Frank Cignetti Jr. likes to think he’s been around a lot of great coaches during his decades in the collegiate and professional coaching ranks, and if there’s one thing that each one of them has in common, it’s their willingness to play to the strengths of their personnel.
When he looked back at last season’s roster, he saw an elite running back and an offensive line that he thought was would be able to run block with the best of ’em. It wasn’t difficult to come to the conclusion that Pitt’s best bet was to run the football. And it worked pretty well for much of the season.
Izzy Abanikanda was one of the best running backs in college football, carrying the offensive load on his shoulders at points last season — see Virginia Tech.
He’s gone now. Kedon Slovis is in Provo, Utah. It’s a new version of Cignetti’s offense in Year 2. Not in the fact that there’s a new system in place but in that, Cignetti feels like he’ll be able to call games differently than he did last season.
“This year we feel it’s a little different,” Cignetti said after practice Tuesday. “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 can not only 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.”
Obviously, the biggest change is at quarterback. It’s the most important position on the field, and Jurkovec — and Christian Veilleux — were brought in over the offseason to provide a new look at the position.
Scrimmage Saturday ✅
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) August 12, 2023
Slovis wasn’t a good fit at Pitt. For whatever reason, it didn’t work out. He completed 184-of-315 pass attempts (58%) for 2,397 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 11 games. It was the worst season of Slovis’ college career.
In five games last season, Slovis didn’t throw a touchdown pass. And he threw an interception in seven games. His completion percentage tanked eight points from his previous worst — nearly 13 points from his previous best. In 121 dropbacks under pressure last season, Slovis completed just 41.7% of his pass attempts for 713 yards with four touchdowns and six interceptions. Maybe worst of all, it was Slovis’ inability to make the easy plays.
Jurkovec didn’t have a very good 2022 season at Boston College, but he also didn’t have much help when it came to his offensive line and targets outside of Zay Flowers. Pitt doesn’t have a Flowers on its roster right now, but it does have a significantly better offensive line and a skill group that has options emerging by the day.
The progress made this summer, especially when pushing the football down the field in live sessions and scrimmages, has been encouraging.
“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 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.”
Jurkovec wasn’t able to flash much of his athleticism last season, not as he ran for his life, but he had been a positive rusher in each of his previous four collegiate seasons. In just six games in 2021, he ran the ball 50 times for 332 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. Bub Means has seen how Jurkovec has been able to extend plays with his legs already this summer.
“He’s a lot more comfortable with scrambling and throwing the ball deep,” Means said after practice Tuesday. “That’s my game. I like going deep and catching deep balls, so I’m just a lot more comfortable right now with this offense and the role I play in the offense.”
It’s been a couple of years since Jurkovec played under Cignetti at Boston College, and another season on top of that since he was able to put together a fully healthy season with him, but Cignetti can see that Jurkovec isn’t the same quarterback he was even then. There’s been tangible growth.
“I’m so impressed with him,” Cignetti said. “We know he’s a great leader, we know he’s tough, he brings that Pittsburgh grit, his teammates have great respect for him, but he does such a great job just making the right decisions. He understands the play designs, he understands all three phases whether it’s the run game, the protection or passing game in terms of running the offense, the checks that might happen at the line of scrimmage. I’ve really been impressed with his accuracy. He’s playing great football.”
With Jurkovec — and even with Veilleux — under center, it’s clear that Pitt feels comfortable running a more aggressive style of offense. I wondered if it was play-calling or quarterback play that held back Pitt last season. Cignetti all but confirmed that quarterback play dictated his play-calling last season.
Rodney Hammond Jr. and a deep group of running backs that includes C’Bo Flemister, Derrick Davis Jr., Daniel Carter and maybe even one of Montravius Lloyd or TJ Harvison will certainly get their carries. It won’t be the 2021 offense under Mark Whipple, but it won’t be like last season either.
If it goes according to plan, the run game will actually help to unlock the passing game — which wasn’t the case last season. Play action, RPOs, bootlegs, designed draw plays with Jurkovec. There are a lot of options.
And even though Jared Wayne is fighting for a roster spot on the Houston Texans right now, the rapid development of the freshmen wide receivers has led to a renewed sense of optimism in the wide receivers room. Means and Konata Mumpfield have been very impressive this summer, Daejon Reynolds has adapted to his new home quickly but it’s the four true freshmen that have stolen the headlines.
Izzy Polk and Lamar Seymore arrived in the spring, impressing right off the bat, and Kenny Johnson and Zion Fowler-El came in over the summer. All four are currently in a position to see the field in Year 1.
“I think you can see that Kenny Johnson is a special, special wide receiver and person,” Cignetti said. “You look at the scrimmage the other day, he’s very explosive. He’s fast, he’s a big-time playmaker. Zion Fowler has unbelievable ball skills, he’s probably the closest thing I’ve been around since I was with Mohamed Sanu at Rutgers. He’s competitive, he’s smart.
“Unfortunately (Seymore and Polk) had some injuries, but Lamar and Izzy Polk have been outstanding for us. They had a great offseason, great summer.”
It’s a nearly certain bet that one of the true freshmen will work their way into legitimate playing time in 2023, and there’s a very good chance it’s two of the four supplementing Means, Mumpfield and Reynolds. The tight ends will be a factor in the offense, too.
“I think the tight ends group with coach Salem, they’ve probably made the most improvement from where we were to where we are now,” Cignetti said. “Gavin, I’m very impressed with him. He’s in great shape, he had a great offseason program with coach Stacc and the guys in the Iron Works. He’s lean, he’s fast, his blocking has improved, his rule running has improved.”
The versatility of a tight ends room that features Bartholomew, Karter Johnson and Malcolm Epps offers a lot of intrigue. Bartholomew, for some reason, wasn’t effectively used last season. That should change this season.
A lot about Pitt’s offense should change this season, and maybe the biggest change will come at quarterback. Of course, it’s about what happens on the field when the games take place this fall though. So, it’s on Cignetti, Jurkovec and the offense to show that this summer’s progress hasn’t been unwarranted hype.