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The Forgotten Deep Ball Was Key in Pitt’s Offense Winning First Summer Scrimmage



It’s a reward to wear the blue practice pinnies down at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Depending upon which unit wins a scrimmage, the blue practice pinnies either change hands or are retained until the next scrimmage. The offense wasn’t able to hold the pinnies long in the spring, losing both scrimmages to the defense — and the Blue-Gold spring game at Acrisure Stadium.

Well, the offense got its mojo back Saturday.

“The offense won the scrimmage, and it came down to — I always tell the guys, I don’t care who wins or loses, but the offense didn’t turn the ball over,” Pat Narduzzi said Tuesday before practice. “… But the 1s had one turnover the entire scrimmage. When you play over 100 plays with the 1s and 2s and you have one turnover, and it might as well have been a punt. It was M.J. Devonshire with one heckuva interception. It was an ESPN highlight.”

As Narduzzi often says, if the offense doesn’t turn the football over, it’s nearly impossible to lose. The defense has been particularly good at forcing turnovers, whether that’s picking off balls or jumping on fumbles, but an efficient offense took the field at Acrisure over the weekend.

And it wasn’t just the offense maintaining the status quo. It was an aggressive, attacking performance from Phil Jurkovec, Christian Veilleux and the entire offense.

“We got our reps in, we got what we needed — got a good two minute drill at the end,” Narduzzi said. “But I would say just the explosiveness of our offense in the passing game was there in a big way. We’ve gotta shore things up defensively. They’ve gotten really good at throwing the deep ball. Phil, Christian and Nate all had big plays in the scrimmage as far as just big passes. But we’ve gotta make plays on defense, and defensively, we stop the run. That’s kind of what we do. So, we know what we are, we know who we are, and I was happy overall with where we are coming out of the scrimmage.”

The deep ball has been a storyline all offseason, and while it is just practice, it appears as though the vertical passing attack is an actual threat. It was non-existent last season. And Frank Cignetti Jr. kind of alluded a bit to why that was the case after practice today.

“This year, we feel it’s a little different,” Cignetti said. “The wide receivers are back, we’ve developed the young wide receivers, the tight end group has gotten better, the running backs know the system and we have quarterbacks that not only can play in the pocket but now they can extend plays. They’re 6-5, 6-6. They can sit in that pocket and deal the ball. 

“So, when you look at the makeup of our offense, the scheme hasn’t necessarily changed a whole lot, but probably how you call the games is going to.”

The lack of a vertical threat held Pitt’s offense back last season. It was Izzy Abanikanda or bust through large portions of the season, I mean, he scored like 12 straight offensive touchdowns at one point, but we’ve heard all about how Jurkovec and Veilleux and Yarnell are spreading the wealth this season.

The wide receiving corps, which was a question mark entering the summer, has grown into a unit that is getting contributions from a multitude of young players.

Bub Means and Konata Mumpfield have flashed all summer, and Means himself has been on the receiving end of a number of deep balls both in practice and in scrimmages, but he’s not alone. And it’s the kids who are continuing to emerge.

“Che (Nwabuko) was one of them,” Narduzzi said. “It was really good to see because you think of him doing all the short stuff and getting the ball in his hands, but he had a great deep ball. Jake (McConnachie) had one at the end in a two minute drill. …

“Kenny Johnson had one. Kenny Johnson always has one. I forgot about him, but he always has one. Kenny is separating himself. Zion (Fowler-El) is separating himself a little bit from some of the other guys at this point, in my opinion.”

The freshman wide receivers, Johnson, Fowler-El, Izzy Polk and Lamar Seymore, have dominated headlines throughout the offseason. And somewhat surprisingly, it’s the summer arrivals who have made an impact throughout summer camp.

But Nwabuk0 and McConnachie are making a case to work their way into the wide receiving rotation, too. If the offense wants to keep wearing the blue pinnies, it will take additional plays from the likes of Means, Johnson, Nwabuko and McConnachie.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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