It’s finally here. Pitt football summer camp is about to kick off, signaling the beginning of the 2023 season.
There is a ton of expectation surrounding Pitt football in 2023, and while the offense in 2022 wasn’t much to remember, there is an expectation for that to change heading into a new season.
A lot of familiar faces have moved on, but there’s a new quarterback reuniting with Frank Cignetti Jr. and that in and of itself gives optimism to a more complete showing of Cignetti’s offense in 2023.
So, let’s dive into the 2023 offense.
Points/G — 31.3 (6th)
Yards/G — 405.8 (7th)
Passing Yards/G — 222.8 (10th)
Rushing Yards/G — 183.0 (4th)
Key Losses: Israel Abanikanda, Jared Wayne, Carter Warren, Marcus Minor
Key Additions: Phil Jurkovec, Derrick Davis Jr., Daejon Reynolds, Malcolm Epps
It’s difficult to really evaluate Pitt’s offense in 2022. Israel Abanikanda was very good. Jared Wayne, too. But the offense itself wasn’t very good. Kedon Slovis left a lot to desire, and the offense as a whole just never seemed to click. And yet, Pitt won nine games.
Year two of Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense should be a whole different story.
Even in the early days of spring ball, just a couple of practices in, Pitt’s offensive install was way, way further along than it was a year prior. It’s a credit to the players — both new and old — who have bought into what the coaching staff is preaching.
“We had a system to teach,” Cignetti said in March. “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. You saw different styles of play.”
You can’t put much stock in spring ball. And while the spring game itself is a fun, little spectacle in the middle of a football drought, it’s kinda useless, too. What you can put stock into is actual results on the field.
Pitt’s offense in 2022 was bland. It was predictable. Trot out six linemen — or use Gavin Bartholomew inline — and hope Izzy took off for a 75-yard touchdown. And, to be fair, there were plenty of instances of that actually working. But there needs to be more diversity.
We all know Slovis wasn’t a threat to run the ball. He wasn’t a threat to do much in the way of moving — either making off-platform throws or evading pressure in the pocket. That should change with Jurkovec. RPOs, play-action, designed runs.
It also doesn’t hurt that the 2023 season will, technically, be Jurkovec’s third season in Cignetti’s offense either. It’s been a couple of years since the pair were together at Boston College, but it’s a relationship that picked up right where it left off. And Cignetti has certainly seen how Jurkovec has grown since then.
“First off, you gotta look at the whole spring,” Cignetti said after the spring game. “He had 15 consistent days out there. Wow, I thought he had a great spring. I saw him grow as a person, I saw him get better as a player, I saw 15 days of making good, decisive decisions, not only in the passing game but he made good run checks, good protection adjustments and the other two seasons that I’ve worked with Phil, he probably threw the ball better than I’ve been around him.”
Jurkovec was done and said all the right things since arriving in January, he’s giving back in the community and will certainly be named a captain next month, but he does need to actually put in the work during games. He’s got the ‘hero ball’ side of his game that will always be there, but if he can just make the throws that he’s supposed to, the offense will move the football.
I don’t know if it was Slovis’ inability to push the ball deep, Cignetti’s hesitance to push the ball or both that held Pitt back last season, but it cannot happen again this season.
A large part of Jurkovec’s problems last season stemmed from the fact that he was running for his life on basically every snap last season. When he was given time, he got the ball to his best — and really only — playmaker in Zay Flowers. Pitt’s offensive line will be the best he’s played behind since his 2020 season at Boston College.
Jake Kradel leads a surprisingly veteran unit that was forced into some sometimes difficult positions as veteran linemen went down at points in the season.
The experience in 2022 is a blessing for the 2023 season. Kradel, Matt Goncalves and Blake Zubovic all have over 1,000 career snaps, and that means the right side of the line will be stout. There’s inexperience on the left side in Branson Taylor and Ryan Jacoby, but Taylor came on as the season wore on.
Ryan Baer could play either tackle or guard spot along the line, and while he may be destined for left tackle, there’s a good chance he could be the left guard next season. Terrence Moore, Jason Collier, Terrence Enos, Dorien Ford and newcomers Jackson Brown and BJ Williams all figure to feature into a deep offensive line rotation, too.
|Position||2022 snaps||Career snaps|
|Jason Collier Jr.||RG||17||53|
|Terrence Enos Jr.||LG||5||5|
A starting five of Taylor-Jacoby-Kradel-Zubovic-Goncalves is one of the better units in the ACC, and with young players waiting in the wings, Dave Borbely’s offensive line factory will continue to grow.
Pitt’s offensive line in 2021 was a strong unit that was bolstered by the fact that Kenny Pickett was able to extend plays when things broke down. If Jurkovec is able to do the same, that’s a major boon for the 2023 offense.
