’s pre-snap motions or just lining him up as an H-back — as he often did in 2021.
Is there any better way to get Bartholomew involved in the offense than getting him easy touches in space? No, no there’s not.
And when it comes to using the tight ends as blockers, with Johnson, Epps and Bartholomew all receiving their fair share of inline snaps in the past, there’s an opportunity to really double down. It’s another thing Flemister mentioned, too.
Imagine a run play with Epps inline and Johnson or Carter lined up as that H-back. Flemister said that Pitt’s offense is capable of putting their heads down and just plowing away at 15, 16 play drives when needed.
The passing and blocking opportunities for Pitt’s tight ends in 2023 are intriguing, to say the least. And as Epps gets more acquainted with the system, his own potential is exciting.
Pitt could certainly do worse than a 1-2-3 of Bartholomew, Johnson and Epps in the 2023 season.
Epps biggest impact may be in the red zone. Having such a large target with hands and packages with multiple TEs should lead to much better goal line production.
This is a mean TE trio. And it couldn’t come at a better time since the WR’s are somewhat of a question mark. Epps will be a matchup problem for defenses and will enable additional attractive opportunities to the overall offense. Great pickup!