The Pitt tight ends have the unique distinction of featuring one of the least and one of the most surprising developments of summer camp.
There wasn’t a soul who thought Gavin Bartholomew would be unseated as Pitt’s No. 1 tight end in 2023, but I — personally — didn’t expect Pitt to bring out the ol’ OR twice when setting the initial two-deep depth chart of the season.
It’s Karter Johnson OR Malcolm Epps OR Jake Renda behind Bartholomew.
“They’re all contributing,” Tim Salem said after practice Tuesday. “They’ve gotten plenty of reps this month of August, we’re starting a game here in a couple of days, and they all have worked to be players. Love the effort, love the attitude and with that, guys get certain packages and so forth to get them on the field and we have a number of players on the offensive side of the ball that have done a great job this August.”
Of course, Salem likes the depth of the room, but what he really likes is that the entire room has bought into the culture at Pitt. He’s seen firsthand how the tight ends embody the “We Not Me” motto Pat Narduzzi has instilled in his teams.
Maybe most all, Pitt’s tight ends want to win.
“We’ve done a nice job in August, and yeah, we wanna be selfish, but I think our players want to win,” Salem said. “And they come to me, ‘Coach, what’s it gonna take to win today? Okay, good, that’s what we’re gonna do.’
“If we have to run the ball every snap, they’re gonna do that. And I kinda like those guys because they’re not selfish, they’re team players.”
It will be a lot of Bartholomew in 2023, and deservedly so, but there’s a path forward where all four tight ends will see the field at certain times, in certain sets. And Salem is confident that his unit will be a sort of unsung — at times — hero in 2023.
“They’re all gonna have to do their part, and I think they know that,” Salem said.
The sky is the limit for Bartholomew in Year 2 of Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense. It’s his catch-and-run ability that excites people, but Salem loves the grit he’s continued to show. His blocking is miles ahead of where it was when he arrived.
“I guess like Jake himself, he has gotten — he was a tough kid anyway, but probably the best thing he’s done now is blocking with his hands inside, getting the real technical side of blocking instead of just getting his hands caught outside the shoulder pads,” Salem said. “He’s improved his hands, his strike is much more violent.”
Now in his third year at Pitt, Bartholomew has grown into a leader on and off the field. He’s a big body that can run for miles and line up inline to serve as an extra lineman. And with the options in the room, the ability to use four tight ends in sets, Bartholomew should be able to play to his strengths this season and serve as a safety blanket for Phil Jurkovec.
Bartholomew just wants a quarterback who would throw to the tight ends, and he’s found one. And he’s done everything he can to be that reliable option in the passing game.
“He came in in tip-top shape, and it’s always good when you’re in shape because it shows you worked, so he worked, and he’s been able to get himself through the practices. The tight ends did a nice job this August of fighting through bumps and bruises, they’re not getting hurt, they’re not in the injury port, they’re out there playing some football and showing some toughness.”
I expect a major jump from Bartholomew this season.
If Salem had to draw a comparison when it comes to Epps’ large catch radius, it would be Krull. Krull may have been a bit more bulky, but he was listed at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds. Epps is listed at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds. And he’s showcased soft hands throughout the summer, since arriving from USC.
“Nice, tall, long-range, can run,” Salem said. “Has displayed good hands. His blocking has improved, I’d say, immensely since we started in pads on August 2. He’s taken the coaching, he spends the time with the tackles and tight ends, working with different pods. I think he’s gotten tougher, he’s learned to use his hands better and he’s improved. It’s why you damn practice.”
It’s Epps’ final season in college football, and it sounds like he’s adapting well to Pitt’s offense (his third offense in college football). He’s also done it all when it comes to playing tight end, further diversifying Pitt’s ability to mix and match its tight ends across the offense.
Epps told PSN that he wanted to show he was more than just a red zone threat this season, but he certainly is one. And if he’s able to really integrate into Pitt’s offense, he should prove to be a mismatch when lined up against smaller corners and safeties out wide or in the slot.
Johnson is only 6-foot-2, but he’s a sturdy 255 pounds. And it’s his versatility in fulfilling the hard-nosed, gritty jobs required of a blocking tight end that really endears him to Salem.
“Karter Johnson, who’s not 6-5, 6-6, but got a lot of grit to him, you can say he’s probably more of that F fullback type, although he runs down the field nicely and does a very good job on the line of scrimmage,” Salem said. “But he’s a fullback body. And Jake Renda is 6-4, 230 pounds and runs good, he’s got receiver skills, but he also shows toughness. Gavin has been putting his face on people, and Malcolm has gotten tougher, and Malcolm gets down the field.”
Johnson caught six balls for 89 yards last season, missing just one game due to an illness, and recorded 353 offensive snaps — although a majority came in run blocking as an inline end.
Still, Johnson moves well, has soft hands and can be used at a variety of spots in the offense. And I think his blocking will be important this season.
Renda hasn’t played an offensive snap at Pitt yet, but as he enters his third season in Pittsburgh, Salem has a new level of toughness from the former IMG Academy star.
“He got tougher, I think he had a good spring, and he got much tougher,” Salem said. “Obviously lifting weights and now knocking some people around, putting his face in there, and obviously in football you block and you gotta put your helmet and shoulder pads on people and he’s shown that this summer.”
In nine games last season, Renda took 57 special teams snaps, split almost evenly between kickoff and punt coverage, and he flashed a hard-nosed edge that maybe his game lacked in his first season.
He was also impressive in the Blue-Gold spring game in April, hauling in three receptions for 32 yards — converting a big 16-yard first down.
I personally don’t know how much action Renda will see this season, but it’s clear the coaching staff values his pass catching enough to include him among the veterans.