And while Abanikanda is gone, I don’t expect a major drop-off with Rodney Hammond Jr. He still needs to work on his pass protection, but he’s everything you could want in a modern back. He doesn’t have Izzy’s explosive speed, but his vision and cut-on-a-dime ability is cerebral.
“Rodney’s DNA is different than Izzy’s DNA,” Andre Powell said in March. “I mean, Izzy is 217 pounds and ran a 4.3 40, I’m not for sure Rodney is that, but Rodney is a really talented back and he’s gotten a lot better.”
While Hammond is just entering his third season in the program, he already boasts 211 carries for 965 yards (4.6 yards per) and 10 touchdowns and 14 receptions for 130 yards and two more touchdowns. And there’s a different expectation now that he’s expected to be the guy.
“I got a different mindset this year knowing I gotta lot to take on this year with me coming in being the starter, I got a lot on my back, gotta carry the team,” Hammond said. “I’m more prepared, extra studying time, learning the plays, learning the system even more.”
Hammond won’t be alone either. C’Bo Flemister, Derrick Davis Jr. and Daniel Carter will all feature into the running back rotation. If a Pitt offense does one thing, it uses multiple running backs. Izzy just made it hard to take him off the field last season. If Hammond can do the same, it certainly won’t be a problem. But Pat Narduzzi loves Flemister, his teammates love him and he will be used to spell Hammond.
Davis is a bit of a wildcard as he learns to play running back at the college level. He’s a battering ram at 210 pounds, but the 2023 season will be his first ever playing running back full-time. I’d expect him to emerge more and more as the season wears on. And, of course, Carter is a true battering ram at the goal line.
Pitt will rely upon its run game in 2023, maybe to open up opportunities as opposed to just expecting Izzy to pop off a 50-yard run. And it will be a test for Pitt’s wide receivers.
Tiquan Underwood’s wide receivers are the biggest offensive question mark. Pitt wanted to add a wide receiver to the offseason from the transfer portal, but it didn’t come to fruition. So, it’s a very young unit in 2023. Konata Mumpfield, Bub Means and Daejon Reynolds will be relied upon. But there will be a true freshman or two who step up.
I still really like Mumpfield’s game. He was excellent at Akron in 2021, but he wasn’t able to replicate that success last season. I think it has more to do with Slovis not being able to get balls when open. His game is so smooth. And if he proved anything, it’s that if utilized correctly, he can be an elite producer in the mid-range passing attack.
While his average depth of target dipped over three yards (from 11.2 to 7.9 yards) between his freshman campaign at Akron to his sophomore at Pitt, he racked up more yards after catch per reception, cut his drop rate nearly in half and caught a higher percentage of his contested catch opportunities.
Pitt tried to use Mumpfield a lot behind the line of scrimmage (22 targets) and short of the sticks (34 targets), but he turned 19 targets between the 10-19-yard range into 13 receptions for 186 yards (14.3 yards per catch) and his only touchdown. I think we see a way forward.
Means was a disappointment last season for Pitt, but he put together his best performance of the season in the Sun Bowl, and I thought he was a candidate to win the Ed Conway Award as the offense’s most improved player in the spring. He needs to be Pitt’s deep threat. He’s capable of it.
“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.”
Izzy Polk and Lamar Seymore are currently Pitt’s No. 4 and 5 wideouts, with both impressing during the spring, and Polk was Narduzzi’s top offensive early enrollee of the spring. There’s a chance for a true breakout here.
But a weaker wide receiving corps should open an opportunity for a deeper tight ends room.
Karter Johnson offers a lot inline (where he lined up almost exclusively last season), and I like Malcolm Epps’ athleticism in adding versatility across the line of scrimmage.
Bartholomew also operated almost solely inline last season (594 snaps inline), which very likely isn’t the best use of his considerable ability. It’s time to use him as a mismatch. When Bartholomew did his damage as a true freshman in 2021, it was because Pitt played to his strengths — and had another option in Lucas Krull, too.
In 2021, Bartholomew recorded 193 snaps in the backfield, 200 inline, 44 in the slot and 31 out wide. That’s more like what his 2023 usage should read at this time next year. And was Krull’s usage like? 359 snaps inline, 269 slot and 40 out wide.
Who sounds like he’d be able to fulfill a similar usage?
Possible 2023 Pitt Offensive Depth Chart
QB — Phil Jurkovec – Christian Veilleux
RB — Rodney Hammond Jr. — C’Bo Flemister OR Derrick Davis Jr. OR Daniel Carter
WR — Bub Means — Izzy Polk
WR — Konata Mumpfield — Lamar Seymore
WR — Daejon Reynolds — Jake McConnachie
TE — Gavin Bartholomew — Karter Johnson OR Malcolm Epps
LT — Branson Taylor — Jackson Brown
LG — Ryan Jacoby OR Ryan Baer
C — Jake Kradel — BJ Williams OR Terrence Moore
RG — Blake Zubovic — Terrence Enos Jr.
RT — Matt Goncalves — Jason Collier Jr.