It’s very hard for any player, even the top-ranked five-star recruits, to come in an make an impact right off the rip. And that goes for wide receivers, too.
In Pat Narduzzi’s eight seasons as the Pitt head coach, five true freshman wide receivers have caught balls. Two would go on to have okay careers, two more would make use of the transfer portal and leave Pitt early and one, one was pretty good.
Aaron Mathews and Shocky Jacques-Louis each caught a few passes as true freshmen, failing to crack the century mark yards-wise. And each would go on to have decent Pitt careers — Jacques-Louis actually had a very good last season at Akron.
Jaylon Barden and Jaden Bradley each cracked the 100-yard mark in their true freshman campaigns, but both hit the transfer portal over the last year — with Barden landing at Georgia Southern and Bradley at Charlotte.
The only true freshman difference-maker was Jordan Addison in 2020.
2022 — N/A
2021 — Jaden Bradley (9-129)
2020 — Jordan Addison (60-666-4), Jaylon Barden (7-140-1)
2019 — N/A
2018 — Shocky Jacques-Louis (9-76)
2017 — N/A
2016 — Aaron Mathews (6-51)
2015 — N/A
There are more than a couple of true freshmen who could make an impact in the wide receivers room this season, but there is certainly one who has stood out over the summer.
Kenny Johnson isn’t listed as a starter out of the gates. But he is the next man up.
Narduzzi likes to say that it’s E.J. Borghetti — Pitt’s executive associate athletic director of communications — who throws Pitt’s weekly two-deep depth charts together, and there is something to be said for depth charts as a whole, but Johnson appears to be a wideout who will contribute right away — maybe even against Wofford.
There are a couple of veteran leaders at the top of the roster, but Johnson has a path to legitimate playing time. It’s Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means, and then a step behind them, it’s Daejon Reynolds. And then it’s up for grabs. If this summer has been any indication, it’s up for Johnson to grab.
And he’s been pretty good at grabbing footballs this summer. If there’s been a media availability this summer, Johnson’s name has come up. It’s truly been an everyday occurrence. I wanted to see how it compared to Addison’s arrival as a freshman, but due to COVID-19, there wasn’t much availability. Narduzzi, at least, thinks Johnson will play right away.
“I expect Kenny Johnson to probably play a lot,” Narduzzi said Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Just seen him kinda continue to rise. And then the rest of them we’re going to continue to find out.”
“We’ll kinda see how the flow of the game goes, and how many reps those guys get, but I can kinda see seeing Kenny early. And then find out what we got from there.”
Johnson was part of a deep freshman class that includes Zion Fowler-El (who is also expected to play this season), Lamar Seymore and Izzy Polk. All four flashed at points this offseason, with Seymore and Polk impressing especially in the spring, but Johnson separated from the pack even though he only arrived on campus in June.
And it really came down to Johnson’s consistency. His maturity.
“You didn’t have a problem with him off the field,” Narduzzi said. “He didn’t miss this or miss that, he wasn’t late for something and what he did off the field and what he did on the field was consistent.
“When you talk about giving a guy an opportunity and trusting that he is not going to hurt the team and get it done, it comes to trust. Right now I think there’s a lot of trust in Kenny to go out there and do it on the field just as he’s done in practice.”
At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Johnson is well-built. He’s fast, strong and explosive. There isn’t much not to like. He dominated at Dallastown High School and capped off his high school career by beating the best of the best in Maryland in the Big 33 game. If there’s one singular drawback right now, it’s that he’s only been in Pittsburgh for a couple of months.
And that’s exactly what Tiquan Underwood, who was a major factor in landing him over the likes of Cincinnati, Penn State, Rutgers, West Virginia and Virginia Tech, has preached since he arrived over the summer.
“Just because I came in so late, I’ve got to be on the playbook, I need to be able to know what I’m doing,” Johnson said in August. “It doesn’t matter if I’m making plays if I don’t know what I’m doing.”
It’s safe to say Johnson will not lead Pitt in receptions and yards this season, as Addison did in 2020, but if Narduzzi is right, Johnson could rise as high as the No. 3 wide receiver in the offense this season.
It’s hard to say just how far Johnson will climb at Pitt this season, it will be clearer — obviously — once he actually plays his first college football game, but he should be a player who far exceeds the double-digit catch and 100-plus yard marks this season. Johnson could be someone who makes a difference in the offense.