I’ll be the first to admit that I considered the wide receiving corps to be a question mark entering the 2023 season when taking a look at the roster entering the spring.
Pitt added Daejon Reynolds from Florida, which is already paying early dividends, but Tiquan Underwood and the coaching staff had a few portal targets fall through for a variety of reasons. It left just Reynolds and four true freshman wideouts as reinforcements. A tall task when replacing Jared Wayne’s leadership and production.
But through the first three weeks of summer ball, I don’t know if Pitt’s wide receiving corps could be doing any better on the field.
It all starts with the four true freshmen — with two arriving in the spring and two more arriving earlier this summer.
“Kenny Johnson, he’s doing well, he’s doing well,” Underwood said after practice Friday. “He’s making some plays throughout camp and honestly, that freshman group of wide receivers that we have is very talented in Lamar Seymore, Kenny Johnson, Zion Fowler and Izzy Polk. It’s been great to coach those guys and help them develop.”
There has been praise heaped upon all four of the freshmen, but it’s been Johnson and Fowler-El, who have stepped ahead of Seymore and Polk. And that’s no slight to Seymore and Polk, their classmates have just been that impressive in camp.
“I think you can see that Kenny Johnson is a special, special wide receiver and person,” Frank Cignetti Jr. said earlier this week. “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, they’ve had some injuries, but Lamar and Izzy Polk have been outstanding for us. They had a great offseason, great summer.”
Of the 1,185 offensive snaps that Pitt returns at the wide receiver position from last season, all but four come from Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means. It’s Mumpfield and Means at the top. There’s no debate about that. But that’s just two spots. There are three starting wideouts and two additional receivers that will contribute.
Reynolds has adapted well, currently working as a 6-foot-2, 210-pound mismatch in the slot, and I’d expect him to earn a starting spot Week 1 against Wofford. But those No. 4 and 5 wide receivers will very likely be freshmen.
Johnson and Fowler-El are a bit behind the 8-ball as they didn’t arrive until the summer, missing all of spring ball, but they’ve ingrained themselves in the playbook — challenging themselves to be as prepared for the season as quickly as possible.
“They’ve been attacking the playbook mentally, putting in the time, and physically on the field they’re developing and learning how we want to run routes here,” Underwood said. “Because we’re a West Coast offense, we’re a little bit different and they’re coming from high school. They’ve been handling it well. Still a way to go, but we’re gonna continue to push those guys, push them in the fire and continue to learn.”
Jaden Bradley made a minor impact at Pitt as a freshman in 2021, hauling in nine catches for 129 yards in 12 games, but it was Jordan Addison in 2020 that flashed as a first-season difference-maker with 60 catches for 666 yards and four touchdowns. I’d imagine the true freshman contributor — or two — will fall somewhere in the middle. Likely more toward Bradley but still.
The freshman or two who finds his way onto the field will be the one who has memorized the playbook from front to back. It’s a very large, complex playbook, and while highlight reel catches during scrimmages are fun, it’s the consistency in the film room, in meetings and each and every practice that wins over the coaches.
The disconnect between Kedon Slovis and the wide receiving corps last season was apparent, but Underwood is seeing how a second season in Cingetti’s offense is beneficial for everyone involved. And how having a quarterback who fits Cignetti’s offense is paying dividends.
“Any time you can be in the offense for a second year, guys are going to be more comfortable, and I feel like the older guys have done a great job just helping the younger guys and then with Phil coming over, obviously our OC, coach Cig, they’ve coached together at BC, so there’s some comfort there,” Underwood said.
I don’t know if anyone has become more comfortable than Means, who is just about to complete his first full offseason in Pittsburgh. It’s clear he wasn’t exactly comfortable during the beginning of the 2022 season, still learning the offense and building rapport with Slovis, but he’s emerged as a brand-new player this summer.
It’s hard not to find Means without a smile on his face, and when Underwood and his fellow receivers see it, it’s contagious. His positive yet competitive style of leadership is apparent to the entire coaching staff. Cignetti say it begin in the spring when Means was like another coach on the field, his knowledge and understanding of the offense allowing him to bring the younger guys along with him.
“Mentally, second year in the offense, Bub has taken off,” Underwood said. “He’s doing great, not a lot of mental errors at all. Him and Konata Mumpfield have definitely taken on more of a leadership role with the departure of Jared Wayne, who was our leader last year. And it’s been great to see Bub and Konata more vocal with the guys.”
Means caught 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. As he’s shown a solid rapport with Jurkovec this summer when it comes to the deep ball, that connection has Means himself excited for the potential this season.
“The more reps we get, the more comfortable the quarterback is throwing it to us,” Means said earlier this month. “And I feel like we’ve just been connecting, making big plays with the deep ball.
“But I’m never pleased. I always want to get better. I feel like I’m making plays, plays are still left out on the field that we’ve gotta correct, but I feel like we’re doing good as an offense.”
Means and Reynolds, who Underwood said look like grown men as they’re running routes at practice, using their size and speed to go up and haul in contested catches, will be key cogs this season. But I still think it will be Mumpfield who emerges as the No. 1 wideout on the roster. It wasn’t the easiest season adjusting to Pitt’s offense last season, but I think the quarterback disconnect really undersold his play. He’s a wizard when it comes to creating separation.
And, with the growth of Means and the emergence of the freshmen wideouts, Mumpfield isn’t getting a whole lot of hype this summer either.
Mumpfield, Means and Reynolds offer a solid nucleus of veteran talent, and potential of their own to unlock, and the young wideouts are fighting for playing time of their own. Che Nwabuko has had a very good summer, using his speed to create plays with and without the ball in his hands, and Jake McConnachie is well-liked by the coaching staff. But Saturday’s scrimmage will go a long way in determining the initial depth chart.
“We’re still figuring it out,” Underwood said. “It’s still early in camp. It’s a big day tomorrow with it being the scrimmage, so I like to evaluate the guys in game-like situations.”
Pitt’s wide receiving corps is in good hands this season. And there’s a lot of potential to still be unlocked. It will come down to how Jurkovec is able to control and guide the offense, but the wide receivers will not be a question mark entering this season. And in the future of the room.
“We brought in four in the class, and what I like about the four is they’re all different,” Underwood said. “They all bring something different to the table, and I feel like that will give them the chance to get on the field as they all have different attributes. The future is very bright, we just have to continue to learn the playbook, continue to coach these guys and develop them on the field and their ability and talent will speak for itself.”
Potential Depth Chart
WR — Bub Means — Kenny Johnson
SL — Daejon Reynolds — Che Nwabuko
WR — Konata Mumpfield — Zion Fowler-El