If you come across Bub Means down on the South Side, you can bet that he’s smiling.
The smile doesn’t leave his face. Whether it was his first media appearance last summer, in the midst of his early struggles during the 2022 season or during his first spring session at Pitt in March, Means has kept smiling. I can think of worse qualities to be known for.
His smile is important. If he’s not smiling, who else is going to be? His first season in Pittsburgh didn’t go as well as anyone hoped. A smile doesn’t absolve a season’s worth of struggles, but I think it shows a lot about one’s self-confidence.
And that self-belief isn’t without merit. Frank Cignetti Jr. has watched Means work for nearly a year now, and he sees the player that Means strives to be on and off the field.
“I’m really impressed with Bub,” Cignetti said following the spring game. “He’s a great person, a hard worker, but I think we saw his leadership come out this winter and during spring ball. You could see him coaching and helping and developing the other perimeter players. Bub is a big, strong, fast player that makes competitive catches.”
Means didn’t make the contested catches that he was supposed to in his debut season at Pitt. He dropped a walk-in touchdown against West Virginia and followed up by dropping a touchdown — which Tennessee defensive back Trevon Flowers did not — the next week against the Vols.
And those were the easy catches. He did catch 27 balls for 401 yards (14.9 yards per reception) and two touchdowns in 13 games, but the big-play deep threat was inconsistent at best and he caught just four of 10 contested catches, according to PFF.
To be fair to Means, the passing game was inconsistent as a whole outside of Jared Wayne — whose 60 receptions and 1,063 yards will need to be replaced. Kedon Slovis moved on, Phil Jurkovec came in and unlike most other transfers, there’s already a level of familiarity with the system.
For Means himself, he feels like he’s miles ahead of where he was when he came in over the summer last year.
“Last year was really more of an adjusting period, first year with the new OC, first year with a new quarterback,” Means said in March. “This year we have some new quarterbacks, but as an offense, we already have adjusted to our OC and his type of play calling, so it’s full throttle. We can buy in.
“It’s not like we’re learning the plays as we go, we already know the plays, we already know the playbook. Our quarterbacks are gonna come in, give us opportunities and we just gonna make the plays.”
It’s no secret that Pitt’s wide receivers room is a question mark at this point in the offseason, with a lack of experienced depth and no established No. 1 receiver on the roster, but Means has taken it upon himself to be the one to lead the room. If Izzy Polk and Lamar Seymore see him working, they know they should be, too.
“I’m trying to lead by example, and I’m trying to become more of a vocal leader,” Means said. “Last year I was just now getting adjusted to the team and getting adjusted to the offense and the players. This year they look at me as a playmaker, a leader and I kinda try to bring my young guys along. … I’m more of a lead-by-example type.”
The spring, Mean’s first spring season with Pitt, was important. Developmentally and fundamentally. I thought there was a good chance that Means would be given the Ed Conway Award for most improved player of the spring. He was that impressive throughout 15 spring practices, scrimmages included.
And he capped it off with a solid performance in the spring game. Working with the 1s, against the 2s on defense, to be fair, Means caught two passes for 39 yards.
He flashed the gloves on a nice throw from Jurkovec on a scoring drive, leaping up and snagging the ball out of the air for an 18-yard gain on a quick dig.
Jurkovec gave him a chance to go up and grab it. Means came down with it. He got himself open a few plays earlier, creating a pocket of space and hauling in a 21-yard gain along the sideline.
“Bub is just so aggressive with the ball,” Jurkovec said after the spring game. “I think any time the ball is in there, you trust that he’s going to go and attack it, so that’s what you love to see as a quarterback. You’re able to give him some of those 50/50 balls, and there’s a good chance that he comes down with it.”
Means ran a nice fade route in the first quarter of the spring game, but he was unable to make a play as Stephon Hall played the deep ball from Jurkovec perfectly, knocking the ball away as it arrived.
Regardless, Means stretched the field, provided an intermediate target and even took a single carry for an 11-yard gain. Means considers himself a playmaker, so along with Konata Mumpfield, Daejon Reynolds, Seymore and Polk, he expects to make plays for his team. And he expects more fades, too.
There are still plenty of things to fune tune, the little details and the timing of the wide receivers in the offense, but Means is excited for his second season at Pitt.
“Really happy for Bub,” Cignetti said. “He had such a great offseason, great spring, excited to see where we take it.”
If Pitt’s offense is going to take a step in the 2023 season, Means will need to be an important piece. He doesn’t need to be a 1,000-yard guy, but he is someone who should be able to serve as that big-play, deep threat option on a consistent basis.
In a young receivers corps, Mean’s veteran presence will be relied upon.